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Benedict Redgrove


I used to be a civilian

The point that keeps coming back to me is this. If one day you woke up to find a Russian or any other country's tanks rolling down your street, how helpless would you feel and more importantly, what would you do?

This definitely wasn't in their plans. How could it be in anyone's? They all had gone to sleep in a peaceful and free Ukraine, only to be woken - by phone calls from relatives, some by the sound of gunfire and explosions - in a country now at war.

The next days, weeks, and months would see tanks and soldiers moving through the streets and towns.
Some witnesses report neighbours being taken out, hands behind their backs, fastened with plastic zip ties so tightly that it ripped the skin. Kneeling, heads bowed, then shot, or told to run or cycle away, and then shot in the back. Sisters, mothers, and girlfriends were raped, tortured and then killed. Children are abducted and taken to Russia to be "re-educated".

These are war crimes, and the UN is currently seeking prosecution against the Russian leaders.

Since 2022, driven by their circumstance, spirit, and a sense of injustice, over 34000 Ukrainian civilians, have volunteered to be part of Operation Interflex. They are trained at locations across the UK by military personnel from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, and the Netherlands, with Romania, Estonia and Kosovo recently joining. The programme teaches everything from weapons handling, trench and urban warfare, medical field dressings and ultimately how to stay alive.

Their normal days are now very different, from the clothes they wear to their daily actions and objectives. They are taught ow to hold their weapon so you don't shoot themselves or their fellow man, how to clean it, how to load it, how to aim, how to position themselves so they can crawl through the muddy waters and snow-filled trenches. How to throw a grenade. How to stay dry, to keep warm, stay awake. To move through a trench, a forest, a town. To protect themselves, stay down, stay hidden. How to attack a trench, a building, or defend a building. How to cook, help a casualty, stop the bleeding, strip a rifle and use specialist weapons. They learn to understand the importance of working as a unit and ultimately to stay alive.

Watching these once ordinary civilians, just like you and me, thrust into the roles of soldiers—a choice made out of necessity rather than dreams, now marching in uniform, their heavy packs secured to their backs, crawling over the ground, weapons in hand, trying to coordinate their body movements. When previously, all they had to do was bake bread, make furniture, teach, and work in a factory. It's both daunting and awe-inspiring, sad and heartwarming.
It's everything, and they are everyone, all of us.

The training facilities are so surreal that you could easily be forgiven for thinking you had walked onto a film set.
A vast open landscape, surrounded by muddy trenches dug into the soil, gazing upon the trainees like they were extras. A cast of 100s, all running through their scenes, practising their actions, crawling through the mud and slush, moving through clouds white smoke that drifts across the harsh moors.

The intermittent ra-ta-tat-ta-ta-tat of gunshots and the diaphragm displacing deep booming of air cannons replicating mortar fire.

Within the urban ruins, men seek shelter, cautiously traversing streets to cover each other. At the same time, snipers lurked in hidden corners, taking refuge behind bombed-out cars or passageways, staircases leading to booby-trapped doorways, entering buildings and clearing each room, each level as they go.

But then you realise it’s definitely not a film set; the situations here when their trainers tap them on the shoulder and say, “ok, you’re dead” will soon be real; they'll be dead. Pop your head up above that trench line, go around the corner or into that room without securing it first; you'll be dead or at least wounded.

It’s a steep learning curve so the instructions are clear and loud, for good reason. Hold your weapon in the right way, crawl through mud using your elbows, keep that barrel up, don't shoot yourself or your platoon members, and wait for the grenade to go off before you storm into the space you just threw it in.

Just think how that would be. They have to try to stay warm and dry. They eat their ration packs cooked in small tins with boiling water. Try to look after their health, work on 2 hours of sleep in the freezing cold, stay mentally fresh and try to keep a clear mind, all the while wondering if their friends or family may have just been killed or injured back home.

It gives a whole new perspective of the world and appreciation of their bravery in the state of persecution.

The very nature of this training program forms unique, powerful but brief relationships between everyone involved. Everyone is here with a clear purpose: Instructors care for their students, pull them in and guide them, draw out their strengths, find their weaknesses and help turn them into strengths. It is an excellent example of what humans can do when there is a common goal.

On the final training day, I watched the Ukrainians gather on the base's grounds. Standing at ease, they receive blessings from a padre. At the end, a Ukrainian Officer gives a rousing speech finishing with the customary spine-tingling "Slava Ukraine, which invites the response, delivered at volume by 200 pairs of lungs and one very powerful spirit - Heroyam Slava" translated as "glory to Ukraine, - glory to the heroes" .

Amidst these moments, one stood out as a reminder that this was all very real and not a rehearsal for a film - I was standing next to a Ukrainian soldier expressing his gratitude to his Norwegian trainer. Just for one second, the Ukrainian's body language changed. His eyes, his face, his shoulders, and his spirit dropped. I think the enormity of the task ahead of him had taken hold and filled him with a sense of vulnerability.
The Norwegian trainer could see that and pulled him up, looked him directly in the eyes and said, "You remember, you fight like hell, you fight like hell, you aim, you fire, you hit your target, you stay down, you stay alive, remember your training. You can do this. You can win. Just remember your training."

It still sends shivers down my spine; I can hear his voice and see the transfer of energy and belief from the Norwegian to the Ukrainian. I see how, for that moment, it gave him some power, some confidence. I hope he remembers those words and his training. I hope they all do.

The Norwegians all line up, forming a guard of honour. They hold a Ukrainian flag, stand to attention and salute as the coaches of Ukrainians drive through.

Some of the Ukrainians, will receive further training on their return as medical officers, snipers, and platoon leaders, logistics, while others will head into theatre, putting every second of training into practice.

The conflict in Ukraine is not just a distant crisis—it's a stark reminder of the importance of standing against aggression and injustice.

If Russia is given the land it currently occupies, then any money saved now will cost tenfold, the world will be looking at the next invasion of Ukraine to recover the "poor oppressed Russian speakers" there. The playbook Putin used for Crimea is the same as this invasion, and it's the same one he uses for Moldova/Transnistria.

Ultimately, the fate of Ukraine rests not only in the hands of its people but also in the support of the international community. Failure to confront Putin's aggression now will only embolden him to commit further atrocities.
So I ask again: What would you do in the face of such adversity? The answer may define not only our collective response to this crisis but also our commitment to upholding justice and defending the principles of freedom and democracy.