Hartselle resident Andy Tai Huynh was a U.S. Marine for four years with a determination to serve and protect, and that same determination has him leaving for Eastern Europe on Friday with the intention of joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
Tai Huynh, 27, remembers reading news articles about the Russian invasion of Ukraine as it began in February.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that gut feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Tai Huynh said. “Two weeks after the war began, it kept eating me up inside and it just felt wrong. I was losing sleep. ... All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
The veteran said he had to make a choice between finishing the rest of his second semester at Calhoun Community College, where he majors in robotics, and flying out to Krakow, Poland, this week.
“My school semester ends the first week of May,” Tai Huynh said. “I thought about waiting until after the semester is over (before leaving), but the more I thought about it, it just feels bad to be doing nothing at this point.”
Tai Huynh enlisted in the Marines when he was 19 years old and served for four years, serving on a base in Okinawa, Japan, for two of those years. He achieved the rank of corporal.
Tai Huynh has never been in active combat but said he still remembers survival and combat training from his time in the Marines and hopes the foreign legion accepts him.
Tai Huynh was born and raised in Orange County, California, to Vietnamese immigrants and moved to Hartselle two years ago to be closer to his fiancée, Joy Black, whom he had been dating long distance.
Tai Huynh said the breaking point was when he read about Ukrainian youths being drafted into service to fight in the war.
“Right when they turned 18, they were forced to enlist in the military to defend their homeland,” Tai Huynh said. “Honestly, that broke my heart. I would say that is probably the moment where I decided that I have to do something.”
Tai Huynh said one of the reasons he joined the Marines was so that others “didn’t have to.” He said he is willing to risk his life defending the citizens of Ukraine.
“I made my peace about it a couple of weeks ago,” Tai Huynh said.
Tai Huynh said his church has assisted him in finding contacts in Poland that will help him get to Ukraine.
Both Tai Huynh and Black attend Trinity Free Presbyterian Church where Myron Mooney is the pastor.
“He’s got such a huge heart,” Mooney said of Tai Huynh. “He’s just really brooding over the people that are suffering.”
Mooney said Tai Huynh approached him three weeks ago and informed him of his decision to become involved in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
“He said, ‘Pastor, I have got a burden from God to go and help however I can help in Ukraine for at least a year,'” Mooney said.
Service in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion is dangerous. On March 13, Russian missiles hit Yavoriv military base near the Polish border. As many as 1,000 foreign fighters were in training at the base. Ukrainian officials said 35 people were killed in the strike and 134 injured, but it had not confirmed any deaths among those in the Foreign Legion. Russia announced that it had killed "up to 180 foreign mercenaries."
As Russian forces continue their invasion in Ukraine, more and more people across the world are volunteering to fight in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. Mick Safron, secretary of the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council in San Francisco, estimated there were over 100 Americans that have volunteered so far.
Safron said he would like to see more volunteers from outside Ukraine because he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion will not stop at Ukraine's border.
“The Russian invasion in Ukraine is not just an invasion of Ukraine, it’s actually an invasion of Europe,” Safron said. “It’s an invasion to world democracy and freedom.”
Safron said he has heard of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion — also called the International Defense Legion of Ukraine — turning away volunteers who have no combat experience.
“(Ukraine) does not have enough capacity to train other people who come from all over the world,” Safron said.
Tai Huynh said if he is refused entry into the legion, he still plans to stay in Ukraine to find another way to help.
“I’ll definitely join some sort of humanitarian effort to provide aid if they turn me away,” Tai Huynh said.