Special Operations veterans are training Ukrainians near the front lines in the fight against Russia, despite warnings from the Pentagon.
A democracy came under attack. The United States saw a threat to an ally and also to the entire world order, but it feared that sending troops could spark a nuclear war. So, instead, it supplied weapons. And a small number of American Special Operations trainers started quietly working with the local military.
That was the situation in South Vietnam in 1961, a few years before full-blown U.S. military involvement, when the American presence was limited to a military “advisory group.”
It is also the situation in Ukraine today. As a bloody conflict churns on, small teams of American Special Operations veterans are training Ukrainian soldiers near the front lines and, in some cases, helping to plan combat missions.
There is a notable difference, though. In Vietnam, the trainers were active-duty troops under the control of the Pentagon. In Ukraine, where the United States has avoided sending any troops, the trainers are civilian volunteers, supported by online donations and operating entirely on their own.
“This is why I became a Green Beret,” said Perry Blackburn Jr., a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel who spent 34 years in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Somalia and Jordan. He is now in Ukraine as a civilian doing what he once did in the military: training local forces to fight a common enemy.
“To not use my talents in a real time of need would be a waste,” said Mr. Blackburn, 60, who was one of a handful of Special Forces soldiers who rode into Afghanistan on horseback at the start of the U.S. invasion in 2001 and is funding similar efforts now through thousands of small online donations from the public.
“At my age, I’ve seen enough death and I want to try to stop the bloodshed,” he said. “We need to give people the means to defend themselves.”
Whether this new type of crowdfunded military support is wise is up for debate. Some experts caution that the presence of American volunteers could lead to some kind of tragic mishap that entangles the United States in a Vietnam-style escalation. Russia says that it would treat volunteer fighters as mercenaries and that they could be executed if captured. The United States discourages Americans from participating in the conflict. It pulled out its 150 military trainers before the war began and now relies on a few dozen commandos from other NATO countries to coordinate the flow of weapons inside Ukraine.
But the volunteers dismiss the idea that they might be stoking a larger war. Instead, they say, they are working to prevent one, by training Ukrainian fighters to put up better resistance against the Russians and deter further aggression.
Either way, Americans are in Ukraine. An unknown number are fighting on the front lines. Others volunteer to be members of casualty evacuation teams, bomb disposal specialists, logistics experts and trainers. At least 21 Americans have been wounded in combat since the war started, according to a volunteer group that evacuates them. Two have been killed, two have been captured and one is missing in action.
Mr. Blackburn and a small group of volunteers work directly with the Ukrainian military, teaching marksmanship, maneuvering, combat first aid and other basic skills while constantly shifting locations of training camps to avoid Russian rocket attacks.
They say they do all of it without any input from the Pentagon.
“We have no communication with the U.S. military, period,” he said in an interview from his home in Tampa, Fla., where he recently returned to resupply before returning to the war zone. “That’s a line they don’t want to cross. They are not going to take any responsibility for our well-being or our actions.”
Then he laughed and added, “In fact, they’d probably do just the opposite.”
Not all volunteers looking to work with the Ukrainian military come with decades of experience. Mr. Blackburn and several other veterans in Ukraine said they had encountered would-be trainers with overinflated résumés and, in some cases, no military experience at all.
In a statement, the Defense Department said it “is not affiliated with any of these groups” and recommends “that U.S. citizens not travel to Ukraine or depart immediately if it is safe to do so.”
Before the war, the U.S. military regularly deployed uniformed trainers to Ukraine. As soon as Russia invaded, the Biden administration pulled out all troops. “We will not fight the third world war in Ukraine,” President Biden said.
The president vowed that the United States would continue to support Ukraine with weapons and has committed $6.8 billion in security aid. American troops are training Ukrainian forces in Poland and Germany. But Mr. Biden drew a clear line in May, saying the U.S. military would not directly fight the Russians.
The attempt to avert direct conflict, though, left a void just as the Ukrainian military’s demand for training skyrocketed. And freelance volunteers are filling it.
“We are executing U.S. foreign policy in a way the military can’t,” said Andrew Milburn, a retired Marine Corps Special Operations colonel who leads a group of volunteer veterans who provide training and advice.
Speaking by phone from a village about 15 miles from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Milburn said his efforts supported U.S. goals while insulating the United States from involvement. “I’m plausible deniability,” he said. “We can do the work, and the U.S. can say they have nothing to do with us, and that is absolutely true.”
Soon after the war started, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appealed for international volunteers to join the fight against Russia. The first Americans to answer his call often were amateur adventurers and military misfits looking for action, several volunteers said in interviews.
The group focused on training tends to be older and more experienced. Many climbed the ranks of elite Special Operations units and have done similar work all over the globe.
During 31 years in the Marine Corps, Mr. Milburn held leadership positions in the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations command, including as the commander of the Marine Raider Regiment. He initially went to Ukraine as a freelance journalist but said he changed course after seeing the Ukrainian military hand assault rifles to inexperienced students, shopkeepers and other citizens before sending them to fight.
“This country has no shortage of trigger pullers. They didn’t need one more,” he said, explaining why he chose not to fight. “But I knew if I could train the trigger pullers, I could have an exponential effect.”
Mr. Milburn connected with about two dozen other Special Operations veterans in Ukraine, and soon they were calling themselves the Mozart Group — a name chosen as a retort to a private Russian military company, the Wagner Group. Through contacts Mr. Milburn and others had built years before with Ukrainian Special Operations troops, the Mozart Group soon set up training camps close to the fighting. Mr. Milburn said it had trained about 2,500 Ukrainian troops.
The group offers basic military instruction for soldiers headed to the front and occasional classes on how to use American weapons, like the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile.
It also provides some specialized instruction and advice for Ukrainian commandos.
Mozart would be a natural conduit for U.S. military support, he said, but when he tries to contact American military officials in Western Europe, through both official communication and back channels, he receives no response.
“Every time we reach out, we get rebuffed,” he said. “They are so afraid that something bad is going to happen and it will look like it was the purview of the government. We are persona non grata.”
But the United States is wise to be cautious, said George Beebe, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Russia analysis and the director of the Quincy Institute, a nonpartisan foreign policy research institution.
“Just as in Vietnam, the risk is that we get inadvertently drawn deeper and deeper in, one small step at a time,” he said. “The difference is the stakes are higher in Ukraine. It would be much easier for the United States and Russia to get into a direct conflict that could quickly turn very serious.”
Few ever contemplated that Vietnam could grow into an enormous war, he noted. U.S. involvement started with a group of 300 soldiers in 1955 who trained South Vietnamese soldiers to respond to what some U.S. officials at the time called “a minor civil war.” Slowly, the United States committed more men and more fire power — decisions that, at the time, seemed not just reasonable but necessary, Mr. Beebe said.
Americans began accompanying South Vietnamese platoons on missions, then supporting them with aircraft. As the effort grew, so did the American troop presence. Finally, a 1964 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin drew the United States directly into the war, eventually leaving 58,000 Americans dead without achieving any strategic goals.
“I’m not saying escalation in Ukraine is automatic,” Mr. Beebe said. “But the danger is that we start crossing over red lines before we even know where they are.”
There are, of course, clear differences between Southeast Asia in 1961 and Eastern Europe today.
The government in South Vietnam at the time was unpopular, wracked by corruption and facing a communist uprising in the countryside. Ukraine’s president enjoys high approval ratings in a country united against the Russian invaders.
But just as in Vietnam, Mr. Beebe said, the United States is now forced to choose between only bad options, trying to support an ally without antagonizing a powerful foe.
Americans on the front lines say that Russia is stoking a broader conflict and that the United States has little choice but to respond.
Both Mr. Milburn and Mr. Blackburn said the United States should respond more aggressively and needed to send more sophisticated, medium-range weapons.
Mr. Blackburn said he understood the caution of the United States but felt it was misplaced because caution would only encourage Russian aggression.
“They are destroying whole cities, killing civilians indiscriminately. If that’s not escalation, what is?” he said. “I don’t see this so much as being like the years before Vietnam. To me, it’s more like the years before World War II. People are going to wonder, looking back, why we didn’t do more sooner.”