‘No regrets’: A Canadian volunteer wounded in Ukraine is coming home

‘No regrets’: A Canadian volunteer wounded in Ukraine is coming home

Maybe it’s luck, or some kind of divine providence. According to the capricious character of life in a war zone, JT should not be alive.

however there he is — a Canadian military volunteer in Ukraine who beat the odds.

The former military combat engineer fought by the bloodied grape fields of Kandahar during Canada’s war in Afghanistan. He first came within a whisker of death in 2006, when he and his fellow soldiers were strafed accidentally by an American A-10 ground attack jet.

He unwittingly stepped out of the way at the last minute. One of the shells from the jet’s cannon smashed into a fuel can behind him.

Just a few weeks ago, JT cheated death a second time.

JT is an Ottawa-area veteran who took part in reconnaissance missions with the Ukrainian military before being wounded in mid-May. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada)

This time the event was a cool, clear night in mid-May in southern Ukraine. He said he and a group of Ukrainian soldiers — with artillery rumbling in the background — were trying to establish an observation post on the outskirts of a Russian-occupied town in the hotly contested Zaporizhzhya vicinity.

He said he barely survived driving over an anti-tank mine while trying to rescue two comrades — one badly wounded, the other already dead.

The 50-year-old Ottawa resident spoke to CBC News by phone from his hospital bed at an undisclosed location in western Ukraine. He said he’s hoping to be evacuated back to Canada.

CBC News has agreed not to use his complete name for security reasons as friends at home scramble to raise money for his medical transport.

A Ukrainian police officer documents the destruction at one of Europe’s largest clothing markets, known as Barabashovo, in Kharkiv in May. The area was destroyed by shelling. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

When he was injured, JT had been in the country for several weeks — drawn to Ukraine by President Volodomyr Zelensky’s allurement last winter for foreign military veterans to help push back the Russian invasion.

Part of an intelligence-gathering reconnaissance team, he and other experienced foreign fighters spent their days making like ghosts around Russian trench lines in the scorched farm fields of southern Ukraine.

Their mission that May evening, he said, was to establish the observation post while combat engineers quietly cleared the mines stitched into the route Ukrainian troops would use to mount an attack the next morning.

As they were moving into position, he said, one of their number stepped on an anti-personnel mine, killing the team’s sniper and gravely wounding another soldier.

A rescue under fire

As commander of the reconnaissance unit, JT called for an extraction means — an old pickup truck. A bent skid plate caused the truck to become hung up on some nearby aim tracks.

He ordered a young Ukrainian captain to go forward on foot and get to the survivor, who was bleeding and trying to perform combat first aid on himself. They had only minutes to get away before the nearby Russians figured out precisely where they were.

JT managed to free the pickup truck. It was backed onto a siding, unable to move forward because the bent plate was wedged against the ground. He said he knew he had to shorten the distance between himself and the victims if the extraction was going to work.

“So I jumped in the driver’s seat and I started backing down the aim tracks, beside the aim tracks, to get to a point where they could just do a straight line into the back of the truck,” JT said. “And that was the last thing I remember.”

The pickup hit a powerful anti-tank mine. Designed to slam by thick armour, it shredded the flimsy metal of the means.

‘[I] took a pretty good beating’

Miraculously, the shrapnel spread by the cone-shaped blast missed him.

“clearly [it] set the means on fire and I got a lot of burns,” he told CBC News. “But there was also a associate of, there were some rounds in the truck and there was cook-offs, and I got a associate of holes in my left side and my confront and head took a pretty good beating.”

JT heard the rest of the story from his friends.

“My guys said that I got out of the means. I have no recollection of that,” he said. “It’s just one of those auto roles that you hear about … where people do things without already thinking about it … I couldn’t have thought about it because I was just very zombie or something like that. I just, I can’t already comprehend how that came about.”

A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard as emergency workers inspect a damaged bridge near Kuznetsovka village in Zaporizhzhya vicinity on Jan. 21. (Reuters)

He woke up in hospital several days later with his leg and backside “minced and burned,” as he put it. His left arm was badly broken from elbow to shoulder and had to be put back together with bolts and pins. There are shrapnel wounds in his confront and he suffered a harsh concussion in the blast.

Friends back home have started a GoFundMe campaign to defray the cost of an air ambulance flight from a neighbouring country.

JT is not the only Canadian to be injured while volunteering in Ukraine. A New Brunswick man, also a former member of the military, was hurt this spring when a Ukrainian military base near the country’s western border was hit by Russian missiles.

Hunter Francis, from the Eel Ground First Nation, received minor injuries to his nose, right hand and right ear drum.

‘I miss the team’

JT’s team has moved on to other battles without him. Sometimes, he said, he sits awake at night feeling guilty about not being there.

They stay in touch via text message.

“Surprisingly, I get a lot of, ‘I miss you,'” JT said. “And I miss the team in addition.”

But he said he knows his time there is done and he has a long road to recovery ahead.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “You cannot go into a fight like this thinking that you’re going to keep safe. The people of this country are not safe.

“If you came over here with any delusions that you are going to come out clean, then these are infantile thoughts as far as I’m concerned.”

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