How to join the foreign legion Ukraine
Hieu Le, who served with the US military in Afghanistan, said his combat experience did not prepare him for the horrors of the front line in Ukraine. Photo: Hieu Le

Returning Soldiers Reveal the Dark Side of Life in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion

“Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs,” one recruit recalled, while another spoke of enduring more in three days in Ukraine than months in Afghanistan.

This story contains graphic descriptions of death and human remains.

When wave after wave of Russian cruise missiles rained down on the Yavoriv training base in Western Ukraine in the early hours of March 13, it was an attack of major strategic significance. 

The sprawling military base sits just 10km from the Polish border and NATO territory, and has played host to several drills between the military bloc and Ukrainian forces in recent decades. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, on Feb. 24, it has also played host to thousands of recently arrived foreign recruits into the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, the newly-created international arm of the country’s armed forces. 

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Adam was one such new recruit there the day of the bombardment. The Polish carpenter, who asked to use only his first name for security reasons, had only been in Ukraine for a matter of days when he was awoken at around 4AM that Sunday morning by exploding missiles. Emerging from his tent, he witnessed utter carnage unfolding around him—including one soldier who had been severely maimed by a blast. 

“His face was burned out. He didn't have hands, both of them. He was walking like a zombie,” Adam said. “He's calling you to help, but what can you do? You cannot do nothing for him, you know that he's dead already, that he's just running on adrenaline.” 

Speaking to VICE World News on Sunday from Krakow, having only crossed the border back into Poland two days earlier, Adam is now able to reflect on the gravity of his experience. Now safely back in his home country after serving two weeks as a unit commander, he is among the first wave of returning Foreign Legion volunteers able to offer firsthand testimony of the front line as a foreign soldier.

While celebrated stories of foreigners brave enough to venture into a war zone are plentiful, little has been heard yet from those who have emerged from the other side. Adam and other Foreign Legion recruits told VICE World News harrowing tales of death and destruction that marred the short stints in which they were in Ukraine, carrying home with them severe trauma as they shed light on the brutal and chaotic nature of events on the ground.

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“I was exposed to much more things in my first three days [in Ukraine] than the whole tour in Afghanistan,” said the 35-year-old, who served for six months in the country in 2012. “If, right now, [someone] told me you are going on a mission to Afghanistan, I would say: ‘Why do you want to give me a vacation?’” 

Reflecting on the hours-long Russian attack on Yavoriv, which killed 35 Ukrainians and up to 180 “foreign mercenaries” according to Kremlin sources, Adam is still able to find a silver lining. The number of foreign recruits dwindled significantly when, in the aftermath of the explosion, Ukrainian officers gave them an opportunity to turn back and leave the country. 

“There were a lot of adventure seekers. There were lots of people saying they were in the army and the military. But I think there were just a bunch of liars as well,” Adam said. “But we were actually very happy that this happened before we got to Kiev. Because that was the best selection of the people that you could fucking imagine—the best one.” 

Adam's unit patrolling at a destroyed bridge in Kiev. Photo: Hieu Le

Adam's unit patrolling at a destroyed bridge in Kiev. Photo: Hieu Le

Another foreign recruit who survived the bombardment that day and pushed on to the Ukrainian capital is Hieu Le. 

Originally from the Bay Area of California, the Vietnamese-American sold noodle soup in Medellin, Colombia until three weeks ago, when he was compelled to act by an impassioned speech from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for foreign recruits to help in the resistance fight. 

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When he spoke to VICE World News late last week, he was sitting in a hotel room in the Polish capital Warsaw with another Legionnaire from the U.S. Both men had arrived in Ukraine separately on March 9, before leaving the country together on March 22. 

Le, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, was a soldier in Adam’s unit of around 20 men. He too had completed a nine-month tour in Afghanistan in 2012, also working as a counterintelligence agent in the country for more than three years before leaving for Medellin in 2020 when COVID-19 struck.  

“The distinct risk of catching a bullet in the back from some criminal guys [on your side] was a lot higher than comfortable.”

Like Adam, he said his previous combat experience prepared him only so much when confronted with the asymmetric nature of warfare in Ukraine, where Russia has bombarded towns and cities with rockets as President Vladimir Putin launched the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.  

“Even those with military experience, you’ve got to realise that there isn't a war that has been fought like this in a long time,” Le said. “What's different with the US military and all the other NATO militaries—they're spoiled. When it comes to fighting a war, they have air support, medivac, logistics, all kinds of different levels of intelligence, and support. Here in Ukraine, we had none of that.”

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Both Adam and Le described the anxiety that accompanies urban warfare, something Le equated with fighting “in a forest.” The men’s home base, which Adam estimated housed more than a thousand foreign troops—Georgians, Americans, Brits, Eastern Europeans and even South Americans—at an undisclosed location in Kiev, offered little more in terms of refuge due to the perennial threat of shelling. 

“If you know anything about the war right now, you know that urban [warfare] is basically hell,” Le said. “Surrounded by the enemy—so many enemies, so much armour. You'd be walking, then you run into enemy armour.”  

Hieu Le sold Vietnamese noodle soup in Medellin, Colombia until three weeks ago. Photo: Hieu Le

Hieu Le sold Vietnamese noodle soup in Medellin, Colombia until three weeks ago. Photo: Hieu Le

Firm figures are hard to come by, but in early March the Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimated that 20,000 people had volunteered to join its foreign forces, hastily created three days after the invasion as the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine. Outlets have reported that contracts have been handed to foreign recruits restricting them from leaving the legion until the war is over. Le, however, says it was “actually amazing how many chances that the Ukrainians give you to leave.” 

But while commending the “impressive” Ukrainian resistance and everything achieved by the Foreign Legion in a short space of time, Le also described a lack of structure and leadership in its ranks. This is something he says has resulted in unnecessary casualties, and could be remedied by embedding a Ukrainian officer in every unit. 

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These issues with discipline manifested within the walls of the barracks, according to Le, as he described a looming threat of violence from one unruly and ill-disciplined collection of troops. Americans and Brits who claimed to be ex-special forces, these soldiers antagonised, threatened and assaulted fellow Legionnaires during his time there, Le says. Both he and Adam suspected substance abuse among those men, while unconfirmed accounts of looting and even the shooting of stray dogs on missions began circulating in the barracks. 

As the days ticked on, Le’s sense of anxiety grew as he remained constantly vigilant for enemy attacks, while beginning to doubt his safety even among his own men. He said they represented a minority of volunteers—“psychos and criminals” drawn to Ukraine not to help the country, but in order to have a “free pass to kill people and act a fool.” 

“There were a lot of people that didn't want to go on mission with these guys, because they just were untrustworthy,” he said. “The distinct risk of catching a bullet in the back from some criminal guys [on your side] was a lot higher than comfortable.” 

VICE World News could not independently verify Le’s accounts of reckless behaviour on missions, but Adam confirmed that all five men had been removed from the Legion by the time he had left the country. He also emphasised that these men represented outliers among an otherwise harmonious group of foreign fighters, and that the Ukrainian government was making efforts to stamp out poor behaviour in its foreign ranks. The American soldier whom Le had travelled to Warsaw with, who had been physically assaulted by one of the men, confirmed he left due to fears for his safety among his own soldiers, but declined to give a full interview.  

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“Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs and his arms to get him in there. These cars are super small here in Europe. It was pretty gruesome, I'll never forget it.”

For Le, however, it was not solely for these reasons that he called an end to his time in Ukraine after two weeks. To explain that decision, he soberly recalls the events of one mission in meticulous detail, after which he knew he had experienced enough. 

Patrolling a forest in western Kiev on March 18, Adam’s unit encountered the body of a Georgian soldier from their barracks killed by rocket fire. Unwilling to leave him behind, both Adam and Le helped carry his stiff, lifeless corpse 8km through thick forest to the nearest road. There, Le would search his uniform for ID, writing down on a piece of scrap cardboard his name, details and date of death, before lifting him into a waiting vehicle. 

“Because of rigor mortis, we had to break his legs and his arms to get him in there. These cars are super small here in Europe,” Le said. “It was pretty gruesome, I'll never forget it.” 

He described the sorrow he felt seeing other Georgian soldiers paying their respects to the body. This experience with death would prove too traumatic to bear repeating, and Le would depart the country days later, saying he “did not realise how much it would affect me.” 

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Soldiers from Adam's unit carrying the body of a fallen Georgian soldier. Photo: Hieu Le

Soldiers from Adam's unit carrying the body of a fallen Georgian soldier. Photo: Hieu Le

“You know, it's a sombre moment. And it was, for me, too much. I never wanted to do that again. It was…,” he said, pausing. “It was absolutely heartbreaking.” 

Adam, for whom it was the second encounter with death within a week, recalls the incident in characteristically jovial fashion. This, he says, is his way of coping.

“This is my reaction for whatever happened over there. This is my stress management. I'm doing that for me,” Adam said. “I think it's fine if someone wants to judge this. Go ahead. I don't care. But if I'm gonna be about to cry all the time about this, well, what's the point?” 

Adam, who left in part due to those tensions in the barracks, isn’t ruling out a return to Ukraine. He’s currently lobbying to raise money for scopes, thermal and night vision goggles—equipment he says would be a “game changer” for urban warfare in Kiev. 

Le is now spending time travelling in Europe in order to process what he has experienced before returning to Colombia to resume his life selling noodle soup. He says he is mentally preparing for similar feelings he felt when he returned from Afghanistan, where “no one cared and nothing changed.” 

He warns against those without military experience going to Ukraine, “as you will probably quit after the first air strike.” On his social media posts that have since gone viral wherein he details his experience, Le has faced criticism—in part from soldiers he had served with—for leaving the country after two weeks. 

He reiterates several times that this critique comes from a place of ignorance. Still, you can see that, given all that he has endured, the harsh words from his peers sting. 

“I try not to take it too personally, because they don't know. They really don't know this is an entirely different type of conflict,” he said. “The only thing I really have to say to those guys is they have the opportunity to come here too. And they didn't.”

Follow Alastair McCready on Twitter.