‘You cannot go into a fight like this thinking that you’re going to remain safe’
Maybe it’s luck, or some kind of divine providence. According to the capricious nature of life in a war zone, JT should not be alive.
Yet there he is — a Canadian military volunteer in Ukraine who beat the odds.
The former military combat engineer fought through the bloodied grape fields of Kandahar during Canada’s war in Afghanistan. He first came within a whisker of death in 2006, when he and his fellow soldiers were strafed accidentally by an American A-10 ground attack jet.
He unwittingly stepped out of the way at the last minute. One of the shells from the jet’s cannon smashed into a fuel can behind him.
Just a few weeks ago, JT cheated death a second time.
This time the occasion was a cool, clear night in mid-May in southern Ukraine. He said he and a group of Ukrainian soldiers — with artillery rumbling in the background — were trying to establish an observation post on the outskirts of a Russian-occupied town in the hotly contested Zaporizhzhya region.
He said he barely survived driving over an anti-tank mine while trying to rescue two comrades — one badly wounded, the other already dead.
The 50-year-old Ottawa resident spoke to CBC News by phone from his hospital bed at an undisclosed location in western Ukraine. He said he’s hoping to be evacuated back to Canada.
CBC News has agreed not to use his full name for security reasons as friends at home scramble to raise money for his medical transport.
When he was injured, JT had been in the country for several weeks — drawn to Ukraine by President Volodomyr Zelensky’s appeal last winter for foreign military veterans to help push back the Russian invasion.
Part of an intelligence-gathering reconnaissance team, he and other experienced foreign fighters spent their days making like ghosts around Russian trench lines in the scorched farm fields of southern Ukraine.
Their mission that May evening, he said, was to establish the observation post while combat engineers quietly cleared the mines stitched into the route Ukrainian troops would use to mount an attack the next morning.
As they were moving into position, he said, one of their number stepped on an anti-personnel mine, killing the team’s sniper and gravely wounding another soldier.
A rescue under fire
As commander of the reconnaissance unit, JT called for an extraction vehicle — an old pickup truck. A bent skid plate caused the truck to become hung up on some nearby train tracks.
He ordered a young Ukrainian captain to go forward on foot and get to the survivor, who was bleeding and trying to perform combat first aid on himself. They had only minutes to get away before the nearby Russians figured out precisely where they were.
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JT managed to free the pickup truck. It was backed onto a siding, unable to move forward because the bent plate was wedged against the ground. He said he knew he had to shorten the distance between himself and the victims if the extraction was going to work.
“So I jumped in the driver’s seat and I started backing down the train tracks, beside the train tracks, to get to a point where they could just do a straight line into the back of the truck,” JT said. “And that was the last thing I remember.”
The pickup struck a powerful anti-tank mine. Designed to slam through thick armour, it shredded the flimsy metal of the vehicle.
‘[I] took a pretty good beating’
Miraculously, the shrapnel spread by the cone-shaped blast missed him.
“Obviously [it] set the vehicle on fire and I got a lot of burns,” he told CBC News. “But there was also a couple of, there were some rounds in the truck and there was cook-offs, and I got a couple of holes in my left side and my face and head took a pretty good beating.”
JT heard the rest of the story from his friends.
“My guys said that I got out of the vehicle. I have no recollection of that,” he said. “It’s just one of those auto functions that you hear about … where people do things without even thinking about it … I couldn’t have thought about it because I was just very zombie or something like that. I just, I can’t even comprehend how that came about.”
He woke up in hospital several days later with his leg and backside “minced and burned,” as he put it. His left arm was badly broken from elbow to shoulder and had to be put back together with bolts and pins. There are shrapnel wounds in his face and he suffered a severe concussion in the blast.
Friends back home have started a GoFundMe campaign to defray the cost of an air ambulance flight from a neighbouring country.
JT is not the only Canadian to be injured while volunteering in Ukraine. A New Brunswick man, also a former member of the military, was hurt this spring when a Ukrainian military base near the country’s western border was struck by Russian missiles.
Hunter Francis, from the Eel Ground First Nation, received minor injuries to his nose, right hand and right ear drum.
‘I miss the team’
JT’s team has moved on to other battles without him. Sometimes, he said, he sits awake at night feeling guilty about not being there.
They stay in touch via text message.
“Surprisingly, I get a lot of, ‘I miss you,'” JT said. “And I miss the team as well.”
But he said he knows his time there is done and he has a long road to recovery ahead.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “You cannot go into a fight like this thinking that you’re going to remain safe. The people of this country are not safe.
“If you came over here with any delusions that you are going to come out clean, then these are infantile thoughts as far as I’m concerned.”