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Remembering first fallen US volunteer fighter buried in Ukraine

by Francis Farrell May 12, 2023 1:07 AM 11 min read
A photograph of Christopher Campbell in a trench during service in Ukraine. (Courtesy)
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KYIV – At first, everything about the small, solemn gathering in the grounds of Kyiv’s St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery had all the signs of a traditional Ukrainian military funeral.

A guard of soldiers, a Ukrainian flag held over the coffin, the rolling verse of Orthodox prayers, the national anthem, and a grieving partner in a traditional Ukrainian dress by the deceased’s side.

The priest recalled in his short eulogy that Easter celebrations had not long passed by, when Christians were reminded of the miracle of resurrection, and repeated the phrase so often uttered as the losses in Russia’s full-scale war mount: Heroes never die.

This funeral, however, was different. Off to the side, wearing balaclavas to protect their identity, the line of soldiers standing motionless to pay tribute were mostly not Ukrainians. All the priest’s words were translated into English by a military translator.

The fallen soldier being honored on this day was 27-year-old Christopher Campbell, an American who was killed in early April outside Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, fighting in the ranks of Ukraine’s International Legion.

An Orthodox priest delivers a eulogy at the farewell ceremony of U.S. volunteer Christopher Campbell in Kyiv on May 5, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

While at least nine Americans have been killed in the war, alongside hundreds of other foreign volunteers, Campbell was the very first and only to be buried in Ukraine.

In just over a year, Ukraine and its struggle became everything for Campbell, who drew upon his experience serving in the U.S. military to fight with distinction among some of the war’s toughest battles, training and sharing experience with Ukrainian soldiers on the way.

During his time in the country, another reason cemented Campbell’s attachment for Ukraine and commitment to fighting until victory: His love for film director and volunteer Ivanna Sanina, 24-year-old daughter of acclaimed Ukrainian director Oles Sanin.

“He was brave like a Ukrainian, and he was stubborn like a Ukrainian,” said Sanina, braving back tears to speak to international media during the funeral.

“Some of the other foreigners he fought with mentioned many times that he had very hot blood; that’s our blood, Ukrainian blood.”

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Committed from the start

Christopher Campbell had never been to Ukraine before Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The Florida native had recently completed a short but impressive military career, serving with distinction in Iraq and Kuwait in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s legendary 82nd Airborne Division.

Having completed his time in the U.S. military, Campbell was studying biology at university back at home when the first attacks began.

At first, Campbell arrived without a concrete plan, traveling to Ukraine with the help of his own contacts.

“To know him, and his selflessness, then one can understand his humanitarian values,” wrote Campbell’s mother Cheri in a statement released jointly with the Legion after his death.

“Before he left, he told us that if he could help even one single family get back into their homes, then it would be worth the risk of doing so.”

A portrait of Chistopher Campbell in civilian life in the United States. (Courtesy)

While volunteering outside Irpin towards the end of Russia’s initial occupation of the city outside Kyiv, Campbell met Hlib Fishchenko, 23-year-old co-founder of Vilni Volunteers, a grassroots military humanitarian aid organization previously featured in the Kyiv Independent’s coverage of the anniversary of the full-scale war.

Before taking up arms himself, Campbell lent his skills and experience to Ukrainian units in special training sessions that Fishchenko helped organize and translate for.

According to Fishchenko, it was after the world learned of the Bucha massacre and other Russian atrocities in Kyiv Oblast that Campbell decided he must enlist to fight.

Initially, Campbell joined the ranks of the Azov unit of Ukraine’s Special Forces (SSO), not to be confused with the Azov Regiment that made its last stand in Mariupol.

Fishchenko says that with his background in the airborne forces, Campbell was inherently drawn to the most intense battles along the front line, part of the reason he joined Azov SSO.

“Chris always said he wanted more than anything to join the units that were attacking, liberating;” Fishchenko said, “not holding lines but moving forward and kicking the Russians out.”

“He would always compare it to lung cancer; the longer they would be there on this land, the more they would metastasize and the harder it would be to eliminate them later.”

Sanina, also a member of Vilni Volunteers, first met Campbell on June 18, after the funeral of 24-year-old activist and soldier Roman Ratushnyi, a personal friend of Ivanna's.

A young participant in the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution who later led campaigns to protect green spaces in Kyiv, Ratushnyi became a nationwide symbol of how Ukraine was losing its best of brightest people in the war.

“After the funeral,” Sanina recalled in a separate interview with the Kyiv Independent, “when I met him for the first time, he asked me, 'Is this always how you bid farewell to your fallen soldiers, your heroes?'"

"I said yes, and he said in that case, if he dies he wants to be buried here, because he saw the honor with which it was done."

Through the volunteer organization they were both involved in, they had begun crossing paths more often, when Sanina asked Campbell why he came to Ukraine.

“He said it was the only right thing to do,” she said, “that he could not just sit at home and watch the genocide that was happening here, it wasn't an option for him.”

“When I spoke to him that day, I was astonished by how he looked me right in the eyes. When two people look at each other like that, speaking about such things, a lot is understood right away.”

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Love in the time of war

As retold by Fishchenko, fighting against the Russian army was a new kind of war for Campbell, very different in nature to his service in Iraq and Kuwait.

"He called this war a difficult one, one of infantry and artillery," Fishchenko said.

"In Iraq, where you could always call on air support in a difficult situation and it would come, here there is no such thing. Here you need to come up with creative solutions to stay alive in the moment.”

By the time Campbell joined in late autumn, the Legion had become a very different outfit to the chaotic units formed upon its founding, as some of those foreigners without the right experience or motivations to fight went home, while others quit because of widespread alleged experiences of abuse and corruption in the leadership.

"Those who stayed were mostly from the same countries: Finns, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, and some Brits and Americans,” said Fishchenko.

"These guys would all say to me that they'll be here until the end. Of course, Chris also had Iva keeping him here."

“Those who left saw that this is not a shooting range, it's not ‘Call of Duty,’ it's death, or the risk of death, every single day,” added Sanina.

“Chris really didn't like people like that, he called them military tourists.”

Christopher Campbell and a fellow soldier train at a firing range in eastern Ukraine in winter 2022. (Courtesy)

During the time in between Campbell’s campaigns with Azov SSO and Legion, he managed to spend more time with his fiancé. In this time, the pair could live a semblance of the life of a young engaged couple in peacetime, visiting the opera and theater in Kyiv.

According to Fishchenko, whenever Campbell was back from the front, he would not act like someone whom the hell of the war had affected deeply.

“He would come and hang out with us in our volunteer headquarters on his days off,” Fishchenko said, “we would laugh and listen to music.”

“He was very good at switching to civilian life; he was not the kind of person that would need mental health support afterwards.”

Sanina, from the perspective of a partner rather than a friend, said that in more private moments with her fiancé, things were very different.

“He barely ever spoke about the war in civilian life, he held up in public very well,” she said. “I didn't try and ask even when we were just the two of us, but it was all clear to me anyway.”

“After every deployment, he came back a different person. You could see the changes in his eyes, and you understand that these guys have seen some truly terrifying things.”

In September, less than three months into their relationship, Campbell proposed to Sanina before departing to fight with the Legion in the east.

Ivanna Sanina at the funeral of fiance and U.S. volunteer fighter in Kyiv on May 5, 2023. (Dymtro Sanin/Courtesy)

"I asked him, 'Where is my ring?'” said Sanina, “and he said he would first learn the language and officially ask my father for my hand."

Over the winter months, characterized in Ukraine by the brutal fighting in Donetsk Oblast, especially Bakhmut, the pair saw each other more rarely, and Campbell had no chance, neither to buy a ring nor to ask for Sanin’s blessing in person.

Two days before he was killed, Campbell took a few days off to see Sanina in Kharkiv.

"The last time I saw him, I said I couldn't take it anymore, that I would buy it myself, and he said 'No, Iva, please don't humiliate me like that!' He took our traditions very seriously from the start."

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Honoring the fallen

Sanina last spoke to Campbell on the evening of April 5, nine hours before he was killed.

“I don't believe in all these supernatural things, but I can't explain this rationally,” said Sanina recalling the moment.

“I'm normally a very pragmatic person, but that evening, I told my friend, something was wrong. I told her, I could just feel it, something is wrong with Chris.”

On the following morning, Campbell and his commander were killed by a cluster munition while holding a position near Khromove, a village along one of the key supply roads into Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control.

Soon after, a Finnish combat medic ran to attend to them, and was promptly killed himself by another cluster munition.

Sanina was called by a comrade of Campbell's, another American legionnaire, and gave the news about her fiancé’s death.

“In this moment, I died, I was no more,” she said. “The only part of me that remained is in pain, and will be for a long time.”

Due to the near-constant Russian shelling and attacks, it took nine days for Campbell’s body to be retrieved and finally returned to Kyiv, where Sanina was asked by his parents to identify the body at the morgue.

“This picture will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she said.

“We had so many plans ahead of us, so many things we wanted to do, and it was taken away.”

Ukrainian soldiers hold a flag about the coffin of Christopher Campbell at the farewell ceremony of the U.S. volunteer in Kyiv on May 5, 2023. (Francis Farrell/The Kyiv Independent)

Since Campbell’s death, Sanina has kept in close touch with both his parents back in the U.S., who she never managed to meet, as well as his fellow soldiers still serving.

“His comrades support me a lot, and I support them,” she said, “for I see in their eyes everything that I saw in the eyes of Chris.”

Ukraine's future challenge of national remembrance for the dead in the war looms large in Sanina's thoughts.

“There needs to be a place of national memory,” she said, “where the mothers, families of the fallen, as well as all Ukrainians, anyone who isn't indifferent, can come and see the names, the flags, the dates.”

“Some people tend to treat the Armed Forces as some kind of abstract image, we need to remind them that the military is people, with hands and feet, not biorobots or cyborgs, but people.”

Proposals have already been put forward for a national memorial complex, which could either take the form of a central monument with all the names of the fallen, or a larger military cemetery, most likely built somewhere outside Kyiv.

On April 23, Ukraine’s Veterans’ Affairs Minister Yuliia Laputina said after a visit to the U.S. that Ukraine hopes to draw inspiration from the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia for the future project.

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Sanina pledged that if an Arlington-style cemetery complex is built, she will have Campbell’s remains transferred there.

“He needs to be together with other soldiers,” she said, “it should be visible for everyone, Ukrainians should know that Americans were here, that they also died for us.”

Towards the end of the interview, Sanina revealed that it was exactly this process that had motivated Campbell to study genetics, having had a friend in the U.S. Department of Defense who worked to identify and return the exhumed remains of American service members from overseas wars.

“For Americans, the return of the bodies of fallen soldiers is like a religious practice,” she said.

"It was his dream to work on these military excavations," she said. "He spoke to me a lot about it, especially since here in Ukraine there are places where the bodies of tens of thousands of soldiers still lie.”


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Francis Farrell, cheers for reading this article. I grew up on the other side of the world, but in Ukraine I have found a home unlike any other. Just like with so many of our readers, I understand that you don't have to be from near here to realize how important Ukraine's struggle is for freedom and human rights all over the world. The Kyiv Independent's mission is to lead the way in continuing to bring the best homegrown, English-language coverage of this war, even if the rest of the world's attention starts to fade. Please consider supporting our reporting.

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