Matt Roe was devastated when he discovered that illness would prevent him from joining the Australian Army.
“It took me years to get over it…if I’ve done it before,” says South Australia landscaper.
“That’s all I wanted to do.”
But now Roe, 36, has found another – albeit illegal – way to engage in a military campaign, leaving Australia to join the Georgian National Corps, a unit formed to fight in support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
Roe is neither Georgian nor Ukrainian.
Growing up in Northeast Adelaide, he says he was “living the dream” in many ways, making good money owning a small gardening and landscaping business.
But when war broke out, footage and reports from Ukraine kept Roe up at night.
“It really ate me indoors sitting at home, you know…I drink beer and enjoy three day weekends while people visit [there] suffer.
Roe says he is someone who “thinks about it and isn’t afraid to take risks, and I have a strong sense of right and wrong.”
This wasn’t the first time he had felt compelled to volunteer to fight someone else.
“I wanted to do the same when the war with ISIS started – I was thinking of joining the Peshmerga [the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State] at that time.”
Roe says the photo has finally overcome any hesitation about going to Ukraine.
“There was a certain news video I saw of this family carrying this little girl – she was six or seven years old – and she was killed.”
“That was the moment I said, ‘Nothing, that’s it. “
“The Russians see me as a mercenary.”
Sarah Percy, associate professor in the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Relations, has researched and written extensively on the role of mercenaries and unconventional fighters. She says that men who sign up to fight abroad often find things very different than they had imagined.
“There is a very effective romanticization of war for young people, especially when it comes to an issue,” she says.
“Sure, when it comes to … Syria, you often find them arriving there very terrified by the reality of war.”
She says the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has all the hallmarks of a conflict that makes people fight for someone else”.
“There’s a clear attacker, there’s very charismatic leadership that responds, there’s a sense that ideals are really at stake, and important ideals – that’s what makes people want to leave.”
In March, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky announced the formation of an international corps, and tens of thousands of people responded from around the world, including about 200 Australians. Like Roe, some had little or no military experience, and some faced similar legal hurdles.
A British recruit said he was stopped at the airport on departure and said he might be arrested on terrorism charges upon his return, although the signals from the British government are vague. In February, Secretary of State Liz Truss said she would support anyone who volunteered to fight, but fellow Cabinet member Grant Shapps later stressed that doing so was illegal and warned potential volunteers not to risk making the situation in Ukraine worse.
Rowe traveled to Ukraine with 23-year-old Melbourne and met him via Reddit. Before leaving, he sold his landscaping business for “about 20% of what it’s worth”.
When they arrived, both were wearing several pounds of body armor, severely sleep-deprived and – despite concerted efforts to get out of the country undetected – known to the Australian government.
Australian law states that “entering a foreign country with the intent to engage in any hostile activity, except for service in or with the armed forces of the government of a foreign country” is a criminal offence, with penalties up to life imprisonment.
The State Department declined to comment on Roe’s case or apply the law to anyone who went to Ukraine to fight. The advice on the Ukraine page on the government website Smartraveller does not refer to the law, but simply says, “Do not travel.”
Dr. Carrie McDougall, an academic at the University of Melbourne and former deputy director of international law at the Department of Foreign Affairs, says the definition of a state’s armed forces is untested and could extend to the Georgian National Legion.
Even if the courts preferred a narrow interpretation, the crime would only be committed if the person intended or actually engaged in a “hostile activity” such as b- an attempt to overthrow a state’s government.
Any decision to prosecute will also require the consent of the attorney general, which means that the impact of the prosecution on Australia’s relations with Ukraine can be considered.
“I think a strong argument can be made that it would be the exception rather than the rule for someone fighting for the Ukrainian armed forces or an entity associated with it to be caught by Australia’s crimes against foreign invaders,” says McDougall.
Roe knows he has to think about what might happen if he wants to return to Australia, but says questions about the legality of what he’s doing “isn’t a top priority for me at the moment”.
“The most important thing for me at the moment is the victory of Ukraine.”
There is also a rather urgent issue for the Russians. The consequences of a lawsuit in Australia pale in comparison to the everyday risks in Ukraine.
At least one Australian who joined the International Corps was killed during the fighting. Tasmanian Mick O’Neill, who had no combat experience, died on May 24 when his unit was attacked by Russian mortars outside Kharkiv. Australian reported.
The prospect of being arrested is no less terrifying.
“[The Russians] Ro says. “Kills.”
At least two British men are reported to face the death penalty after being arrested in clashes with Ukrainian forces.
Missile attacks and untrained volunteers
Roe arrived in Ukraine at a critical time for potential foreign fighters.
Many left in a hurry after a missile attack on a base used by the fledgling International Corps just 10 kilometers from the Polish border.
“During this bombing raid, there were many people in the International Corps who laid down their arms and ran to the Polish border,” Rowe says. Some of them forgot to unload their bags and tried to cross the border with five hundred and six hundred rounds of ammunition.”
After that, the policy of the Ukrainian government changed dramatically: volunteers were welcomed, but they had to prove their courage before they were assigned to fight.
“We were all very upset,” Rowe says when he learned he wasn’t going to fight. “Some people… just left.”
The deer remained. He joined the Georgian National Corps and, despite his lack of experience, received training as a military instructor.
From then on, Rowe roamed the central regions of Ukraine training boys and men – often the only instructions they received before being sent to the front lines.
“You will say… How many people here have fired a pistol?” There are about 100 people there and two hands are raised,” Rowe says. “Unfortunately, we lost some of the people we trained. But it’s better than nothing… and you can see how different it makes.”
When Rowe reached Lviv in late March, Russia was still advancing northwest through Belarus with the goal of capturing Kyiv.
Lviv, the hub through which most aid flows into Ukraine, has been regularly bombed.
“For the first few days, when the siren went off, I noticed her and ran to this shelter,” Rowe says. But with time everything will become normal.
By the time the Guardian spoke with Rowe, Russia had launched its first missile strikes on Kyiv in about a month. He says his reaction is a far cry from those early days in the country.
Yesterday…we just went out. We went to a museum.
“There are sirens and the missiles go off… but you can’t just stay indoors, and a missile is as likely to hit someone when you are inside an apartment building as when you are walking around in Kyiv.”
“He’s doing something that seems right.”
Sarah Percy says her research shows that for those who go into combat there is often no easy path back to civilian life, and that exposure to war can have lasting effects on both individuals and those around them.
“One can certainly speculate whether this might lower people’s barriers to the use of force,” she says.
And while the current Royal Commission on Defense and Veterans Suicide has drawn more attention to the importance of post-conflict mental health treatment, those outside of this structure risk missing out on any opportunity for institutional support.
“One of the dangers of going out on your own…is that you’re doing it outside the federal umbrella that’s supposed to care for people with PTSD,” she says.
“It’s one of the risks you take…there’s no one to pick up the pieces.”
Back in Adelaide, any thoughts on how Roe will be re-adapted are far from a first consideration for his sister Ali, 36, who is anxiously awaiting news from her brother.
She says he is one of her best friends, but she does not know if she will see him again or when she will see him.
When discussing Matt’s motives, his sister talks about the goal.
“You have a purpose in life, and you really feel that purpose strongly. [Matt’s] I never settled down and I could never really be happy because he couldn’t do the one thing he always knew he had to do.
She says that, through thick and thin, he found his calling in Ukraine.
“It’s hard… It’s really hard. But… for the first time ever, he’s doing something that feels right.”