Mark Hayward was in Savoonga, closer to the Russian Far East than the Alaska mainland, when the International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine formally invited him to join the war effort.
The 53-year-old retired Green Beret lives in Nome and works for the local health care system as a trainer for village health aides in communities in the Bering Strait region. While on St. Lawrence Island, a clinician let him use the internet to do a Skype interview with Ukrainian military coordinators.
Hayward said he felt called to action by the willingness of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in the face of grave danger, to stay and fight alongside his countrymen.
“I said, ‘Screw this, this is unacceptable, this is unacceptable in our times,’ ” Hayward said in an interview.
He received an email from a Gmail account telling him where to report in Ukraine. And he went.
This week, Hayward returned to the United States after roughly two months in Ukraine. During most of that time, he learned to make himself useful by training soldiers on a missile system that has proven instrumental in slowing the advance of Russian tanks and other armored units. In doing so, Hayward identified substantial gaps between the foreign military equipment that is arriving in combat zones and Ukrainian soldiers’ abilities to use it effectively.
Much of that disconnect, in Hayward’s experience, relates to training, logistics and tolerance for creative DIY solutions. As a prime example, one of Hayward’s main contributions to the Ukrainian cause may be tinkering together an alternate battery system for a complex missile launcher. His workaround involved wiring together spare motorcycle batteries into the kind of functional, jury-rigged configuration you might find in Bush Alaska.
“Working with Ukrainians, I feel like I’m working with a nation of 42 million Alaskans,” Hayward said.
As he transitions back home, Hayward is advocating for adjustments in American defense policy to better aid the Ukrainians. He is already starting to see results. After a shot-in-the-dark email to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office, he found allies among her staff who have helped raise issues with high-level officials in the Pentagon. On Thursday, he spoke with Murkowski in person at her office in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t know how inside-the-Beltway politics work,” said Hayward, who had never before spoken with a senator. “But as far as I could tell, everyone in that room understood the stakes.”
An Alaskan and a Texan
Hayward and his wife have lived in Nome since 2018. He retired from the military in 2007 after an unconventional career within the service that ultimately left him as a captain specializing in combat medicine by the time he separated.
By his own admission, he does not closely follow global affairs.
“Most of the time, I don’t bother reading the news ‘cause it doesn’t affect me any,” Hayward said.
But news of Ukraine was different. After obsessively following the Russian invasion at the end of February and mulling over how to help Ukraine defend itself, he submitted an application to volunteer with the Ukrainian military. Within days of approval, he became one of the many volunteers with military experience from around the globe who entered the country at the start of the war through the newly established International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine. Estimates of the number of foreign fighters who have joined the Legion, as reported by Western outlets, range from a few thousand up to 20,000 coming from as many as 52 countries.
After arriving in Poland, a taxi driver helped Hayward source transportation: a used ambulance he bought for 4,000 euros and painted green so as not violate Geneva Convention rules around medical vehicles in combat zones. The mechanic who tuned up the rig charged him barely anything for parts or labor, a demonstration of support for Hayward’s cause.
In the relatively safe western city of Lviv, Hayward diagnosed that most of the aid he could supply was helping refugees — worthwhile work, but not the best use of his military background and skills. At church services one Sunday, he managed to meet a fellow traveler: a Ukrainian-born American who had come from his home in Texas to help soldiers after seeing images of his hometown being bombed, and was similarly looking to get closer to the front.
“You win the war by defeating the oppressor. That’s when I decided to join some kind of unit,” said Anton, the Texan, who asked not to use his surname because he has family members still in Ukraine whom he does not want to risk identifying. He initially traveled back to help them escape, but by the time he arrived, the area where they live was surrounded by Russian forces.
“There was an American with a bus that said, ‘I’m here to put some hurt on the Russian armor,’ ” Anton said from his home in the United States, where he’d returned this week.
Inside the van was a large Alaska state flag and Alaska stickers Hayward doled out liberally. He wryly explained that he kept two sidearms in the driver’s side door: a ball-peen hammer and a can of bear spray.
The two men linked up, traveling together to Kyiv, then onward to Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, where they spent the majority of their stay before moving on to Zaporizhzhia, closer to where fighting has intensified during the second Russian offensive push.
Both Anton and Hayward were subjects in a Wall Street Journal article published last week. The men said they understood the risks of speaking with journalists and felt it was vital to get out information about what they were seeing. Publication effectively put targets on their backs, and they hastily left Ukraine.
‘I went on many raids’
Hayward became focused on Javelins — a mobile weapon consisting, in crude terms, of a circular tube connected to a big square viewfinder — which have proved to be one of the most effective tools combating Russian advances. They’re sophisticated missile launchers designed to lock onto the heat signature of a tank or armored vehicle, then shoot out a self-propelled ballistic that arcs up into the air to strike tanks from above, where the armor plating is thinnest. They are lightweight and have an effective range of about a mile and a half, ideal for small bands of soldiers to “tank hunt” from a distance and halt a conventional artillery offensive.
But there are drawbacks. The batteries used in the launch unit only last four hours, then have to be discarded. Commanders did not have spares, or know how to source them. Without extra energy supplies, the weapons were usable for a few hours, then useless.
What’s more, when Western countries withdrew their military personnel ahead of the war’s start, they also took crucial training equipment, like the simulators used to get troops familiar with the Javelin system.
“The marines didn’t have enough batteries to where they could turn them on and practice with them,” Hayward said.
What Hayward and Anton saw were expensive, powerful systems essentially sitting on shelves and in basements, with Ukrainian troops conserving them as a kind of Hail Mary tool soldiers might use as a desperate last resort if a tank approached, hoping they could figure out how to fire them in the moment of truth.
“The team we were working with had one Javelin, and four more in storage,” Anton said of the first marine unit they linked up with. “They could have five, but only had one.”
The two Americans viewed this as a logistics problem: They needed a surplus energy supply for Javelins that would allow soldiers to train on them before taking them into the field. Hayward figured out a workaround. He experimented with rigging together a locally ubiquitous energy source: rechargeable 12-volt motorcycle batteries. With some creative wiring and a plastic frame, he built a prototype that he then handed off to local engineers, who refined the model and made it scalable.
Neither Hayward nor Anton had experience with Javelins, but they knew enough to source information from acquaintances, training manuals and online videos. Liberated from the limits of a fixed battery life, they started training soldiers how to use them, and translating manuals into Ukrainian.
“Within 96 hours of getting that first battery built, they were sending out combat patrols to hunt for and engage with Russian armor,” Hayward said. “Within 96 hours, they had killed the first Russian tank with a Javelin.”
It was hardly a comprehensive practice regime, but it was better than nothing.
Anton estimates they trained upwards of 120 soldiers on how to use the Javelins before leaving, with plenty of them able to teach other fighters.
Asked about their own experience of combat in southern Ukraine, Hayward replied, “I went on combat patrols with units, but I did not engage with or fire upon the enemy.”
Anton was briefer.
“We call them raids,” he said. “I went on many raids.”
Policy changes to be seen
Hayward reached out to Murkowski’s office on April 20. Staffers there found an unsolicited email from a stranger claiming to be an Alaskan with recommendations for military aid policy in a war zone to be a bit uncommon, relative to most of the constituent requests they field. But after checking around, they became convinced Hayward had serious experience and was raising legitimate concerns.
“We get requests for assistance from constituents every day, but Mark’s case was unique for a number of reasons, including that we had to communicate securely at odd hours of the night and were very careful about passing details about him to agencies for his safety,” said Steve Wackowski, state director for Murkowski, and a combat veteran who developed a kinship with Hayward during their exchanges.
Wackowski and other staffers began corresponding with Hayward, who provided formal letters from Ukrainian defense officials attesting to their need for Javelin training kits. Murkowski’s office then got those requests to American officials at the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
“Mark clearly articulated the need for the U.S. to not only supply the equipment they need, but also the knowledge and training to safely and effectively operate the equipment that we’re providing. It’s not enough to allocate money into direct security assistance packages. We need to close the loop and make sure it is effective,” Murkowski said.
Prior to meeting with Hayward in person, Murkowski raised the issue during a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Defense Department’s budget Tuesday.
“What we are hearing is that the new Ukrainian troops are not provided adequate training to operate these $200,000 weapons systems,” Murkowski said, citing feedback from Hayward without naming him.
“So the question to you is whether or not they have enough of the javelins that they need, but what they are doing to help facilitate then the training so that they can most effectively deploy these weapons, and what is DoD telling the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense in response to their ask for more trainers? How are we doing on that side?” Murkowski asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said problems with Javelins specifically had not come from his counterparts in Ukraine.
“If they raise that issue, certainly we stand ready to train them. If it is a requirement, and since you brought it up no doubt it is, we will go back and check with them again and the people that they need to train, we stand ready to train them. And we’re pushing training kits into country, as well,” Austin said.
As more sophisticated foreign weapons systems continue arriving in Ukraine, the training gaps could widen. Recent military aid to the Ukrainian government has included advanced conventional systems like 155mm howitzers and cutting-edge devices like weaponized drones that have necessitated taking Ukrainian soldiers out of the country for training and redeployment. This takes time and involves enormous risks transporting equipment and people over highways and rail systems that can be targeted.
“It’s a better idea to have a mobile training unit,” Anton offered. “This way, they can reinforce the troops where they are.”
For the time being, Anton is focused on coordinating donations and volunteers to more effectively help soldiers fighting in the contested regions.
“I would like Americans to know that if they continue to supply arms to Ukrainians, they will not only stop Russians but will drive them back to where they came from,” Anton said.
Hayward thinks the U.S. military should send uniformed personnel to “train, advise and equip” Ukrainian forces. In his analysis, there are two wars being fought right now. The first is a smaller, conventional conflict between two nation-states, Russia and Ukraine, which he believes the latter will win in six to 18 months. The second war is more dire: the fight over the contested population centers in eastern and southern Ukraine right now, in which Russian soldiers and militias are widely reported to be committing war crimes against civilians. And in that war, according to Hayward, hastening the Ukrainian military’s lethality and efficacy by closing training gaps will mean potentially diminishing the scale of suffering, displacement and death.
“What I saw myself was Russian vicious incompetence,” Hayward said. “Every place that the Russians occupy and have occupied, they are conducting a program of political cleansing and directing the use of force against civilians in a really appalling array of war crimes.”
Hayward expects to return to Alaska in the coming week.