In the days preceding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, David Bramlette found himself in a classroom in Washington, D.C. discussing whether Russia might invade Ukraine. He was in the middle of earning a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in international affairs. At the time, he admits, he found the prospect of a Russian invasion implausible.
But when Russia eventually pulled the trigger and invaded Ukraine in February last year, David, who had previously completed stints working for the U.S. military as a Green Beret on a counter-Russia mission and as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan, felt compelled to go fight the Russians.
“It’s good and evil in my mind,” Bramlette told The Daily Beast in an interview from Kyiv this week.
“I’m sitting in class, and I’m like, I could sit here and finish my degree and go work in some office job, and have a tiny iota of impact on the world working in some government office, right?” Bramlette recounted. “I have the knowledge and the skills and abilities to go help. So I basically took a leave of absence from my master’s program and went over.”
By early March Bramlette, who goes by “Bam,” was en route to Warsaw, Poland to get his bearings before joining the foreign legion in Ukraine. While boarding the plane to Poland, Bam said he sent his parents a quick email explaining why he was going to war for another country.
“I sent my parents an email that says like… This is the most righteous war that I think my generation will see in our lifetime. This is straight up good versus evil,” Bramlette told The Daily Beast. “That’s why I went. I was like, I can’t put up with this shit.”
Like Bramlette, former Marine Troy Offenbecker was compelled to join the fight against Russia’s invasion early on in the war. He told The Daily Beast that Russian atrocities against Ukrainians reported in the news were part of the final straw that got him geared up to go to war.
“Last March I’d seen everything that was happening, and when I heard about the international legion, I knew I was going to come,” Offenbecker told The Daily Beast in an interview from Kyiv. “But at the time I had some obligations that were holding me there. It took me two months… I had to sell my house, I sold my vehicles.”
Offenbecker spent time preparing, conditioning, and getting in better physical shape to fight.
When he saw images of mass graves and Ukrainian civilians murdered execution-style in Bucha, Offenbecker was livid.
“It really made me furious that you could do that to someone so innocent,” he said. “It really pissed me off.”
“I have a skillset that I learned, I had six years in the Marine Corps, I was instructing other Marines, I instructed other countries on how to fight. I just thought it wouldn’t be right if I sat at home,” Offenbecker said.
The urge to go for Bramlette was also personal.
In 2014, just two months before Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine, he arrived to work for the 1st battalion 10th Special Forces Group in Stuttgart, Germany. When Russia moved in, it was go time for him.
“When Crimea happened, all of our emphasis went to defending Eastern Europe, essentially. So my three years in Special Forces was basically doing… partner training all over Central and Eastern Europe and western Europe too,” Bam said. “But I never really felt like we were accomplishing very much.”
And while Bramlette has previously been on combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are a whole slew of service members or veterans throughout the world who prepared to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who, for whatever reason, didn’t get to. From the vets he has seen gearing up in Ukraine, many have felt the pull to fill that gap, Bam said.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than training and training, training for something your whole life, or for years on end, and then never actually getting to sort of test your mettle,” he said. “A lot of those guys, that was kind of the vibe.”
Offenbecker shared similar sentiments. “I’ve encountered some guys where maybe they were here for some sense of purpose, they’ve seen their buddies go through war and they never did,” he said.
Once in Ukraine, the wartime preparations in Lviv and Kyiv involved a little bit of luck and a little bit of chaos, Bramlette said.
First, Bramlette was caught off guard by how many people picked up and went to Ukraine to help fight without having any military experience.
“There’s a lot of really dumb-ass volunteers over here who have no business being in a war,” he said.
After arriving in Poland in early March of 2022, he took a train to Lviv to meet up with other volunteer fighters. But on the way, he found several other foreigners he didn’t want to fight side-by-side with, he said.
“I met three other foreigners on a train. One was a German, and he had no military experience. He was a carpenter or something like that,” Bramlette said. “He had shot a gun—like a little bit. And it was a hunting rifle.”
Once in Ukraine, Bramlette sized up some different groups of foreign volunteers, but found their military background similarly lacking. He was “equally unhappy with the quality of foreigners there,” he said.
A few days later, he hooked up with two other Green Berets to form a multi-national squad of about 12 people to form a small unit tactics team, or a special operations team.
“And then essentially, they give us orders for Kharkiv and said, ‘Go kill as many Russians as you can,’” he said.
After some training and preparation, with guns and ammunition from Ukraine’s supplies, the squad was off.
“We did all our own recruiting from foreigners who were already in Kyiv. And we did all our own resourcing, funding, like buying our own cars, funding our own safe houses,” Bam said.
In Kharkiv, their missions were largely self-driven. The Ukrainian government didn’t link them up with Ukrainian or other foreign volunteer units to coordinate, so they took it on themselves, introducing themselves to territorial defense forces, regular army units, airborne units, and Ukrainian Special Operations units.
After making connections near the front, Bam’s squad would get a brief on the latest on the Russians, and determine what kind of a mission they should run for the Ukrainians, from running reconnaissance on enemy positions to mining.
Offenbecker, the former Marine, also had to organize his fighting team on the fly. He had applied to the international legion but hadn’t heard anything back in about a week. Instead of waiting around for final plans, he told a few family members and close friends, packed up, and got himself to Ukraine.
“I didn’t hear anything so I just flew… anyways. I figured I would volunteer and help some other way,” Offenbecker said.
Once in Ukraine, he connected with the right people to join the international legion and was soon fighting with them in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine.
Even in those early days, he started seeing some foreign volunteers that didn’t have any clue what they were in for.
“This is my third war I’ve fought in, and this is by far the worst one,” Offenbecker told The Daily Beast. “You’re getting fucking smashed with artillery, tanks. Last week I had a plane drop a bomb next to us, like 300 meters away. It’s horrifying shit.”
Once he was there, some of his buddies from the military started messaging him asking for information on how to join up, too. But he ignored messages for months.
“To be honest it was pretty bad so I didn’t want to bring anyone else into it,” he said.
The missions were grueling, Bramlette said. In Iraq or Afghanistan, Bramlette had air support, or supporting ISR, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. “The worst day in Afghanistan and Iraq is a great day in Ukraine,” he said. “Even when we thought it wasn’t, we were always in control of the situation… versus as a commander of a team in Ukraine,” where there are more unknowns.
On reconnaissance missions in Ukraine, you just have to wait until the team members come back, since comms aren’t reliable. “I would always send a reconnaissance element out first… as soon as those guys leave my side, I’m not gonna really hear from them until they’re back within eyesight. And that may be 24 hours later, maybe 48 hours later,” he explained. “If two of them get injured… there’s no helicopter coming to get you… shit can go south really, really frickin’ quickly. And that’s the kind of stuff that is pretty hard.”
When the wintertime set in, Bramlette made the call to send members of his small unit home to take a break. Their thermal signatures were popping more than in the summertime, giving away their positions. Staying out of Russian troops’ sights was growing harder each day, as leafy coverage disappeared. In addition to those issues, the squad’s vehicles kept breaking down, and they were running out of money.
“Since we’re a small unit tactics team… you’re running around… in front of the Ukrainian line and in front of the Russian line. You don’t have leaves on the trees, the bushes are bare, the trees are bare, and it’s colder… It’s really bad news bears,” Bramlette said. “You can’t hide.”
Without drastically changing their approach, they were setting themselves up for failure. “I was just afraid we would go out and do what we normally do and we’d all basically die,” he added.
And while the plan was to plug back in come January, Bam couldn’t bring himself to do it once he got to remove himself from the fog of war.
“When I came back in December it sort of gave me the distance, the space to sort of reevaluate everything that had happened because if I’m in charge of a whole team you don’t have time to really think about everything,” he said. “I kind of shut down a little bit, but it gave me the decompression space to reassess. And so I came to the conclusion that I’m not going to go back and fight.”
Bam is still working on helping the war effort from Kyiv through his work for The Weatherman Foundation, which has recently been working on locating and transferring the remains of Americans killed fighting in Ukraine.
Offenbecker is currently working on switching to a new team in Ukraine’s foreign legion, and has plans to continue fighting in Ukraine.
“I look at these children, and I have my own child and niece and nephews. If that were a circumstance for them, I would hope people from all over the world would come and try to help keep them safe and protected as well,” Offenbecker said. “That’s what keeps me here.”
But if the global community isn’t willing to properly address Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Moscow will only continue its territorial expansion tear, Bramlette warned.
“If we don’t get serious about how we think about Russia, and we don’t stop Russia here, the next step is… Belarus gets folded into Russia. Or Moldova gets folded into Russia. Ukraine gets folded into Russia,” Bramlette said. “Russia is a rabid dog. The Kremlin needs to get put down.”