Fighting Spirit Vol. II


From The Lion to The Wheat-fields

“… so I volunteered and we walked out into this minefield to retrieve the guy’s body. We got it and carried it back, loading him into the Ukrainian’s vehicles. We were close to the Russian lines. You could see them a couple fields over just getting fucking lit up.”

Tristin Turner was one of the first Marines to help standup 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in 2015. As an infantryman, he would go to deploy with 3/4 as part of the Special Purpose - Marine Air Ground Task Force - Central Command that was operating in the Middle East from 2014-2021. Turner would be one of the few active duty Marines at that time to have the chance to deploy to a combat zone. Operations in the area at the time were extremely low for the American side as it was primarily an Advise & Assist mission for the coalition. Turner however was part of a small detachment that had gotten assigned to Special Operations Task Force - West (SOTF-W) as additional security for a SEAL team that was accompanying Iraqi Security Forces on their patrols and operations.

“I thought for sure this would get us some action, you know, that’s what most Marines want. We got spun up a few times while on their Immediate Response Force but it was always called off. I remember one time our sister platoon was in a Troops In Contact (TIC) and we were all jealous that they were getting action. I really started thinking then if this is what I really want to do for the rest of my life.”

The rest of the deployment went by without Turner getting the opportunity to prove his salt in the way warrior’s do, to be able to scratch the itch they all have. The lack of kinetic activity for him was certainly a nail in the coffin, but the final blow for him was bad news he received one month prior to rotating back to the United States from Iraq. He received a Red Cross message notifying him that his mother back home had committed suicide.

“That hit me hard and I remember thinking I wasn’t in a position where I was fit to lead, and if I wasn’t fit to lead I didn’t want to stay in.”

Tristin would end his active service once getting back to the United States, finishing his final months up and going on terminal leave in 2019. He played the civilian role for a few years and enjoyed parts of it, while missing others; the camaraderie, the brothers, the feeling of purpose and fulfillment. Those feelings would soon come back. Turner, like many veterans, paid close attention to the conflicts of the world, subconsciously watching and waiting. The world itself shifted its attention to the Russian-Ukrainian border as President Putin began his troop build-up. On February 24th, Russian troops would cross the border in multiple points of the country, initiating the invasion and subsequent Russo-Ukrainian War. Turner soon reached out to his friends who had similar feelings and drive. By March 26th, on the anniversary of his mother’s passing, Turner would be on his way to Ukraine by himself, to pave the way for the rest of his group.

“I didn’t go through Poland because some of the guys I already knew in the country said it was pretty hectic and at the time there was a lot of concern about Russian FSB or saboteurs near the borders, so I flew into Slovakia instead.”

Turner waited on the border for several hours as busses kept coming and dropping refugees off, he had to wait for a bus that was going back in which didn’t come for another eight hours. After his bus ride, he’d hop on a train to the capital, Kyiv. At the time Russian troops were attempting to encircle the capital from the north. Through a series of circumstance and lack he was able to meet a woman who had connections to the right people. In a matter of days Tristin was beginning a week long process of administrative work, documentation and processing to join an international unit which would fall under the Ukrainian SSO, their Special Operations Forces. Prior to departing the United States Turner had sold some of his guns and personal belongings in order to purchase quality kit and equipment he would need for his time in country. Others were afforded what they had in stock. This is when Tristin first began noticing the influx of international volunteers coming into the country.

“There were a lot of guys coming who had little to no military experience at all, plenty of guys who said they did but were also lying or exaggerating their service. 80-85% of these guys shouldn’t have been there. It was really bad and we had to vet these guys.”

Departing Friendly Lines

The Russians still occupied parts of Northern Ukraine when Turner began going out on his missions with his first SSO unit. One of his first missions landed him and his team near a minefield. A van with Ukrainian soldiers in it had driven into a field that Russians had mined as they began their retreat. The van struck a mine, damaging the front right of the vehicle. The driver and other passengers were fine and left the van uninjured, the front passenger however had his AK in between his legs with the barrel upwards, as the mine exploded his rifle and head came together, in a bizarre turn of fate his weapon discharged, firing a round into his head and killing him. Turner and his team would depart friendly lines in Kyiv and push north to Chernihiv every day, this particular day he would volunteer to recover the body.

“… so I volunteered and we walked out into this minefield to retrieve the guy’s body. We got it and carried it back, loading him into the Ukrainian’s vehicles. We were close to the Russian lines. You could see them a couple fields over just getting fucking lit up. It was darker out, so you could see the gunfire. We got this guy out of the field, loaded him up in one of the other Ukrainian vehicles and they took off. Our commander wasn’t anywhere to be found and we were just fucking stranded in hypothermic weather. I took my team and we began patrolling south just so we could find some shelter and also not be out at night. Night time is when a lot of blue on blue attacks happen. People get jumpy. Luckily we found some shelter until our commander rolled up, we were all fucking pissed at him.”

Turner didn’t stay with that unit for long due to his lack of confidence in his command. He would spend roughly a month with that SSO unit before being folded over to another SSO unit that was operating in the East. “Your commander is a fucking idiot and doesn’t want to fight. If you want to fight, come with us.” He remembers being told. Turner would operate in places like Kharkiv and Izyum in the four months to come. “Our first day in the east was pretty wild. The Ukrainians essentially had this factory they were using as a stronghold with the Russian lines not far away. I was on the rooftop observing, trying to conduct some surveillance when one of their T-72’s opened up and began lobbing rounds at us. They weren’t accurate at first, but we could tell they were walking the rounds in. Rounds started getting closer, me and my buddy started getting dirt thrown up onto us so we got the hell off the roof. We were down on one of the lower levels when I saw a Russian squad-sized element trying to flank the factory. I stuck my PKM through a slit in the wall and started dumping rounds into the squad while trying to communicate direction, size and location of the squad. I couldn’t confirm then but I’m pretty sure it was a forward observer team trying to redirect rounds because once we started engaging them we started to take indirect fire. The IDF was landing all around.”

Turner and his team would continue to stay in the area, the Russian squad sized element had been eliminated and the fire soon died down.

“The things I saw in the north really emboldened me in my decision to stay and fight in the east. When the Russians pulled out of areas we would move in and immediately find signs of war crimes. We would also uncover similar war crimes in the east. Houses would be destroyed after tanks intentionally drove through them, pharmacies and liquor stores had been completely looted, the Russians had looted grocery stores, convenience stores, essentially everything they could. Villagers had been taken by the Russians. Men were generally executed, women were often raped but men, women and children alike shared company in shallow graves. Throughout my few months there I had encountered at least 15 shallow graves with people who appeared to have been executed.”

Turner’s experiences would mold him in ways he hadn’t experienced in the Marine Corps. He, and others like him, are some of the rare Americans, especially American veterans, to be engaged in direct combat with conventional Russian soldiers, Russian Wagner mercenaries and Chechens fighting for Russia. He would also have a unique opportunity to work with the Ukrainian GUR, the Defense Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. During this team he worked in interdiction of Russian separatists or Ukrainians who were actively providing information to Russian forces as well as Russian saboteurs. He also experienced the extensive use of drones in modern war. Drones began making a heavy appearance in the Global War on Terror but they have been used both unconventionally and conventionally in the War in Ukraine as well as a wide array of drone platforms in itself. This has been the opening shots and for lack of better terms, an experimental phase of drone use.

“I was on my last week there. You know how it is, dumb shit always happens on deployment right before you leave. We were doing a reconnaissance patrol one day when a fucking 152mm round slammed into the pavement close to us, so we got the fuck out of there before they corrected. Now that we’re talking about this, all these memories are coming back. I really miss those guys. I do want to go back, but now’s not the right time. A couple memories I forgot to mention though… we had a Canadian with us who actually managed to shoot down an Su-34 with a Stinger. It was such a lucky shot but he had just the right angle and ripped it, the Stinger happened to clip the Su-34’s right wing enough that sent it spiraling down. The pilot ejected but didn’t survive, we saw the video of crash filmed from the Russian perspective on Telegram about a week later…

We were also conducting a patrol when we were stuck in a close ambush. I remember hearing voices and I stopped, looked up to see a face in the trees move. Prior to this op we had been brief that ‘anything east of this line is Russian’ and the tree-line separated that line for us on the map. I didn’t even think, I flipped on automatic and dumped an entire magazine into the treeline. Our patrol did a turn and burn with whoever was in the trees returning fire to my initiation. That was probably the nuttiest engagement of my time there just considering proximity and severity of the firefight. Both sides exchanged heavy gunfire as well as frag grenades but we ended up breaking contact.”

Turner has since returned to the United States and is pursuing his path in the civilian world though he mentions often that he misses his brothers from both the Marine Corps and those he bonded with in Ukraine. He mentions that he would go back if the situation permitted it or “his boys really needed him” but emphasized that a good friend of his who stayed in Ukraine has control of the team as they now operate with the International Legion of Ukraine. “They’re in good hands.”

Semper Fidelis