Nomeite volunteered with Ukrainian Foreign Legion
By Peter Loewi
Still jetlagged, Mark Hayward opened his bag and took out an ammo can stuffed with memorabilia and makeshift battery parts. He then detailed how he, a clinical field instructor for Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Village Health Services, came to spend two months driving across Ukraine in an old ambulance volunteering to teach Ukrainians how to use anti-tank missiles.
“I had no desire to be in a war, I’ve been there and done that, but this can’t be tolerated,” he said in an interview with The Nome Nugget. “I came to Nome to get away from stupid, pointless wars, where it was really hard to tell whose side was whose. I served 14 years on Active Duty in the Army. I used to be a Special Forces soldier. I’ve been a part of some wars that were relatively clean cut, I’ve been a part of a lot of things that were gray and fuzzy. The invasion of Ukraine has no gray in it at all. It is exclusively black and white.”
Deeply distressed, he volunteered for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. One day in early March, on break at the clinic in Savoonga, he got a message from the Ukrainian Embassy asking for a Zoom interview. Hayward was asked if he was willing to serve as a combat medic. He took leave from his job and flew to Poland.
Though he was among other veterans, Hayward stressed that this wasn’t why they had volunteered.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to have put on a uniform to empathize with what’s going on in this war,” he said. “I think the thing that is necessary to emphasize is to be a human being and to have ever looked at another human being and said ‘Wow, the things that are happening to you are not right.’ You’re a fellow human being. I don’t have the obligation to help you, but I have the opportunity to help you. I can define who I am by how I respond to you now in these circumstances.”
In Poland, Hayward spent several days looking for a van to convert into an ambulance. With the help of a taxi driver and his mechanics donating hours of free labor, Hayward ended up buying an old ambulance for about $4,400, outside of Krakow. “Like me, this was an ambulance that had served and done its time and had been put out to pasture,” he joked.
He finally entered Ukraine on March 12, believing he had 50-50 odds of getting out alive. When he arrived at his assigned rendezvous point, there was nobody there, and the phone number he was given wasn’t picking up. Only later would he learn that Russians had launched 30 missiles at the Yaroviv Military Base where the foreign legion was being trained. Russia claimed to have killed “180 foreign mercenaries.” Hayward happened upon a church in Lviv, and sat next to another would-be-volunteer, a Texan, fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, just one of many “statistical improbabilities” during his trip.
Hayward detailed the events, people and trials, going from anger to joy to the brink of tears. He talked about some of the Ukrainian volunteers. One woman was barely taller than the weapons she was using were long. One chicken farmer donated all his chickens and joined up. One, due to a paperwork error, didn’t get sent to Mariupol and was suffering from survivor’s guilt. There are 42 million such human stories going on right now, Hayward said. “This is not good against evil. This is just ordinary against evil.”
And it was these ordinary people that Hayward worked with to do extraordinary things, but not without barriers. Hayward explained that “We did the best we could, we equipped them the best we could, and we sent them off to fight Russian armor without proper training and without proper equipment. And that’s not anybody’s fault, that’s a feature of war. But the fact that this persists, that we know this is a problem, that we’ve tried to bring this problem back to decision-makers in the U.S. who can fix it, and that the answer is things like ‘Well, nobody asked for it,’ ‘We’re not going to talk to you because you’re just a civilian,’ and ‘We’re not going to send anybody up there to see for themselves.’ I want to call out a failure of imagination.”
One problem of many that Hayward tackled was that the Javelin, a portable anti-tank missile system, ships with only one battery. This meant that soldiers, many brand new to the service, could either train or fight. Hayward resorted to drawing the guidance training on the back of Soviet-era posters, and together they worked to build replacements out of motorcycle batteries. “Cleverness incarnate,” he called them.
First, they solved the battery issue using 3D printed cases and hardware store parts. Then, in Zaporizhzhia, one young Ukrainian fixed their Command Launch Unit using a soldering iron and what appeared to be a piece from a video game controller.
In that sense, Hayward joked, “It’s like there’s 42 million bush Alaskans living in Ukraine. They solve problems. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking. Unbelievably awesome and unbelievably frustrating at the same time. There’s triumph here. Incredible brilliance and accidental success. But the tragedy is not getting the decision-makers to listen.”
Via multiple layers of encryption software, Hayward was able to reach someone at constituent services in Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office, and when he returned to the U.S., he met with her in Washington, DC. In a hearing, she asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about getting the necessary equipment to Ukraine, which he said they are working with the counterparts to do.
In a May 10 briefing to Pentagon reporters, a senior defense official said that “on the Javelin missiles, more than 5,500 were committed, more than 5,550 are delivered.” In an email to the Nugget, Dept. of Defense Spokesperson Marine Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth said that “we have provided some Javelin Basic Skills Trainer kits in previous security assistance packages, but have not received any requests from Ukraine for additional kits. Of course, we will continue to work with our Ukrainian partners to identify capabilities needed for current and future requirements.” Semelroth said that some of the requests are being fulfilled in a matter of days.
But soldiers on the ground in some parts of the country have yet to see that assistance. Another volunteer trainer who spoke via encrypted video calls from the southern front along the Dnipro River said they’d seen a buildup of Russian troops in the last two weeks, but still hasn’t received any training equipment. During the 25-minute call, they received five air raid siren alerts on their phone.
More than anything, Hayward agreed, they need logistics. His own ability to drive an ambulance across the country showed the ease with which things can still move about. “A guy with no current intel, access, or credentials, can drive a repainted ambulance from one end of Ukraine to the other and back, and the biggest hassles I had was on Easter, when the military and police at the checkpoints all wanted to thank me for being there and give me Easter cakes,” he said.
Hayward had another message, that if Nome wants to stick it to the Russians, they already have. “We as people from Nome, Alaska can change the world, we can help free people win wars. We can stop modern day colonization and extermination of a local population by a bigger country just because they have resources, and that should resonate with a lot of people from around here, and it certainly resonates with me,” he said.
A one-night dessert auction at the VFW raised money for his family, and NSHC helped him to go on administrative leave and keep his position open
“Nome rocks.” Pointing to the battery parts, he said “Nome makes things like this possible. Nome has the back of some relative newcomer who’s only been here for three years. $5,000 and a corporation that makes it possible for a man’s family to have health care when he goes off to do something stupid.”
Hayward also encouraged constituents to thank Senator Murkowski for her involvement, and to follow-up with the Department of Defense.
“Alaska is the home I never knew I had until I was 50 years old and came up here. I did not identify myself as Mark the American, I am Mark the Alaskan,” he said, showing off the Alaska flag he had hanging in the ambulance. “There is so much Alaska-themed paraphernalia strewn around Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia and every place we went through that the Board of Tourism owes me a note of thanks.”
He laughed again, as he explained that all of this is why the engineers who put together replacement battery packs called their work “Project Harpoon.”
“Everything I need in my life is up here. Except peace in Ukraine.”