Master Sgt. Justin Bolin faced a big task after Russia invaded Ukraine: training Ukrainian troops, mostly novices, to quickly get them up to speed.

He’d seen it coming — everyone in the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment did — but Justin Bolin remembers the day that everything changed.

In late 2021, as months of warnings that Russia would invade Ukraine rose to a crescendo, Master Sgt. Bolin was the regiment headquarters troop’s first sergeant. If something happened, the service’s only Europe-based brigade combat team would have to load up its Stryker combat vehicles and respond.

“Going into the Christmas block leave period, right before the Russian invasion, we all had this ominous sense of, ‘Hey, go enjoy your vacation. But...keep your bag ready to go because something’s popping off in the east,’” he recounted in a phone interview with Army Times. Bolin will soon attend the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Soon after his return to Germany in early 2022, Bolin received a phone call — his “lightbulb moment,” as he described it.

“‘You need to deploy the regiment to Romania within the next two weeks,’” he recalled being told. “‘We don’t know what [we’ll be] doing, but we have to take this whole regiment and move it forward.’”

As the headquarters first sergeant, Bolin was ultimately responsible for getting the regiment’s staff set up and ready to operate at Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base. There wasn’t a plan in place. But Bolin knew the base from a previous mission, and he knew who to call for support from other commands and agencies.

Less than a month after the regiment arrived, Russian troops advanced across the border into Ukraine, reigniting the largest land war seen in Europe since World War II. Bolin’s unit was the first to respond, and others quickly followed as the Army rapidly expanded its forward-deployed presence there.

As the nascent conflict matured, NATO countries realized that Kyiv’s government wasn’t going to quickly fall as had been anticipated, so aid and equipment began pouring into Ukraine. While the country’s experienced units slugged it out with Russia, Kyiv’s fresher, inexperienced troops needed to quickly get up to speed.

Enter Bolin, yet again. After handing the reins in Romania to the 101st Airborne Division and returning to Germany, the seasoned cavalry scout transferred from the 2nd Cavalry headquarters to become the operations sergeant major for its 2nd Squadron.

Soon he received a new mission. The squadron was to train Ukrainian troops. Bolin said his four combat deployments and experience as a drill sergeant were essential for designing the training plans, which were tailored for the largely novice troops that Ukraine had sent.

“The soldiers were 100% on board…and we had a lot of support to make these training events happen,” he said. “I looked at my first sergeants and every single one of them had a face of confidence — most of them were former drill sergeants [and] a couple Ranger Battalion guys.”

As Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive plays out in the country’s east, Bolin is holding his breath. He agreed that watching his former trainees put their skills into use evokes “complex” feelings.

“People not in the know, they turn on the news and they see blips on screens, and they see soldiers pushing back against the Russian aggression,” he explained. “For a lot of us in the [training] circle … these are husbands, fathers, wives, farmers, mechanics — these aren’t your typical soldier that we think of. These are people who want a home to come home to so that way they can raise their family.”

Bolin said the Ukrainians’ determination echoed what he saw in Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “Everyone was on the same page for the same cause,” he recalled.

He joined the Army a few years afterward in 2004 and quickly learned the meaning of quality training and leadership when he deployed to Baghdad with 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment immediately after graduating from training in 2005. There Bolin received an Army Commendation Medal with valor device for his response to an IED strike that killed two of his mentors.

That day and other challenges in his career, Bolin explained, have made him passionate about fostering community among veterans who sometimes just need an understanding ear. He volunteered to coordinate a Thanksgiving event in Germany, and also volunteered with the Vilseck High School Junior ROTC program.

See all Military Times’ 2023 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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