For about a month now, U.S. Marine veteran Sean Schofield has been sending dispatches back to Cullman, Alabama, from a place few would volunteer to go.
Since late March, he’s been one of more than 6,000 foreign volunteers from the U.S., Australia, the UK and other western countries who’ve left their civilian lives behind and traveled to Ukraine, aiding military personnel and civilian supporters in mounting a sovereign defense against Russian invasion.
In that time, Schofield has sent word back home that he’s already seen active combat, taken part in missions to escort civilians through combat areas, and been a firsthand participant in Ukraine’s ad hoc response to Russia’s massive military machine.
He’s already traveled the country almost end-to-end, most recently setting up (at Ukraine’s request) on the outskirts of Kyiv. There, he’s been an instructor within a training unit that schools the Ukrainian armed forces — many of whom are recent enlistees with no prior experience — in an intensive two-week military crash course before they’re sent to the front lines.
Schofield’s presence in Ukraine was facilitated by the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces established earlier in 2022 by the Ukrainian government under president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It’s by no means a mercenary task: The Ukrainian government furnishes foreign volunteers like Schofield a place to stay and food to eat — but everything else, including the cost of the flight to make it there, is the volunteer’s responsibility.
“The Ukrainian embassy basically explained it as, ‘We’re not gonna pay you, but if you want to come at your expense then do it: We’ll feed you and give you a place to sleep,” says Ken Brown, a Cullman, Alabama, resident and active local VFW member who’s been airing a series of interviews with his fellow service member, since Schofield touched down in Ukraine, on local TV and Facebook.
“He made it there, but he’s undertaken this out of his own pocket,” says Brown. “It cost him $1,800 to get there, it’ll be another $1,800 to get back, plus $2,000 worth of gear, and a $1,000 weapons permit that goes to the Ukrainian government. The original plan was for him to be over there until the end of June — if all goes well. Of course, the International Special Forces group is in Kyiv, and if the capital were again threatened, it’s possible that he would be involved in a response to that — and that would obviously affect his schedule.”
Schofield has lived in Cullman, Alabama, with his wife and two children for most of the time he’s been in civilian clothes, moving to Alabama from his home state of Massachusetts not long after honorably leaving the Corps in 2005 in the wake of a post-Sept. 11 tour in Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Schofield already knew what it was like to re-enlist for a cause he believed in: He joined the Marines at age 18 right out of high school, and had completed his service, which included a deployment to Okinawa, Japan, as an aerial gunner observer, by 2000. But as it did with many soldiers, the Sept. 11 attacks inspired him back into uniform once again.
Leaving the comfort of home behind to volunteer in a foreign conflict isn’t a decision Schofield made lightly. In a recent video chat with Brown, Schofield said early reports of indiscriminate killing, coupled with the aggression of invading a sovereign neighbor in peacetime, stirred a volunteer instinct he’s harbored since before re-enlisting in the Marines in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“’The bad guys don’t even try to find the good guys in uniforms and fight with them,” he explained. “They shoot everybody…It went back to a lot of the original reasons I wanted to become a Marine in the first place. Marines are always the good guys; every place they go…and I wore that uniform with so much pride.”
Not everyone who’s traveled to Ukraine to aid the fight is a soldier: Brown estimates that more than half of the 6,000 international volunteers in the country are there to provide medical and social assistance. The trained military volunteer force that Schofield’s a part of, he estimates, numbers somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people.
“He just felt that he was equipped to go over there and be one of the people who could make a difference,” says Brown. “Sean’s a trained martial arts instructor in the Marine Corps, and also a marksmanship instructor, and he’s seen combat from his time in service. It’s a pretty remarkable thing for someone living in Cullman to look at what’s going on over there and think, ‘They need me. I can help.’”
Schofield is a member of the local VFW, which is administering donations to fund the remainder of his Ukrainian tour — including his return trip home.
Checks to support Schofield’s volunteer mission can be made in any amount, with “Sean Schofield” in the subject line, to Cullman Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2214, and dropped off or mailed to the VFW (112 Veterans Drive SW, Cullman, AL, 35055).