On July 29, Russian forces were peppering members of Chosen Company -- a volunteer group composed of military veterans fighting against the Russian invasion -- with mortars, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and grenades in eastern Ukraine.
Marine veteran Lance Lawrence, who had recently returned to fighting after being hospitalized due to a ricochet round hitting his wrist, was killed in the conflict. Lawrence is one of nearly 20 American veterans who have been killed fighting for Ukraine, a total that has steadily increased as the conflict has largely faded from the nightly news. A second American veteran, former Army officer Andrew "Dubs" Webber, was also killed in the same operation.
Lawrence and Webber were in the middle of the brutal combat that has characterized the Ukrainian offensive to reclaim territory that Russian forces quickly gobbled up in the early days of the conflict, which commenced in February 2022. The nearly 18 months of war have seen a steady stream of American veterans head to Ukraine, both to fight and to provide training and aid to forces that have managed to repel Russian troops, despite early predictions of imminent conquest.
Weeks before his death, while recovering from the wrist injury, Lawrence sat receiving medical care. But it wasn't the wound that seemed to be bugging him.
"I think he was more pissed off that he got blood on his new uniform than actually getting shot," a volunteer who served with Lawrence and goes by the moniker Brit told Military.com. Brit's name, and those of several other volunteers, is being withheld in order to protect their identity, given security concerns surrounding fighting in Ukraine.
In the four-plus months he was with his volunteer unit, Lawrence, a former Marine Corps machine gunner, had earned a reputation as a weapons expert and hard-charger.
Military.com spoke to more than half a dozen people who knew Lawrence, either from his time in the Marines or Ukraine. Volunteers who are quoted under pseudonyms provided Military.com with pictures, messages or both connecting themselves to Lawrence.
An image that emerged of the Marine showed a consummate heavy weapons guru with a cheeky magnetism that boosted morale in the most austere environments. It was in those conditions that Lawrence was drawn to that he seemed to thrive most.
His family did not return Military.com's requests for comment, but released a statement saying, in part, that "he was known for his unwavering determination, infectious smile and compassionate nature. … He was a down to earth person who gave a helping hand to anyone who needed it," according to Task & Purpose.
A Marine, ''Til the Day He Died'
Without any prior combat experience, Lawrence stepped foot into the deadliest war in Europe since World War II.
"He felt the calling," Brit, who shared pictures of Brit and Lawrence together, told Military.com. As Lawrence's medic, Brit recalled many conversations with the Marine veteran. "He spent all his life practicing war, never got to go. He was like, 'I have these skills, there's people out there that need it. Let me go.'"
Lawrence joined the Marine Corps in August, 2013 -- nearly a decade to the month before he was killed. He enlisted as an 0331, Machine Gunner. Elijah Sisney served with him and remembered a day that Lawrence came back from time off with a military machine gun symbol tattooed on the inside of his trigger finger.
After a deployment on the USS Iwo Jima to the Mediterranean, Sisney recalled a brutal run of training back stateside. They had been rucking all day in the heat and were "smoke-checked," a term Marines use to describe being exhausted. Sisney was huddled up in his sleeping bag with heaters for cooking meals tucked under him for warmth -- the squad was miserable and cold.
"He had this bottle of booze that he pulled out of his back," Sisney remembered. "He thrived on that kind of stuff. It never knocked him down at all. He rolled with every punch that was given. … And just in a moment like that, he pulls out a bottle and it's a big morale boost."
Lawrence told most of his comrades in Ukraine that he'd been a contractor after leaving the Marine Corps in 2016 before arriving in Ukraine.
"He always said, 'I made a lot of money back in the States. But I gave that all up to come here and help,'" Grim, a Marine veteran and volunteer, remembered Lawrence saying.
Lawrence left for Ukraine in February. He met Brit and another volunteer, Plomo, near the beginning of March, and all three clicked instantly. They were struck by Lawrence's kindness; Plomo, a former Colombian Marine, said that he was short on funds and Lawrence paid for his food for a month without saying a word to anyone.
Around this time, Lawrence also connected with a group called Protect A Volunteer, a Ukraine-focused organization that links volunteer soldiers with donors. The group provided Lawrence with uniforms, according to internal records and messages reviewed by Military.com.
"If you look at all of the things that he could have asked for help with -- all kinds of different expensive equipment -- he asked for uniforms," Rachel Jamison, a lawyer and director of the organization, told Military.com.
"That's a really humble request, which I think says exactly about who he is," she said. "Just somebody who wanted to be there and wanted to do good and didn't ask anything of anybody."
Eventually, Lawrence earned a spot in Chosen Company as the unit's fire support group leader. Grim said that it was his natural leadership and competency that got him placed into the integral position.
"He performed exceptional or he wouldn't have been in a leadership position," said Ryan O'Leary, a Global War on Terrorism veteran and the commander.
By July, the world was watching Russia react to a failed rebellion the month before. Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private military group launched a campaign against the Kremlin, but failed to march on Moscow over reported disagreements with the Ministry of Defence.
For Chosen Company, July was an apparently busy season for fighting. A video O'Leary posted on Twitter just three days before Lawrence and Webber, the former Army officer, died went viral. It showed the unit riding into combat.
As tributes for the veterans poured out on social media, the State Department confirmed the deaths of two unnamed U.S. citizens on July 29, 2023, from "a drone attack in Ukraine."
Members of Chosen Company did not go into detail about the battle, either citing operational security or because they were not there.
The latter reason haunts some of Lawrence's friends. Grim, who is back stateside, said that he is alive today because of Lawrence, who convinced him to take a job back home.
Plomo shared encrypted messages he had exchanged with Lawrence after the shrapnel injury, not long before he died.
"Dude, [I'm] half mad because you got wounded without me," Plomo wrote. "Please keep safe, bro. I really love you. I don't want to [lose] you."
"I'll be safe man and I love you too, brother," Lawrence replied.
"The next time [I'm] gonna keep you safe," Plomo wrote. "With my life."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.