For an unconventional former Marine colonel, Ukraine represents the morally just war that eluded him his entire career. But how much can he and his military start-up help?
By Jeffrey Gettleman
Oct. 9, 2022
The New York Times
SOLEDAR, Ukraine — “Please, come with me.” He was begging. He didn’t have much time. The Russians were blasting this town in eastern Ukraine with rockets, airstrikes and thundering artillery. The ground shook. Andrew Milburn, a retired Marine colonel, could have been hanging out at home, 6,000 miles away in the Florida suburbs, enjoying retirement. Instead he was standing in Soledar, a town under fierce assault, black smoke filling his nostrils, staring at a Ukrainian woman he had never met, pleading with her to evacuate. “Please,” he tried again. “You will die here.”
The woman had long gray braids and a face etched by countless sorrows. When she refused to leave, Mr. Milburn nearly exploded with frustration. “The next people you’re going to see here are going to be Russians,” he said. “Come on!” he yelled to the other men with him. The three piled into a car, slammed their doors and sped away in a cloud of dust, off to find others willing to be saved.
For Mr. Milburn, the road to Soledar began in Somalia. For more than 30 years, he served in some of America’s biggest foreign policy blunders, sent to fight in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he didn’t particularly believe in, with partners he didn’t trust, in causes that were ultimately losers and from the position of a reviled occupier. With his short gray hair, stocky build and clean shave, Mr. Milburn, 59, still carries himself like a soldier. And just as the conflict in Ukraine has become part of America’s journey, it’s become part of his personal journey as well.
After showing up in Poland last winter as a freelance journalist, he has built one of the biggest private military companies in Ukraine, The Mozart Group, and as the war has expanded in the past few weeks so has his repertoire of tactical services. The organization’s name was his saucy response to a Russian mercenary outfit that uses the name of another famous composer, the Wagner Group.
Mr. Milburn and his staff, mostly former special operations soldiers, are doing everything from rescuing civilians in the line of fire to conducting frontline training, nighttime training, officer training and workshops on the fineries of drone warfare.
Driven by the same pro-Ukrainian spirit that has put yellow and blue flags flying across the Western world, Mr. Milburn feels strongly that this is a just war. But there are other forces operating on him — boredom, guilt, his own sorrows and a quest for redemption, themes he explores, in quite searing detail, in a recently published memoir.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “our position was somewhat morally ambivalent; to many people there we were the invader. But here we’re repelling an invader. Here is something absolutely unambiguous. And how many wars in modern times are morally unambiguous?”
In many ways, Ukraine represents the kind of war that Americans of a certain vintage had been geared to fight: It’s a big conventional conflict, it’s against the Russians, and the mission lacks the murkiness of past wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what’s different — and extremely frustrating to Mr. Milburn and some other veterans — is what they see as America’s caution. The Biden administration has sent billions in support and equipment, like high-tech rocket launchers that have helped the Ukrainians rout Russian forces in many areas this past month. But fearful of provoking Russia, it is not offering its best weaponry or putting advisers on the ground.
Mr. Milburn wants America to go all in. Short of that, he has decided to deploy himself. “The alternative for me would be to be in the States just reading about this” and “being frustrated and angry,” he said. “I know we’re not changing the course of the war, but for the individual people we’re helping, like those we evacuate, it has a very direct impact.”
Though Mr. Milburn is not involved in the actual fighting, he is constantly risking his life. On a recent day in Soledar, he and his colleagues were nearly hit by Russian rockets. Minutes after that, as they were changing a flat tire that had been shredded by shrapnel, a fighter jet swooped down on them, shooting more rockets and sending them scurrying into the bushes.
He and his men admit there’s an adrenaline component to all this. “You’re always looking for it, right?” said one of Mr. Milburn’s trainers, an American sharpshooter named Rob. “You’re always wanting to be where it is.” For Mr. Milburn and Mozart — and many in the West, for that matter — Ukraine is it.
One afternoon earlier this summer at a riverside park outside of Kyiv, Mozart held a series of combat drills. The Ukrainian recruits, many of whom had never touched a gun before, were assigned with running around the park and surrounding one of Mr. Milburn’s trainers in a mock assault. Just a few yards away, ordinary people rode scooters and pushed baby strollers along the park’s shaded paths. It was the two Ukraines — the normal life people were striving to maintain, and the war that had been foisted on them — unfolding in the same place, at the same time, almost without recognition of the other.
The recruits moved fast and with enthusiasm. But they moved in clumps and didn’t seem to have a plan. “You just got killed about 100 times, by your own guys,” bellowed one of Mr. Milburn’s trainers, an enormous Estonian.
Ukraine has a pipeline of young people waiting to join the military, but in the words of one officer, Alexsi Oleksiuk, “All the Ukrainian instructors are on the front line, injured or dead.” This is where Mr. Milburn comes in. He has designed a course that compresses the basics of shooting, movement, communication and first aid into one week. Basically, he has five days to build an army.
His trainers come from 11 countries but most of his top people are Americans, like Rob, a former Marine reconnaissance soldier who didn’t want to disclose his last name for security reasons. Rob said he joined Mozart because “I don’t like oppression,” and, “If you’ve been in war, any war is interesting.”
At the park, Rob stood under a birch tree and listened as the Estonian trainer detailed the mistakes that the Ukrainian recruits had made during their drill: not using hand signals; not laying down cover fire; leaving one person by himself; advancing in the wrong formation, not an L-shape. “When I think of these guys going to war,” Rob said softly, “God help them.”
Mr. Milburn admits that a week is “hopelessly inadequate” to prepare someone for combat, but says it is better than nothing. He has no qualms about not being on the battlefield himself. Hundreds of American vets have joined international brigades or Ukrainian military units but, he said, “For me, that was never a question. Fighting the Russians might give us some satisfaction but it would achieve very, very little. With training, the effects are exponential.”
Rob, on the other hand, admitted he was struggling with his new role as a trainer and handing out humanitarian aid. “I mean, how do you want to go out?” he asked. “With a gun in your hands? Or a roll of toilet paper?”
Mr. Milburn, born in Hong Kong and half British, got his first taste of combat during the doomed intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. After some militiamen threatened his squad, he lined up a human being in his sights and, for the first time in his career but hardly the last, squeezed the trigger. “A primordial corner of our subconscious primes us to act aggressively in the face of danger,” he wrote in his memoir. “The knowledge that another human being threatens your survival will override, in an instant, years of parental guidance, education, religious observance and all the social trappings of civilized society.” “Shooting someone,” he says, “becomes shockingly easy.”
His book, “When the Tempest Gathers,” is unusually open for a career officer. One of the most moving passages centers on a bus ferrying Iraqi children. Mr. Milburn was stationed near a checkpoint when he relayed to the troops around him to let the bus pass. But there was a communication error and American soldiers opened fire.
He ran to the smoking wreckage and tried to save a young girl. He kept pressing a bandage to a cavernous wound in her stomach, knuckles deep in blood, even after a medic came up to him and said: “She’s done sir.” That girl becomes a symbol of the guilt he carries. “Over the years, others have joined her in my gallery of ghosts,” Mr. Milburn wrote. “But her face remains as clear as the day I last saw it.”
Marine commanders have praised his toughness. Bing West, a former assistant defense secretary and friend of Mr. Milburn, said, “Andy is the real deal.”
But Mr. Milburn admits that the trauma he has experienced and inflicted has made him “harder to deal with.” He has struggled with PTSD and has had drinking problems. After retiring from the Marines in 2019, he turned to writing, publishing widely, including in The Atlantic. “If I didn’t have an outlet,” he said, “I’d be like everyone else, drinking a six pack of beer and yelling
at the TV screen.” When he arrived in Ukraine in early March, it was as a writer for the military publication Task & Purpose, but he said he soon realized he could contribute more.
He started Mozart in mid-March. He set up an office in central Kyiv and began raising money. Some of his biggest donors are hedge fund managers from New York with Jewish Ukrainian roots. He has also received support from a humanitarian organization specifically to assist in evacuations. He employs more than 50 people and burns through $175,000 each month on food, fuel, equipment and stipends. “I don’t share the optimism that the tide is turning,” he said. “Unless there’s a game-changing factor, we’re going to see a war of attrition for more than a year.”
One day in late July, Mr. Milburn announced a mission to assist civilians. He called together his men in their basement office. “We’ve been told that Russian special forces are planning to kidnap Americans,” his financial officer said. He smiled and added wryly: “Try not to dress too American.”
The next morning, the Mozart team chugged out of Kyiv. Mr. Milburn looked hopelessly American: baggy blue T-shirt, gray cargo pants, big sunglasses. He sat in a loud, gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee with a hyper black dog panting in the back. The dog, a rescued mutt named Richie, had become Mozart’s mascot.
As they drove east, they passed convoys of Ukrainian soldiers being bused to the front and freshly dug trenches scarring the sunflower fields. They were headed to Marinka, another town under siege.
Marinka is a monument to war. The roads are cratered, the lawns terribly overgrown, the buildings blown apart. When the Mozart team arrived, a dozen beleaguered civilians staggered out from a basement shelter. Every few minutes, mortar shells landed nearby with a terrifying whomp.
Mr. Milburn stepped out of his truck, bent down with an effort and roped a leash around Richie’s neck. He walked the dog through piles of rubble, greeting civilians and turning his head side to side, scanning the ground for unexploded munitions. They were everywhere. The Mozart men passed out jugs of water and bulging plastic bags of bread. As Mr. Milburn looked on, he seemed content. He was firmly in his milieu, a combat zone, but this time it was his choice. He walked Richie under a cherry tree. A mother and daughter from one of the blown apart apartment buildings watched them. In her arms, the mother clutched two loaves of soft white bread. “I recognize the guy with gray hair and the dog,” she said. “He’s good.”
Jeffrey Gettleman is an international correspondent and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of “Love, Africa,” a memoir. @gettleman • Facebook