Friday, August 12, 2022

“Schick Chips”: The man from Stockwell on the Ukrainian front

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The one thing Craig, a Londoner, misses more than anything while fighting on the front lines in Ukraine are salt and vinegar chips.

At the beginning of 2022, the 31-year-old was more likely to be “chilling and snowboarding” as a semi-retired network cabling technician.

Then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. The Stockwell resident was so angry that he couldn’t sleep for three days. Despite a lack of combat experience, he eventually traveled to the war-torn country and enlisted in the Foreign Legion. Four months later he is still fighting as an infantryman on one of the many front lines where the fighting is fierce.

In the worst moments in the trenches, under relentless Russian fire, when food and supplies are scarce, he says home comforts get the troops through.

“It’s an artillery battle, so we spend a lot of time in holes and the little things make a big difference,” he explains from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, while on vacation from an unknown location on the front lines. It’s not a long break: Kharkiv is just a few kilometers from the border with Russia and is constantly under shell and rocket fire.

“The care packages that civilians sent us when they made it are great,” he continues, holding his assault rifle: the magazine is decorated with the label of a can of British canned hot dogs.

“Once 2,000 socks came at once when we were all out of socks. It was the best ever. Socks, can you believe it?”

But snacks are even better than socks.

“For me it’s salt and vinegar chips, I really want them, they’re the best chips in the world. I’ve asked everyone I know to send them to me. It just takes forever to get them through customs. The little things can really change your day.”

Craig was speaking on the sidelines of a press conference organized by Media Center Ukraine, a group supported by the country’s local and central government.

Foreign fighters in the ranks of Ukraine’s military is not a new concept, many having enlisted over the past eight years since the conflict erupted in the east of the country. But this February, in the early days of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the creation of an official Foreign Legion and called on citizens from around the world to join.

Defense Ministry and Foreign Legion officials declined to share LatestPageNews how many are in their ranks now.

But it is believed that up to 20,000 foreigners, some from countries as far away as Australia, have heeded Mr Zelenksy’s call. A spokesman for the Foreign Legion said: LatestPageNews that recruitment is constant.

The number of Britons is also a well-kept secret. The British government has told people without military training to stay away from Ukraine, although Foreign Secretary Liz Truss initially said she supports people who want to fight alongside international forces.

Craig says that in addition to Poles, Americans, Australians, Brazilians and even a man from Taiwan, there were five Britons in his company.

“In Europe, you kind of expect people to join us, but those who come from far away countries really surprise me,” he adds.

However, there was a high dropout rate at the beginning, especially among the English, he explains.

“A lot of them were young and freaked out. It’s scary every day. Our position can get pretty hairy.”

Ryan, 33, an American employee of Craig’s company, also spoke to him LatestPageNews in Kharkiv, he says that the Americans are one of the largest factions, even though this is a European war.

“I think a lot of US Army veterans might feel like they’ve fought in several wars without purpose over the past 20 years,” the former Georgia mountaineering guide continues.

“Perhaps part of a quest for redemption is to use their skills to finally wage a just war where they are wanted and needed.”

For Craig, joining the Foreign Legion was no joke and he had a baptism of fire at first.

During his first two weeks in the country, he was stationed for training at the Yaroviv base near the border with Poland. While he was there, a massive missile attack ensued: the first time Craig had ever seen a conflict.

“Russia hit us with 36 cruise missiles; Fortunately, the Ukrainians shot down most of them. Eight of them got through and it was pretty scary. I thought at the time, ‘What have I done?’”

But he persevered and after training was sent to the front. Foreign legionnaires, like Craig, sign annual contracts with the military but, unlike Ukrainians, can leave whenever they want, he explains. The army helps get those who have enough out of the conflict zone pretty quickly, says Craig.

Since then he has had some close calls. Although one of the most difficult moments for him was taking a dead soldier to the hospital.

“We had to look for his passport. When they opened it [body] Pocket he was quite a mess that was pretty awful. Something like that brings it home a bit,” he adds quietly.

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