GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Ever since Ukraine went under attack from Russia on Feb. 24, many people across the world, including here in West Michigan, have been looking for ways to help. Bars and restaurants have removed Russian vodka from their shelves, while others have stepped up to send medical supplies to the region.
Jeff Anderson, the assistant wrestling coach at Grand Valley State University, plans to donate in a different way — by joining the International Defense Legion of Ukraine.
“Someone picks on your brother, what are you going to do?" said Anderson. "You’re going to go fight for them. It’s like they’re picking on my second family, my second country.”
Anderson doesn't have any Ukranian blood himself, but his connection to the country runs deep.
“My friends are like, ‘Jeff, you're half Ukrainian, half American,'" he told FOX 17. "My mentality, my my nature, my culture, the way I was born.”
Anderson spends a great deal of time in Ukraine, constantly traveling there to train for professional wrestling tournaments. His girlfriend. Kateryna Malinevska, has also lived their her whole life.
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She's one of nearly three million people who's fled the country, safely making her way to Poland last week. However, hundreds of others are not as fortunate. Innocent civilians, including children and pregnant women, have died at the hands of Russian forces.
“I mean, how disgusting is that?" said Anderson. "This goes beyond war, and beyond right and wrong.”
Anderson said he's been brought to tears by the shocking images and updates from the region. So, when Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created the International Defense Legion of Ukraine, Anderson knew he had to join the fight.
“I don’t want to do it," he said. "I’m not a fighting person. I'm a sports guy. I'm a peaceful man. But if you put someone in a corner, like a dog — put a dog in a corner, you're going to fight back. Right?”
The legion is a regime made up of people from all across the world, willing to help defend the country. You must be a veteran to join the fight.
Before becoming an assistant wrestling coach at GVSU, Anderson served in the Army from 1984-1987, stationed overseas and delivering special equipment throughout the region.
Now, 35 years later, Anderson hopes to use his experience to head back overseas and help Ukraine.
“Will they put me on the front lines? I highly doubt it," said Anderson. "I’m probably too old. But can I drive a truck? Can I take transports? Can I bring stuff where it needs to go? Yes, I can.”
Typically, foreigners would need a visa to enter the country, but that requirement has been suspended as long as the war continues.
There is a seven-step process people like Anderson need to go through in order to be approved.
1. Apply to the Embassy of Ukraine in your country with the intention to join the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine.
· How to apply: Go to the Embassy, either in a neighboring country or in your own; make a phone call; send an email
2. Specify what documents and clothing (equipment) you need or are recommended to have.
· internal document;
· passport to travel abroad;
· documents confirming your record of military service (service in law enforcement agencies) and participation in the combat;
· other documents as requested by the Defense attache or Consul.
3. Arrive at the Embassy with documents for an interviewvi
4. Submit an application to enlist for voluntary contract-based military service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine
5. Get instructions on how to travel to Ukraine, with the necessary documents and equipment.
It is recommended, if available, to bring your military kit such as:
· clothing or its elements
· body armor
6. Travel to Ukraine in a defined way. Representatives of Ukrainian Embassies, Consulates (abroad) and territorial defense in Ukraine will provide assistance on the way.
7. Upon arrival to the collection point in Ukraine, join the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine (sign the contract) and engage the Russian occupiers together with fighters from all over the world and Ukrainian soldiers.
Anderson will be flying into Poland for his interview with the Embassy of Ukraine there on Mar. 23. There are few other details Anderson can discuss at the moment, considering foreign fighters have a target on their head right now. Still, that's not stopping him from joining the fight.
“Unfortunately, what they don’t realize is we’re Americans," he said. "We don't deter. We continue to drive forward. This stuff doesn't scare us. It just motivates us. This is Putin’s mistake.”
Anderson said it wasn't an easy decision. As much as he loves Ukraine, most of his family is here in America. He said they're all worried for his safety and his life.
To Anderson, this isn't just the right thing to do, it's the only thing to do.
He won't be doing it alone — 20,000 people from 52 different countries have reportedly joins the legion.