‘I know that I can die here’: Two former Canadian soldiers describe life on the front lines in Ukraine, and why they’re fighting

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KYIV, UKRAINE – Fighting for freedom far from home. Canadians preparing for their second deployment to the front lines in Ukraine.
Connecting with fighters in an active war zone involves trust on both sides. Many soldiers from are concerned their identities and locations will be compromised.

Weary of Russia’s ability to track their movements and become targets, we’ve agreed to withhold the real names and location in Ukraine where we met two former Canadian Armed Forces members from Montreal.

For our interview, we travel down a muddy, bumpy rural backroad. As we arrive in a wooded area, they reveal their story and their call signs on the battlefield – Speedy and Tanto.

Both are young men in their twenties. The taller of the two, Tanto, says he decided to come to Ukraine after seeing videos of children on the news crossing the Polish border with only a passport and a teddy bear.

“I still have the image in my head right now,” he admits.

As for Speedy, he felt it was his duty, saying, “I wanted to help fight, help the population.”

His first combat tour in Ukraine lasted six months. For Tanto, it was four months. Both recently returned to Ukraine and reflected on the difficulty they experienced back home.

“When I get back to Canada, it’s really hard to adapt to a normal life after what you’ve seen, [after] what you’ve done,” says Speedy.

Tanto found it difficult to hold down a regular job, saying it felt like “no one really knows what’s going on in Ukraine.”

Since their return to Ukraine, the two Canadians are now facing another challenging reality.

“All of our friends are wounded,” says Speedy.

Tanto shares that many have also died. As he grapples with this tragic reality, he says, “going to the hospital and seeing them wounded is really difficult. They have serous shrapnel injuries to their heads and legs.”

Neither are covered by insurance should they get injured, or worse, while on the front lines. Accepting the risks involved, Speedy is at peace with what may or may not come.

“I know that I can die here, I know I can get wounded,” he says.

Tanto, who shares that he’s an uncle, says, “I don’t want to die. I came here to help but I’m not planning to die, you know. If it happens it happens.”

Neither experienced active combat while with the Canadian military, but that changed once they arrived in Ukraine.

Speedy laments the style of warfare being deployed.

“It’s more like World War II,” he says. “There’s trenches, there’s artillery. It feels like the Russians have infinite ammo. I don’t know how to explain it. They shell you and shell you. They never stop.”

While serving with several different allied fighter groups, the pair share they’ve uncovered Russian spies within the ranks.

“They had a bunch of Russian spies who initially joined. They got caught,” claims Speedy. “At one point you know they’re not legit. They got caught and taken away. We never saw them again.”

At the beginning of the war, it was easy to show up and get deployed, now there’s much more paperwork, according to the two young Canadians. Each are waiting for their papers to clear this time so they can begin getting paid by the Ukrainian military.

They decline to say how much they’ll make, but Tanto says that without payment “I’m not staying. I have to get paid.”

Combined, they estimate they spent about $45,000 buying gear and supporting themselves during their first trip as foreign Canadian fighters. Both say they’re here for the long haul this time, as long as they can make a living while helping on the battlefront.

Speedy and Tanto, along with a third French Canadian, have launched Black Maple Company, a site where people can purchase merchandise. Part of the proceeds will go toward helping their fellow fighters injured in battle.

“Whatever we can give to wounded soldiers to help lift their morale,” says Speedy.

Tanto is concerned that Canadians and the global community will soon turn their gaze away from Ukraine.

“[The war] is still happening everywhere in Ukraine,” he says. “Children are dying, don’t forget about this war.”

Ottawa says it’s unknown exactly how many Canadians have travelled to Ukraine to join the fight. It’s believed at least three Canadians have died while fighting in Ukraine over the past year.

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