Published in The Greanville Post. »
Everybody in the Novorossiyan Armed Forces (NAF) has a callsign, a code name to be used at all times instead of your real name. I had given some thought to what mine would be, and had chosen the name “Witco” in honor of one of my personal heroes, Crazy Horse. His name in the Lakota language is “Tashunka Witko” and in Lakota, the word “Witko” means “Crazy”. A perfect name, or so I thought. When I said that was what I wanted for my callsign, the soldier filling out the paperwork hesitated and looked confused. Orion, who was doing the interpreting, told me that name would probably be hard for Russians to pronounce, and maybe I should choose another one. I thought for a moment and said, “OK, how about ‘Texas’ “. It worked.
It is pronounced in the Russian fashion, which is very similar to the way the Indians and Mexicans pronounced it – “Tay-HASS”, though sometimes when I get a girl giggling with delight she will change the accent and say “Oh, TAY-hass”. Many commanders and soldiers in the NAF have code names that are geographical places or features – Volga, Baikal, Olkhon. So “Texas” was a good choice, and as someone pointed out, Texas is one of the few states in the US that every Russian has heard of. Good thing I wasn’t born in New Hampshire. It probably wouldn’t be the same…
Shortly afterwards, we loaded ourselves and all our gear into a van for the trip to Yasynuvata, a small town about 20 kilometers from Donetsk. This is where the basic training center for Battalion Vostok was located. As we drove, we passed through several checkpoints and saw signs of recent battles, including a blown up bridge. As we turned off the main road, our driver pointed to the north and casually mentioned we were now in a combat zone and the Ukrainian Army was in positions about 2 km away. Well within range of tank and BMP guns. It was looking like the training we were going to get would be “OJT”, On the Job Training. And it was.
As we pulled into town, we came up to another checkpoint, manned by the new recruits from Vostok boot camp. Three guys with AK-74’s and one with a PKM machine gun stopped all traffic going in and out of town. Checking papers, opening trunks, and generally looking for Ukrop “diversants” (recon/sabotage units). With the Ukrop positions about a mile away, it was serious business. We passed through the checkpoint and shortly came to Vostok Boot Camp – an old train repair facility, surrounded by a stone wall topped with razor wire, with two more armed guards at the gate. We entered the compound and drove to the back. The first thing we saw when we got out of the van was artillery hole from an 82 mm mortar in the roof of the dining hall, and the very first thing we were shown was where the cellar / bomb shelter was. Then we were taken to the barracks.
Army barracks are not generally known for their opulence, and Vostok Boot Camp wasn’t either. In fact, it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life up to that point, and it wasn’t the training that was hard, it was the conditions. We were crammed into a medium sized conference room that had about 40 ancient Russian Army cots with about 14 inches of space between each one. It was now cold outside, being Russia in December, so the windows stayed closed, and the smell of 40 soldiers who bathed once a week took some getting used to.
The food could only be described as horrible, and it was the same exact thing, every meal, every day – vegetable (and by “vegetable” I mean mostly potato) soup and Kashka, a cracked wheat dish with only a hint of meat. Tea was the constant drink, strong and very sweet. We washed our bowls and cups in dishwater a regular person would not wash their work boots in. It was crazy.
The toilet was a shit-encrusted shit hole of a hole, a hole in the floor that led to a hole in the ground, that was full of shit. An outhouse without a seat that had seen its better days. Like something from a Robert Rodriguez movie. And the smell there also took getting used too. It was outside, cold and dark, and you really had to watch where you stepped. So, I tried to spend as little time there as possible. I would eat only a little of the horrible food, and then have to shit only every 3rd or 4th day.
The bathing facilities were opened once a week – a Russian “Banya” with a steam room and birch branches for flaggelating yourself till you got clean. The Ukrops had bombed the water pumping station and every time we would get it fixed, they would bomb it again, so there was no running water. We got our water from nearby wells in the yards of abandoned homes. And I mean the kind of wells you see in fairy tales – with the little roof, the bucket on a chain and a crank. We got all the water for about 200 people from those wells every day. And carried it back in 20 liter milk cans.
Most of the new recruits were completely flat broke, and every time I went outside for a smoke, I would smoke one and give 5 away. For a while, I thought my new name in Russian was “Dait cigarette”, “Give me a cigarette.” But how could I refuse? These were my new comrades, some of whom I would soon be in battle with, and besides, why not pass them out? I am a Communist. I had about $3,000, and I did not expect to live to see the Spring.
I spent 3 years in the US Army, back in the early 80s, and 3 months of that was basic training. Basic training in the Novorossiyan Army was two week long. I fired a total of 12 bullets through an AK-74, (of which 10 hit the head-sized target from 100 meters.) We did PT every morning, and the first day, I puked 4 times, but I did not quit. I was 54 years old, fat and out of shape, running around with badass Novorossiyan Partisans less then half my age. But I did not quit. There were about 200 of us there, half new recruits, and half veterans who rotated between tours at the airport and training the new guys. December 2014 and January 2015 were the times of the hardest fighting at the airport. The guys who came back from the airport always had that haunted look. The airport was the grinder where all of us were going, but from which not all of us would return.
Our second week of basic training consisted of two six hour shifts per day, (noon to 6 PM, and then midnight to 6AM) manning checkpoints and guard positions. It was pretty serious business. Two guards at a checkpoint about 1 km from ours were found with their weapons gone and their throats cut just a few weeks earlier. We had a 3 man team – Orion, who spoke Russian and English, and Toro and I who spoke English and Spanish. I got the PKM,(1) and I kept it loaded and I kept it close. We spent Christmas Eve, from midnight to 6AM at our checkpoint, the same one we had come through less than 2 weeks earlier. It was getting cold, but we stayed on our toes. The local civilians really appreciated what we were doing, and would bring us tea, pastries, and sometimes a shot of vodka.
One night, a car with 4 guys in it pulled up kind of late. Orion asked the driver for his papers and then said to me in English “They are state cops”. “Cool,” I said, “Let’s have them get out and open the trunk.” And they did, because the guy with the PKM said so. And it was legit, because not all the cops in Donetsk Oblast are loyal to the people of the DNR. But I could not help thinking about how back in my old home state of Texas, the goddamned state police, called the “Department of Public Safety”, often do roadside cavity searches, looking for small amounts of drugs. That shit don’t fly in the DNR. Take a lesson from it. Here, the People’s Army search the cops. And so we did. It was a most satisfying experience.
During my training, I had earned a reputation as a good soldier, and I was approached by a couple of snipers from Суть Времени (pronounced “Soot Vremeny”, which in Russian means “Essence of Time”). Both snipers spoke Spanish. So did I. Alfonzo was from Colombia, and Mars was a Russian volunteer. Both were combat veterans, and Mars was considered to be one of the deadliest snipers in the Novorossiyan Army. Over a clandestine bottle of wine in the officer’s dining hall, we discussed political philosophy and military experience. Yes, I was a Communist, yes, I had military training from the US Army, and yes, I had some combat experience from a couple of incidents in Mexico. Would I like to join Суть Времени? Of course. But it would be a package deal, with Orion and Toro coming too. When I told Orion about it, that a couple of snipers from an elite unit of Vostok Battalion had invited us to join, he was enthusiastic. I actually mispronounced the name, saying “Sud Vremeny” instead of “Sut Vremeny”. “Sud Vremeny” in Russian means “Judgement Day”, which sounded like a cool name. We were all in. I did not know much about Суть Времени when I joined, only that they were highly regarded as warriors, Communist, and at least a couple of them spoke Spanish, so I could communicate with them. And that was enough for me.
(I have since learned quite a bit about the Essence of Time Movement, and am very proud to be a member. I agree completely with their goals and methods and truly trust and admire both the leadership and rank and file members. I truly believe it was destiny that brought me to this group, and I fully intend to maintain my membership for the rest of my life. It is a group that has the potential to change the world for the better. You can learn more about it here.)
During my two weeks at Yasynuvata, I had contracted a bad respiratory infection, a hacking cough with the neon mucous that has that hideous sweet taste when you spit it out. I was given some medicine by the medic, but it had little effect, so I just worked through it. Orion caught the same cold, and his was bad enough to be taken to the hospital back in Donetsk. Mine was just as bad, but I declined the hospital trip. Which meant I was going to the airport within the next 48 hours. I traded in my PKM for an AK-74 and four 30 round magazines. I was asked if I wanted a helmet and bulletproof vest. Well… Hell, yeah I did! I still had no idea what I would be facing at the airport, but I knew I was going to be getting shot at. I was given a marginal helmet with a broken chin strap, and an excellent Class IV steel vest, and told to be ready to leave at any time.
On the night of December 30th, I was told to be ready to go at 4AM the following morning. Orion, my only interpreter, was in the hospital, Toro would remain in Ysynavata for further training, and Alfonzo and Mars would not be returning to the airport for several days. I was on my own. I was going to be spending New Year’s Eve at the Donetsk Airport with a machine gun in my hands, and there were sure to be fireworks.