Exclusive: Why this Army vet who served 3 tours in Iraq is now fighting in Ukraine

Luke Kuennen
ByLuke Kuennen
Updated onMay 10, 2023 1:38 PM PDT
13 minute read
matthew parker soldier in ukraine

SUMMARY

This isn’t Army veteran Matthew Parker’s first rodeo. He’s been in and out of Ukraine multiple times since the beginning of the conflict. Here’s why.

Matthew Parker pushes a luggage cart with three OD green sea bags piled on it through customs. His silver hair is cropped into a motivated high-and-tight, and a U.S. Army ruck is slung over one shoulder. His jaw rapidly clenches and unclenches, as do his muscular arms, covered with black and gray traditional and neo-traditional tattoos. 

It’d be difficult to cut a more conspicuous profile. A customs agent steps out of her booth. 

“May I ask what you gentlemen are doing in Poland?” Her tongue is literally in her cheek.

“Just passing through ma’am,” Parker replies cheerfully. He doesn’t slow down.

“To Ukraine?”

He nods.

 Still wearing the ironic expression, she eyes the sea bags rolling past her. They’re big.

“Do you have cash in there?”

“About 40 dollars.”

The agent allows herself a small smile. “Good luck, gentlemen.”

The officers surrounding her give us solemn nods as we pass. We pile our bags into a waiting compact sedan and jet to the hotel.

This isn’t Parker’s first rodeo. He’s been in and out of Ukraine multiple times since the beginning of the conflict, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for foreign soldiers with combat experience to join the fight against Russian aggression. A U.S. Army veteran with three tours in Iraq (two of them being combat deployments) under his belt, he felt as if Zelenskyy was talking directly to him.

When I ask why he joined the Army in 1990, his answer is deadpan.

“I'm a soldier – it’s genetics,” Parker said. “What else would I be? I was either going to pitch for the Red Sox or be a soldier. There was never a why.”

Other factors may have been at play causing Parker to come to this assumed foregone conclusion. His birth mother gave him up for adoption, leaving him at a local convent with Catholic nuns. His adoptive family had a long and storied history of military service, with nearly every male serving. 

Beyond having a resume that suited Zelenskyy’s call to action, Parker had personal reasons driving him into the conflict.

When he was still a sergeant in the U.S. Army, one of Parker’s troops was a Ukrainian immigrant with a disabled younger sister. Among other health problems, the young girl had a cleft palate. The condition’s corrective surgery is relatively simple, but her family lacked the means to travel to Poland for medical care.

Matthew Parker

Parker and the rest of his unit took up a collection, raising the money needed for travel and the procedure. The girl grew into a woman, sending letters and artwork to “Uncle Matt” over the years. 

She was a nursing student when she was killed by a Russian strike on a medical facility in Odesa.

“That was it for me,” he said gruffly as we sat in the lobby of our hotel. “I had to go in. I didn’t have a choice.”

The interview is interrupted when one of Parker’s two phones rings. He answers; it's the mechanic for one of the cars we’re supposed to take across the border. They converse for a moment before his second phone rings; this is one of his colleagues checking in on whether he’ll need a ride. He holds both phones up, one to each ear, and tries to talk briefly. Frustrated, he thrusts one of the phones into my hand. I chat with Vadim, a man I’d met in passing. He’s a weapons trainer on Parker’s team, and a former KGB Alpha Group assassin. He’s a nice enough guy. 

We find out that the car en route to pick us up has overheated, and we’ll need to go to the farm to diagnose it. He arranges another ride, and we find that the other vehicle we’re supposed to drive into a warzone has warped rotors, a busted a-arm and a dead battery.

After hooking up the battery to a tractor and jumping it, we limp the vehicles to a mechanic in Lublin. I'm behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Pajero that’s rattling, groaning and leaking coolant like a sieve. Parker drives the other SUV, and I watch it sway, pulling violently to the right every time he hits the brakes. We stop for fuel and fill the radiator with water before we arrive at the mechanic’s shop.

In many ways, Parker is as stereotypically American as they come; he’s friendly, frank, and possesses a forceful personality. Often, this runs in direct opposition to Eastern European sensibilities. When we arrive at the shop, he tells the mechanic the car must be done by tomorrow as if it were simply a matter of fact. The flash of anger on the mechanic’s face passes when he’s informed by our Polish interpreter that the cars are destined for military service in Ukraine. He concedes, saying he will do his best to have the issues shored up by the following day. 

Over dinner that evening, Parker tells me more of his service in Ukraine, beginning with the defense of Kharkiv.

“A lot of guys coming over here thought it was going to be like Iraq and Afghanistan,” Parker said, referring to the American comrades he served with in the early days of the war. "There, we had jets, we had artillery, we had everything. Brother, over here, who has the jets? The Russians. Who has the artillery? The Russians. They have everything. We were just getting the shit pounded out of us.”

Despite the mechanical superiority of the Russians, the Ukrainians were able to leverage the limited assets at their disposal to inflict devastating losses, Parker said.

“We only had a handful of Javelins (an American/British man-portable surface-to-air missile), but we made them work,” Parker said. “We’d kill the lead tank, kill the trail tank, all the tanks in the middle would pivot-steer and drive away.”

In the fierce fighting, Parker sustained a traumatic brain injury and a lower back injury. He returned to Poland to recover, where he was recruited by a Ukrainian legion minister to serve in a training and administrative capacity. Parker agreed to return after recuperating.

The next day, we find that only about half of the repairs to one of the vehicles have been made in the limited time we’ve given the small Polish Saab repair shop. It doesn’t matter. Parker is in a hurry.

He asks the mechanic if the SUV is safe to drive. The mechanic laughs. His English isn’t great. “Safe?” He shrugs. Parker pulls out an envelope full of hundreds, pays the man, and we take off.

We’re blasting through a Polish hamlet a few kilometers from the border when a police officer steps into the road and stops us.

He’s a younger guy, probably early 20s. He sighs and flips his radar gun around to show us how fast he clocked us — 85 km/hr. It’s about double the speed limit.

He takes a peek at our stack of bags, then consults the senior officer in the passenger seat of the squad car. He looks like he just woke up from a nap.

“Ukraine?” the older officer asks Parker.

“Yep.”

He raises his arms, imitating holding a rifle, then leans back as if firing. We get another “good luck” and are on our way scott-free.

We arrive at the border. There are two lines, both about a kilometer long. One consists of trailered junk cars from Poland, and the other is mostly civilians.

Parker gets out and chats with the guards. He waves for me to bring the car to the front of the line. After a quick discussion leaning heavily on charisma and flattery, our passports are stamped and we’re in Ukraine.

He laughs as we get back in the car. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten through.” It took us about 30 minutes. According to Parker, it’s typically a four to six hour wait. Jaw clenching and unclenching, left leg tapping repeatedly against the floor of the car, he pulls out his phone and lets about six people know that he’s arrived.

That night, we stay in the guest house of Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Lviv. When we arrive, the staff greet Parker as the dearest friend they’ve ever known. We share a small hostel-esque room, and before we go to bed, we watch drone footage from the battle in Bakhmut. 

There are four Russian soldiers approaching a Ukrainian trench system, pockmarked with craters from artillery. They totter through the mud clumsily with no apparent support. One of them takes a hammer pair to the face as he clears the edge of the trench. He writhes on the ground for a beat then is still.

People standing near a Ukrainian national flag watch as dark smoke billows following an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on March 26, 2022. - At least five people wounded in two strikes on Lviv, the regional governor said, in a rare attack on a city that has escaped serious fighting since Russian troops invaded last month. (Photo by Aleksey Filippov / AFP) (Photo by ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images)

 “Shit,” Parker says as he peers over his readers. “He’s dead.” His son calls him shortly afterwards, asking where the sprinkler lines are buried in their yard. 

The next morning, we meet with Mark to get tires and a quick alignment done on the SUV (the brakes would still have to wait). Mark is another former U.S. Army soldier. He’s tall, with a large C-shaped scar beneath his left eye and a soft smile. He’s lived in Lviv for five years and has a Ukrainian wife and young son. He teaches English at the local elementary school.

He chats with Parker whose phone is in his breast pocket, camera facing out. Mark reaches out and flips the phone around, flashing me a significant look that I’d come to understand better later. 

When we go for lunch, I ask Mark how to say thank you in Ukrainian. Parker scoffs. “Just say thank you. They’ll get it.” Mark’s soft smile returns. “Sometimes it’s okay to try to blend in a bit, Matt.”

Mark tells me how it’s pronounced. I repeat it under my breath: Dya-ku-yu. Across the street, there’s a baby-faced soldier with an enormous backpack waiting at the bus stop. He leans despondently against a wall, looking as though he’s seconds away from vomiting or perhaps crying. A soviet-era yellow bus with blue tasseled curtains picks him up and he’s whisked away while we eat.

The alignment finished and new tires on the car, we continue east, as does the chronology.

After recovering in Poland, Parker began conducting background checks and interviews for the legion, routing out the frauds and “Tik-Tok heroes” who have been well-publicized in the media – Americans with no military experience and no business in the warzone.

“There were a lot of fakes,” Parker said. “We had a lot of guys come over with fake DD-214s (a document outlining the terms of release from military service in the U.S.), and of course, they’re all special forces. It was ridiculous. So when I came in, they said, ‘Please get rid of all of the fakes.’”

Parker excelled. His next assignment was foreign volunteers, Ukrainian soldiers, police officers and Security Service of Ukraine personnel. By his own estimate, he and his team processed and trained 4,000 officers and soldiers in two months.

Along the way, Parker agreed to interviews with the media to help recruit volunteers into the legion. These repeated appearances in Ukrainian media were picked up on by Russian propaganda sites, and his fame (and notoriety) ballooned into an epic scale.

According to Parker, any foreign fighter earns themselves a bounty advertised by the Russian state. He’s gone out of his way to see how high he can jack up his own.

“One of the propaganda sites said I was worth $35,000, because I was intel. I was a spy,” Parker said. “They said I worked for the CIA. Like, where in the hell did you get that?  I said, ‘Okay, $35,000, that’s not bad. What can I do to get it higher?’”

Parker took to social media to stoke the flames. He posted photos of his training teams with antagonistic captions, bringing Russians into his comment sections.

He achieved his goal. At last check, his bounty sat at $46,000. 

Matthew Parker in Ukraine.

He also received hundreds of death threats, coming from Facebook, LinkedIn and Signal.

“I’ll tell you, some of these death threats are really good,” he said chuckling. “The grammar is excellent. They’re articulate. They don’t say things like, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ It’s things like: ‘You’re a mercenary, you’re a puppet of your government’s anti-Russian policy, I have to defend my nation against people like you. It’s unfortunate, I don’t want to have to hurt you.’’

Email also became a source for scores of death threats, and Parker said he replies to most.

“I say, ‘Thank you for emailing me, thank you for warning me that you’re going to kill me, could you please tell me the date and time?’” he said, laughing again. “Method, means? Would you like to meet for lunch first?”

Most times, these messages are undeliverable, meaning that Parker’s security team largely dismisses them. Others play along to the tune of civil, professional discourse, including email niceties like, “Thanks for the reply!” or, “It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in this predicament.”

Assessing the validity of these threats, the security team traces the IP addresses for the emails. They’ve found the majority of the threats originated from locations in Russia, Serbia and Belarus; some, however, were tracked back to the United States.

“The ones you get from the States are from colleges and universities where Russians are attending school.” Parker took a deep breath and paused. His flippant attitude was clearly shifting. 

“We had a 22-year-old Russian show up at my house. Pulled up in front of my house, taking pictures. My kid spotted him,” Parker said, his jaw clenching rapidly again.

Parker’s son called security, who questioned the young man. The issue is still under investigation.

We continue rattling through the Ukrainian countryside. Parker informs me we’re returning to the base where he’d had a vaguely-referenced dust-up with a colonel. I’m not sure what to expect.

As we arrive at the Yavoriv military base, we’re greeted by the familiar acrid smell of burnt-off cordite. A few of the buildings have the roofs blown off. Networks of trenches are dug through the wooded terrain, and soldiers drill and maneuver through them. Parker gets excited when he sees the obstacle course. 

“It’s calling my name,” he says, hunched over the steering wheel. “I need to get back out there and break some guys off.”

He then reveals to me that he’d previously been kicked off the base “basically in disgrace” due to an altercation with the Ukrainian colonel he abstractly referenced earlier. Again, I’m unsure of what our reception will look like.

As we approach the command compound, we’re met by a young conscript soldier named Misha. He beams and embraces Parker the second he steps out of the car, then greets me with a reserved nod and handshake. They catch up as they walk to the colonel’s office, who receives Parker with an air of formality. 

I quickly ascertain I have no place in this meeting. Instead, I ask Misha if I might chat with him over a cup of coffee. He agrees and is more than happy to extol the virtues of his friend.

“I care what no one says,” he began forcefully in his broken English as he poured me a cup from an electric pot. “To me, he is great guy. Kind, funny. If anybody ask me about Matthew, I say he made a great job here.”

It becomes clear that while amongst the officers on base Parker is generally vilified, to the enlisted conscripts, he is something of a folk-hero. Misha tells me of his own personal experience with Parker’s generosity. His mother, stricken with a chronic illness, had no money for her medication. Parker noticed something was off with Misha, and when he got the reason out of him, gave him enough money to pay for her medicine for a year.

This wasn’t an isolated instance, Misha said. Parker’s generosity is well-known within the unit.

“I know he give his own car to Ukrainians on the front right now—for free,” Misha said. “He buy Camelbak, headphones (hearing protection), and medical kit also, he give these to guys for free.”

Misha went on to say that while there are certainly a few bad apples coming from across the world to serve in the legion, he’s mostly pleased with the men fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainians. 

He shows me a photo of himself grinning with a foreign friend he’d made—a blond, middle-aged former British SAS operator. His face darkens as he pulls up another image of the same man, this one with a red X covering his eyes.

The image is from a Russian twitter account. It’s celebrating and advertising the death of the foreign fighter. I think about Parker’s bounty, and silently wonder if a Russian soldier collected the one on this guy’s head. I think about Mark flipping Parker’s phone in his pocket.

Misha sighs and shakes his head. We finish our coffee and return to find Parker and the colonel wrapping up their meeting. He shakes my hand stiffly and we get back in the SUV.

When I ask Parker how the meeting went, he gives a noncommittal answer. We fly past fields of pitch-black tilled soil, decrepit Soviet architecture, and colorful mosaic bus stops. The setting sun’s light reflects sharply against the golden domes of the Eastern Orthodox churches that frequently dot the landscape. 

In the hotel, I asked Parker what America’s vested interest in this fight is. The bravado and lighthearted indifference he maintains as a standard instantly evaporated.

“When Ukraine became independent and we convinced them to give up their nukes, we said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got your back,’” Parker said, referencing President Bill Clinton’s promise made to the Ukrainian people decades ago. He leaned back and the foot started tapping. The question clearly struck a chord. “The vested interest we have is feeding people. Democracy. Living up to our word. And when the Russians are bombing hospitals and they’re killing nursing students, and they’re killing newborn babies, that’s a crime on humanity. Fifty years ago, before the internet, you had countries on the other side of the world, no one knew anything about them. But now you have 24-hour news and CNN. Fifty years ago, we had an excuse not to care. But now, every day, I’m watching Russian bombs kill innocents. That’s our vested interest. That’s why we have to be here. We are a part of humanity. You know? We're either a part of this globe, a part of mankind, or we’re not.”

Back in the car, Parker fiddles with the radio, looking for some music “in f*****’ English.” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” crackles through. He grunts appreciatively, cranks up the volume, and begins to sing along. He’s got a pretty good falsetto. We make a semi-blind pass of three cars up a hill and the howl of the aggressive all-terrain tires spinning at 160 km/hr is momentarily drowned out by the chorus as we continue barreling east.

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