Meet Matthew VanDyke, Former U.S. POW Training Ukrainians to Fight Russia

Matthew VanDyke, an American who’s coaching Ukrainian civilians to struggle Vladimir Putin’s military, started his work serving to folks in conflict zones to defend themselves after his journalist associates James Foley and Steven Sotloff have been captured by Islamic State militants in Syria and brutally beheaded on digicam in 2014.

Their savage killings shocked VanDyke, who had hung out as a prisoner-of-war himself in Libya just a few years earlier, and impressed him to arrange Sons of Liberty International (SOLI), a non-profit safety contracting agency that trains threatened civilian communities to defend themselves.

“After they were killed, I thought about what I could do to have an actual impact on the conflict and that was sort of the catalyst for start starting Sons of Liberty International,” VanDyke instructed Newsweek.

After Foley and Sotloff’s deaths, VanDyke bought in touch with a Kurdish pal in Iraq who put him in contact with Iraqi Assyrian Christians who have been trying to begin a drive to struggle the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS.

“The Iraqi-Syrian community had had their land abandoned when ISIS attacked. The Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] and the Iraqi army had just run away and they had woken up with ISIS in their backyards. So this was a group that was a persecuted minority that needed help and nobody was going to help them,” VanDyke stated.

VanDyke, a documentary film-maker from Baltimore, Maryland, later travelled to the area and ran a covert coaching program for the group, marking the genesis of SOLI.

VanDyke, 42, initially got here from an instructional background and had spent a few years touring North Africa and the Middle East since 2007, after learning the Arab world on the University of Maryland.

But his life took a brand new flip whereas he was touring in Libya in 2011, when he ended up becoming a member of the insurgent fighters within the nation’s civil conflict, opposing the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. In March 2011, VanDyke was ambushed in Brega and brought prisoner, spending a few of his time in solitary confinement. He escaped in August that yr, persevering with to talk up in help of the Arab Spring.

Fighting in Ukraine

Today he’s based mostly in Ukraine, coaching civilians who’ve signed as much as struggle the Russian military because it launched the invasion in opposition to its neighbor on February 24. VanDyke has been working with the Territorial Defense Forces, a navy reserve of the Ukrainian military made up of civilians.

SOLI’s position is be a “force multiplier”, he stated, by serving to these folks be efficient on the frontline, the place they’re more likely to find yourself.

“I can bring in 10 or 20 of my guys, and we can train thousands of Ukrainians very quickly and very competently. And we can also train Ukrainians to become trainers themselves so that Ukraine can tap all the manpower that they have. Because they’re not allowing men of military age to leave the country, they have a reserve of millions of potential soldiers, but they have no way to train them.”

“Their military is at the front so they’re not able to train them. If we don’t train them, they’re not going to get trained.”

VanDyke began a coaching program within the western metropolis of Lviv on April 18 and plans to coach fighters within the capital Kyiv and in jap Ukraine, nearer to the frontline of the Russian offensive. The coaching covers an array of various areas, together with marksmanship and navy technique.

Matthew VanDyke
Matt VanDyke, 42, is coaching Ukrainian civilians who’ve enlisted to struggle Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine.

VanDyke intends to broaden this system. “Everywhere where there’s a need, we will expand with more teams so really the only real limit to our capability is our funding, and making sure that we have the right personnel because we’re highly selective. We take less than 1 percent of applicants,” VanDyke stated.

SOLI is totally funded by donations, and has obtained purposes from a whole lot of individuals wanting to assist practice Ukrainian forces. VanDyke says coaching expertise is vital when contemplating candidates, as a result of “a soldier doesn’t always make a good trainer.”

As properly as typical references and prison background checks, VanDyke gauges their causes for wanting to affix the battle and what the applicant does in civilian life.

‘Thinkers not set off pullers’

Working for SOLI is totally different to the standard American or European navy expertise, he stated.

“We operate more in a way like Green Berets operate in the U.S. Army, kind of separate from the main force, way outside the wire is the term—where we’re relying on ourselves and on the force we work with.”

SOLI trainers vary from ex-U.S. Special Forces officers to “highly motivated” younger marines, in addition to former Air Force pilots.

“I try to recruit people that are thinkers not trigger pullers,” VanDyke stated. “What matters to me most is intellect, problem-solving skills and thinking outside the box.”

SOLI Ukraine training
Former civilians turned fighters practice with Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) to struggle the Russian military in Ukraine.
Matthew VanDyke

In the coaching, VanDyke has met Ukrainians from various backgrounds. They embrace IT specialists, taxi drivers, and workplace employees, and a few of these have proved to be “diamonds in the rough” when it comes to navy potential.

“You never know who’s going to be the best fighter, the best shooter…who’s going to command the respect of their peers and emerge as a leader,” he stated.

More than 20,000 international volunteers have reportedly headed to the conflict zone to affix a Ukrainian Foreign Legion preventing the Russians. Many of them are Americans.

“Part of the issue with Americans that are just running over here on their own and wanting to go to the frontline and thinking that they’re going to contribute is Ukrainians now—the Ukrainian army—has more experience fighting a conventional war against Russia than any other people on earth by now,” VanDyke stated.

Ukraine is totally different to the standard Afghanistan and Iraq expertise many Western navy personnel have had the place they have been preventing insurgents, slightly than a contemporary military.

An extended conflict

He believes the conflict will drag on for much longer than many anticipate. Ukraine up to now has primarily been on the protection, which may give a military a bonus, VanDyke stated. But it is going to be a lot more durable for them once they have to return on the offensive to drive Russians out of their nation, particularly within the jap area of the Donbas, which is now the flashpoint of the battle.

“There’s a good chance that a lot of people right now in Ukraine who don’t think that they’re going to have to see combat are going to end up having to see combat,” he added.

VanDyke believes the conflict is at “a pivotal point” that was beginning to shift extra in Russia’s favor, however he has been inspired by the similarities he has seen between Ukraine and Libya when it comes to the willingness of civilians to struggle for his or her nation.

“They remind me of that, which makes me stay committed. I mean, we’re here in Ukraine until there’s no Russians left, no Russian occupation of any territory in Ukraine, including Crimea. So we’re fully committed as long as they want us to stay, we’ll stay.”

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