This Retired Cavalry Scout Says He's Been Vetting - and Helping - Recruits for Ukraine's Foreign Legion

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A man carries combat gear as he leaves Poland to fight in Ukraine.
A man carries combat gear as he leaves Poland to fight in Ukraine, at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Matthew Parker's sentences are short and direct, rarely mincing words in the way an Army man leading soldiers into combat wouldn't, a reflection of his past career. His ready comfort with Army lingo betrays his 21 years of service.

He talks about "war toys," the dangers of marching in steel toe boots and how to know you have the right body armor with an assertiveness that makes you think you're getting some on-the-spot Army training instead of an interview.

Until recently, he was a retired senior non-commissioned officer who ran a company that specializes in diplomatic and executive protection. That all changed last month when he answered the call for help in Ukraine. Parker is now headed to the fight, enlisting to repel the Russian invasion that has decimated that country.

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But before he left, Parker says he was tasked by the Ukrainian embassy with a critical job as it builds a foreign legion: vetting retired American service members, thousands of whom had reached out offering to fight.

He says that he's checked out between 50 and 100 folks and, as one may suspect, not everyone passed. "Guys were wanted, deadbeat dads, fake military records, war tourists," Parker said.

A handful of volunteers whom he's recently helped go to Ukraine have already come home, too.

Military.com reached out to officials at the Ukrainian embassy for verification of Parker's work and was told that the embassy would not comment, citing "security reasons."

Earlier this month, several outlets, citing embassy officials, said that at least 3,000 Americans had volunteered to fight. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted numbers that exceeded 15,000 from around the world.

In a recent interview with Canadian news network CTV, Damien Magrou, a spokesman for the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, the formal name for the fighting force of foreigners that Ukraine is assembling, emphasized that the group is only looking for experienced volunteers because they "don't do that much training at this stage."

"This is one of the reasons we are looking for experienced fighters that know their way around a battlefield ... won't become shell-shocked the first time they run into enemy fire," he explained

Magrou noted that the only training that is available is "top up" training for specialists to help them translate their skills to Ukrainian weapon systems.

Despite this need for experience, Parker recalled several accounts from volunteers - people he says have critical skill sets - of arriving in the war-torn country but being assigned basic grunt work. He is quick to point out that in the cases he's dealt with, it's not a question of mismatched expectations or remorse but frustration at being underutilized.

The former soldier's account echoes other reports that have surfaced in the media and social networks from disheartened volunteers.

Parker explained that the frustrations of the American volunteers came from former helicopter pilots and soldiers trained in air defense and Stinger missile operations. Instead of being assigned to work with their skills, they were reportedly just told, "Here's your rifle; you're infantry."

"These guys are not prepared for the assignment that you're giving them," the retired Sgt. 1st Class added. The Army confirmed that Parker served from 1990 to 2011 as a cavalry scout, deploying to Iraq several times along the way, and earning more than a few medals, including a Bronze Star.

He says he's worked with many volunteers to make sure they'd covered the basic necessities: wills, powers of attorney and solid gear.

One guy drove out from Florida to Parker's home in South Carolina. On a whim, Parker said, "Do me a favor, dump your gear, just let me take a look at what you have."

"He's dropping ACU uniforms ... I'm like - 'Dude you can't wear ACUs over there 'cause these things don't work anywhere,'" Parker said.

The Army Combat Uniforms and their pixelated camouflage pattern famously cost billions of dollars only to blend with almost nothing. They were phased out in 2019.

"Here are my boots," the volunteer then said. "He had his desert combat boots," Parker recalled with a tone that had that special blend of an E-7s frustration and bemusement.

The weather in Kyiv has been wet and hovering around freezing temperatures for most of March.

"He's telling me about his kids, his wife, I'm like here - just take my stuff," Parker said before giving the man body armor plates, three sets of the newer OCP uniform and cold weather boots.

Parker said he's also had to line up pro-bono lawyers to draw up wills, set up AK-47 shooting classes at a local range and, for one volunteer, help deal with a lingering speeding ticket.

That last one went much smoother thanks to the prosecutor being a former Army JAG.

David Malet, a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs and an expert on foreign fighters, said there's historical precedent for dissatisfaction among foreign recruits.

"That happened to American volunteers in the Israeli war of independence back in the 1940s," he said. "You can imagine that they're not really taking the time to figure out where somebody could best work or maybe they can't afford to do that right now."

Malet noted that "something that you see just across the board with foreign volunteers [is] that local commanders tend to use them as shock troops or cannon fodder."

"They don't necessarily trust them," he added.

Alyssa Demus, a senior policy analyst with Rand and an expert on Ukraine, explained that "it's important to keep in mind that the Ukrainian military has now dealt with this issue [of volunteers] for eight years."

Demus said that the influx of people who have wanted to fight on behalf of the country goes back to 2014 when a popular uprising unseated pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych and led to Russian intervention and annexation of Crimea as well as the formation of two breakaway regions along the Ukraine-Russia Border.

The ensuing conflict led to volunteer battalions being established - including the now-infamous Azov battalion that has had reported neo-Nazi ties.

These ties, along with Ukraine's undeniable history of collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, seem to serve as the backing for Russian President Vladimir Putin's absurd "de-Nazification" rationale for his invasion of his neighbor. Almost no regular observer or expert of the region takes these claims seriously, if for no other reason then the fact that Zelenskyy himself is Jewish and the country recently passed a law combating anti-Semitism. There's also the fact the Russian air strikes hit the memorial at Babyn Yar, the site of the mass murder of thousands of Jews during World War II.

Now, Demus has observed that the volunteers flocking to Ukraine serve two important functions. In addition to spreading their specialized operational experience, she noted that "when you have foreigners showing up to your country, willing to put their life on the line for your cause, I think that does a lot for morale."

Parker's tone often has a forcefulness that can be intimidating, like many senior non-commissioned officers, but he couldn't help but make sure the guys he met were as ready as they could be to meet the challenges of war.

Although one would think that former veterans should have no trouble equipping themselves for a combat zone, Parker points out that things become more complicated when you, not the Army, are entrusted to make sure gear like body armor is up to snuff.

One volunteer told him that these efforts led to a special honorific. "We kind of have a Facebook group, and we've been referring to you as Papa Bear," that volunteer told him.

Parker says that 29 volunteers received what he calls his "full" treatment, 39 more he helped with some aspect of their journey. "I think my grand total is ... in the 60s somewhere," he said.

He's done with that work and, despite all the things he's heard, is determined to head to Ukraine himself.

The 21-year veteran said he felt that when Zelenskyy made his plea for volunteers that "he was talking to me."

"When the president says, 'Hey, I need help,' ... You can't say no," he added.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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