MARINKA, Ukraine—In the night I wake with a start to the sounds of artillery and gunfire. The shelling is loud enough and close enough to shake the walls.
A stir from the body lying next to me. I look over at my brother, Drew, sleeping there. Both of us cocooned in our sleeping bags.
Above our bunk, Kalashnikovs, body armor, and grenades hang from the walls beside Ukrainian flags. On the table next to us, letters from the families of Ukrainian soldiers alongside bullets and grenades.
Ukrainian soldiers sleep in the room too, but I’m only aware of my brother’s breathing.
There’s a smell of burning wood and dust. A furnace heats this small room. We’re on the top floor of an abandoned building the Ukrainian army’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade has made into a fort in the embattled front-line town of Marinka.
The shelling rumbles through the brick and concrete walls. A sound of dust spilling like a waterfall while the windows creak from the cold winter wind outside.
I think back to when Drew and I were boys. I imagine these are the sounds of a Florida thunderstorm, and my brother and I—now 30 and 34, respectively—are sleeping in a fort constructed of pillows.
Then the hard metal snarl of a machine gun nearby. Reality.
My brother’s presence (peacefully sleeping amid all this) is a jarring tether to home in a place far from it—both in terms of miles and circumstances.
I’ve seen this war before. But like the time I visited my brother in Afghanistan when he was a soldier, Drew’s presence in this war makes it feel more real.
Yes, to have Drew here makes this war feel real in a way it hadn’t before. I was no longer looking at it like a passenger watching the world stream by out the window of a train. I’m here. I’m in it.
It’s the same for the Ukrainian soldiers; many of whom live only a few hours drive from the front lines. If they wanted, some could drive home in the time between breakfast and lunch. A few have been away from their homes and families for almost three years to fight in this war.
As I listen to my brother sleeping amid the background din of the war outside, I’m here completely. I understand, at least in some microscopic way, what this war must feel like for the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in it.
Earlier, my brother and I shiver as we stand on the roof of the 92nd Brigade’s fort.
The night is cold, windy, and clear. You can easily see the stars, as well as the tracer fire cutting across the sky, and the flashes of artillery and mortars exploding at regular intervals a few times a minute.
You can feel the explosions in your feet. And the staccato, high-gain rattle of small arms fire easily cuts through the frigid wind.
A Ukrainian soldier stands beside us.
“This is a normal night,” he says.
“How does the world not know about this?” my brother asks.
Drew is a former Air Force captain who now lives and works in New York City. He deployed to Afghanistan twice and recently went back as a civilian to run a marathon there as part of an initiative to empower local women.
He’s here in Ukraine to launch a humanitarian project to provide aid to some of the war’s internally displaced persons. (Some 1.7 million Ukrainians fled their homes because of the war.)
“War doesn’t seem to belong here, like it did in Afghanistan,” Drew tells me. “This place feels familiar. And the war feels like a nightmare. How can this sort of thing still exist in the modern world, and in Europe? And how can so few people know about it?”
This war is different from the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, with which Drew and I are most familiar. This isn’t a country at war, this war is a destination. Once you’re at it, you’re in it.
It has been like this in Ukraine for almost three years. The words “war in Ukraine” mean little anymore. It’s a back page story in Western newspapers. It’s normal, expected, and just a drowned-out voice in the chaotic chorus of world news.
“Before I left New York, I told a friend I was coming to Ukraine and that I’d be going out to the front lines,” my brother says. “She replied, ‘Oh, is that still going on?’”
My brother and I watch the spectacle of artillery for a while. When you see it in person, it’s hard to look away.
We talk little; what is there to say in such a moment? Except to periodically comment on what you see, as if you need confirmation that what you’re seeing is in fact real.
It is very cold and we will be going to bed soon. As the day ends, I reflect on how it began, and on the absurd distances one can travel in just one day. Distances that cover much more than miles.
This day begins before sunrise in Kyiv. In my apartment, I brew coffee and order an Uber taxi to take us to the train station. Then we’re on the train for the six-hour trip to the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk.
On the way, we munch on protein bars, listen to music on our iPhones, and read novels. The train has Wi-Fi, so we check email too.
Arrival in Kramatorsk. We meet our driver and translator, and take possession of our body armor and helmets. Then on the road. Our driver takes a wrong turn and we get stuck in the mud. We get out, but the car (a black Mercedes) is broken down.
Our translator is on her cell phone in a flash, making alternate plans. I worry that this trip is quickly becoming a disaster, and we’ll not even get out to the front lines. But the translator comes through and arranges another driver.
Several hours later, the new driver, Edward, picks us up from the side of the road where we wait, shivering. We’re on our way again.
It’s early afternoon now. But in Ukraine the winter sun sets at about 4:30 p.m. We’re in a race to get to Marinka before nightfall.
We zip along the potholed, two-lane roads that cut through wide-open fields, many of which are still green even in mid-November. The sun dips lower and lower, and we worry if we’ll get there in time. The sky turns orange, and then fades to violet. It’s almost night.
We’re lucky and get through the checkpoints with no hassle. Our driver is a friend of the soldiers; he often transports supplies out to the front lines. He has a special pass, and the soldiers wave us through.
We’re driving through farmland and villages, but it feels like the savage wild. Like in the Himalayas, where with the night comes the deadly cold. Or on the Serengeti, where the predators emerge after sunset. Here in eastern Ukraine, with the night comes the war.
Stars begin to spot the sky. The long, straight road cuts across an open plain. Ahead is the blacked-out silhouette of buildings in Marinka. Beyond is Donetsk, the separatist stronghold.
Somewhere ahead, lurking invisibly in the fading embers of the day, is the war. Here in the car, you can’t see it or hear it yet. But you can feel it, heavy on your chest, a flutter of butterflies in the stomach, a feeling of adrenaline restlessness. All products of your imagination alone.
Some sixth sense, a leftover of evolution hidden deep within the primordial folds of your brain, alerts you to the danger in the night.
When we arrive in Marinka it’s almost completely dark, but the artillery-blasted apartment blocks are still clearly visible.
We pull up to the apartment building where we are to meet a family for dinner. Stepping out of the van, the not-too-distant “thud, thud, thud” of mortars greets us. The snarl crackle of machine guns replies. The war. We’re here.
The stairway in the apartment building is dark. We use our iPhones for flashlights. There is hardly anyone left living in the building. Half of Marinka’s original 10,000 residents have left. The war sent them away.
We pass through the threshold of the door, and inside the apartment the war is instantly a memory. The owner, a former Red Army helicopter maintainer, has jury-rigged his home for electricity and running water. It feels like home.
We sit down for dinner, a Kazakh meal the old veteran learned while in the Soviet military. He pours us glasses of a homemade alcohol made from walnuts.
My brother and I are both Air Force veterans. Me from Afghanistan and Iraq; Drew from several times in Afghanistan. We clink glasses with this old Soviet soldier.
We all three served in Central Asia. We know the same places, the same names. Such different circumstances. Tonight we are friends.
The old soldier’s wife brings out his Soviet uniform, she points admiringly to his many medals. He pours more moonshine for all of us. Surreal is not enough of a word; we emblazon the memory as best we can.
After dinner we travel across town to where the Ukrainian soldiers are holed up. They have turned an abandoned building and its surrounding area into a fort.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers are scattered in the muddy yard and under concealment in different hiding places. We are escorted into a room where more than a dozen soldiers lounge in their bunks.
At first, silence. Trepidation as our translator explains who we are. Then, when she explains that we are both veterans of America’s wars, a switch flips. Instantly, easily, the Ukrainian troops accept my brother and I in their midst.
I explain that I’m a journalist now, no longer a pilot. And I’m here to report on their war.
The soldiers tell us they feel forgotten—by their own government, as well as by the world.
The Ukrainian soldiers treat my brother and me as honored guests. A bottle of something comes out. Food is passed around. Bread, salo (a Ukrainian specialty of cured pork fat), pastries (a gift to the unit from our driver), and fried potatoes.
Toasts, professions of friendship. Questions about New York City, Miami, our new president-elect. They want to know about life in the American military, how much we were paid, the benefits we now get as veterans.
They ask our opinions of Ukrainian women. I tell them I have a Ukrainian girlfriend. Heads nod approvingly.
We ask the Ukrainian soldiers what they’re fighting for. They talk about freedom, democracy, protecting their families. My brother and I nod our heads approvingly.
Hands slapping shoulders, stories told through a mixture of sign language and the skills of our translator.
It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and although the spread of food and drink is unfamiliar, the feelings are all the same. How is it possible that this place can so easily feel like home?
A few hours after sunset, we witness the cease-fire’s daily charade. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) cease-fire monitors work in daylight and have gone home, so the war begins again in earnest.
The every-so-often boom of artillery and crackle of small arms grows into a discordant symphony, like the climactic ending to “A Day in the Life.”
The walls rattle from the shelling. It’s not close enough to really scare you, but close enough to switch you into another mode of existing that’s only possible in something like war.
Yet, as I have often noticed in this war and others, the louder the explosions, the louder the soldiers retaliate with laughter and conversation. As if camaraderie and humor are the surest defenses against the bullets and bombs. For the spirit, at least. But there is something about laughing that overwrites the fear of dying.
My brother and I and a few soldiers step outside. The night air is frigid. We look at the tanks and the armored vehicles. We have a cigarette or two with the soldiers. Neither my brother nor I are smokers, but under the present circumstances it feels natural.
The soldiers say they can usually hear enemy drones orbiting overhead at night. But not on this night because the wind is too strong.
Huddled together in the cold darkness, smoking, with the orchestra of war as our background din, I imagine life here is not so different than it was for the soldiers who fought over this land in World War II.
Tens of millions died in that war, while 10,000 have died in this one. Yet, it is the geographic scale of this war that makes it less deadly, not the weapons, nor the conviction of its soldiers.
Despite a frequency and intensity of shooting that leaves my brother and me wide-eyed, the soldiers are dismissive. It’s a “regular night,” they say.
“You should be here when it’s really active,” one says. I can see his lips curl to a smile in the dark.
Bad News Bears
We go to the roof to watch the war for a while, and then it’s time for bed. We bed down in a room with a few other soldiers. I cocoon myself in blankets. Next to me is my brother in his sleeping bag. The war is outside, a steel storm that thunders all night.
In the morning, we’re up early. A 22-year-old private named Vsevolod Chernetskyi comes with breakfast prepared. A mix of buckwheat and vegetables. Simple soldier fare. We make coffee, too, and drink it from tin mugs.
We sit on ammo crates and eat. Chernetskyi shows me videos from the U.S.-made Raven drone he operates. The grainy aerial images are familiar to me. That’s how I first experienced combat.
There is a bond between soldiers and veterans, which transcends time and geography. Chernetskyi tells me about what it was like training with the U.S. military in Huntsville, Alabama, to use the Raven drone.
“We had this stereotype that Americans are fat, lazy,” he tells me over breakfast. “But the Army guys were strong, they were warriors. They were very cool guys.”
There’s no running water, so we wash our dishes from breakfast with water from a bucket.
Outside the warmth of the room in which we slept is another room where random gear, both personal and military, is scattered everywhere. Tins of food and supply parcels are stacked on a table made of plywood and cinder blocks.
After almost three years of war, and despite the fact that one could drive to a grocery store from here in under an hour, the Ukrainian troops are still living in what is basically a glorified campsite.
They steal electricity from the local power grid, and draw water from a local well. The innovative soldiers who try to incorporate off-the-shelf technology onto the battlefield—like using tablets and laptops for maps instead of paper copies—have to use their own money to make those changes happen.
The military takes care of the weapons, ammunition, and the bare necessities of food and water. But civilian volunteers still bring in nearly everything else, including things like body armor and long underwear.
“They’re like the Bad News Bears of war,” I tell my brother.
The engine of a Soviet armored personnel carrier called a BMP is warming up outside. The soldiers want to take my brother and me on a short patrol through no man’s land in the 1970s-vintage vehicle.
We agree with foolhardy enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter we’re standing in two open hatches on top of the armored vehicle as we cut across the edge of open fields, up and over berms, and down and across ditches.
The BMP swings hard to the left and right as it makes turns. The engine is loud. My hands, even under gloves, go numb from the cold while holding onto the metal hatch door.
Soon, both my brother and my faces’ are covered in a film of sticky, black oil residue from the exhaust growling out of the 40-year-old Soviet engine.
Suddenly, the BMP stops, spins around, and makes a beeline back to the Ukrainian fort. There is some talk in Russian, but we understand nothing.
My brother and I learn later that separatists had spotted us. A single armored personnel carrier alone in an open field would have been an easy target. We never understand the danger until it’s over.
We laugh about it.
Three hours by car and we’re back in Kramatorsk at a restaurant eating salmon fillets and borscht, and drinking beer. We clink glasses to celebrate a successful trip. Heads shaking in disbelief for what we have experienced.
Then at the train station, we stand on the platform smoking cigarettes, a habit now. We haven’t left the front lines quite yet. Soldiers in uniform are among the crowd waiting to board the train.
“It feels like World War II,” Drew says.
On the train we talk and listen to music and munch on chicken wings and sandwiches. It’s a six-hour trip back to Kyiv.
An empty, metallic feeling in your chest where the adrenaline flutters used to be. Now, you feel calm and happy and laugh about things, which to an outside observer might seem crazy to laugh about.
Three hours in a car and six by train is hardly enough time to leave the war behind. It stays inside of you.
Back in Kyiv we’re beyond the reach of the bullets and the bombs. Walking the city streets, the war feels like a secret between my brother and me.
Back to the cocktail bars, the McDonald’s restaurants, and Niketown stores. You see the world through the lens of the question: “How could things be like this with a war still going on?”
It felt like that coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, too, I remember. All wars, like the soldiers who fight in them, have much more in common than we sometimes immediately realize.
Walking in Kyiv, I think: “Is this real life? Or, did we leave it behind in Marinka?”
More and more, it feels like the only true thing is what we experienced on the front lines. Therein lies the danger of bringing a piece of home with you. Because when the war begins to feel a little like home, you can never truly leave it.
“It is war here,” Evgeniy Varavin, a 27-year-old Ukrainian soldier and former construction worker from Kharkiv, told me in Marinka.
“Some civilians look at soldiers and don’t understand why we’re fighting,” Varavin said. “I don’t pay attention to what civilians say. My parents are proud of me, but they’re worried. They don’t understand why I came back for the second time. But how can I work back home in Kharkiv when there is war, and while my comrades are here? My soul is here.”