Skyler Gregg is a person of action.
When Donald Trump was elected president, Gregg moved to Poland to attend university.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, he joined the International Legion to fight alongside other volunteers from around the globe.
“I wanted to do something more than starting a fundraiser. I had a chance to do something about it myself,” Gregg told the Sounder from his Ukrainian hospital bed, where he is recovering from shrapnel injuries. “Russia is so blatantly flouting international law. It sets a really bad precedent for these authoritarian countries to just do what they want.”
Gregg grew up on Orcas, graduating with the 2018 high school class. He studied business administration at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, where many of his classmates were Ukrainian.
“It was interesting to me to see a side of Europe that most people don’t go to — the other side of the Iron Curtain. It was one of the best decisions of my life,” Gregg said.
Ukraine and Poland share a border and are the second and third largest Slavic countries, after Russia. Gregg began traveling regularly to Ukraine with friends and instantly felt at home.
“Everyone was so kind, it gave me the feeling that I used to have on Orcas — when you see people you don’t know but you’ve seen them around so much they are your kin. It’s a similar feeling,” he said.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched a military attack on Ukraine. According to the BBC, President Vladimir Putin’s initial aim was to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, thereby ending for good its desire to join the Western defensive alliance Nato. After a month of failures, he abandoned his bid to capture the capital Kyiv and turned his ambitions to Ukraine’s east and south. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky created the International Legion of Ukraine, consisting of foreign citizens wishing to join the resistance against Russian occupants.
“I was in eastern Washington when I heard the news,” Gregg said. “I was watching the American news and it was a little watered down. What I was seeing directly from my Ukrainian friends was really awful. It made me very upset and sad.”
He joined the legion shortly thereafter and flew out of the United States at the end of March. Gregg spent a week in Poland to “say goodbye to all of my friends in case I didn’t see them again.” He crossed the border into Ukraine on April 1 and celebrated his 23rd birthday in a hostel in Lviv. Then he began the arduous task of finding where to begin his service.
“There is such an influx of people volunteering for the legion that all of the lines at the Ukrainian Embassy were busy,” he said. “I drove around looking for it but it’s the location is secretive now because there had been a missile strike on a major training facility.”
Gregg found a police station, where he had to wait for hours in a bunker after an air alarm sounded. Eventually, he connected with a police officer, who vetted him to ensure he wasn’t lying about his identity and intentions. He was picked up by a van to go to a secret processing location, where he was vetted again. Gregg spent a few weeks at the training center to undergo medical training and learn the basics of the Ukrainian language. During his time there, a Russian spy was discovered.
“We didn’t know if there was going to be another missile strike,” he said.
Gregg and his squad relocated to a training camp in the woods, where soldiers of a variety of nationalities slept in tents in the freezing cold. His squad was dispatched to the northeastern city Kharkiv, which was surrounded on three sides by Russian forces. Gregg says they originally came to distribute supplies to civilians but then “pushed the Russians back almost to their border.”
“Males aged 18 to 60 aren’t allowed to leave the country. I have seen what happens when villages are occupied by the Russians. They have torture chambers for civilians and they execute them. No one is safe,” Gregg said. “We liberated one village and hearing their stories from when Russians were there — it’s terrible. They are not treated like humans.”
His squad set up on the Dnieper River, which is about a mile wide and runs north to south through the center of Ukraine and into the Black Sea. The soldiers were a kilometer away from Russian positions on the other side of the river.
“We were watching each other and marking our positions for our drone teams and calling in artillery if we had to,” he said.
At the end of May, a drone dropped explosives on Gregg and his comrades while they were eating dinner in an outdoor cooking area on land that locals had permitted them to use as a base. Shrapnel ripped open his forearm and lodged in his leg.
“My friend was also hurt but I wasn’t able to administer aid to him because of my injuries. But I got the radio and called for help. There was no point where I had time to think about: ‘Am I going to die?’” he remembered. “We weren’t cautious enough. We were cavalier. We were living a normal life when we weren’t on combat missions.”
Gregg was sent to a military hospital and then transferred to a facility farther from the front lines. Over the past two weeks, he’s undergone multiple surgeries and been connected to a negative pressure wound therapy machine.
“They don’t tell me much about what’s going on in the hospital. Not many people speak English,” Gregg said.
He is slated to be dispatched from the hospital soon and will return to the eastern side of Ukraine to reunite with his squad.
“For me, I started out to do something and I just need to finish it for myself,” he said. “This war is the most documented war in history. I had seen what it was — so I did know what to expect.”
Gregg recommends the following for those wishing to make a financial contribution.
“This one is specifically for our squad,” he explained. “We have some problems with cars because some were destroyed and we don’t have enough to evacuate everyone at once.”