Former Marine combat veteran Dennis Diaz watched helplessly as images splashed across his television screen of Ukrainian women and children hunkering down to shelter from Russian invaders.
The unrest reminded him of why he enlisted in the military in 2000 and pushed him — now, after 18 years in the reserves — to head into battle again.
Only this time his duty is pledged to Ukraine.
“Russia crossed the line by attacking civilians. It’s pretty much like no holds barred,” Diaz, 39, a Burlington, Connecticut, father of four, told NBC News. “It’s not good at all.”
Diaz is among the Americans responding to a call from Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who on Sunday asked “friends of peace and democracy” to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine to help the country fight Russia.
Zelenskyy said Thursday that 16,000 foreigners had joined the new brigade, a number NBC News could not immediately confirm. It is not clear how many of them are Americans.
Andrew Bennett plans to be among them.
“To be honest with you for the longest time, I felt like I had no direction in my life as far as, you know, single guy, no kids, no wife, just going to work and you know, just coming home paying bills,” the 45-year-old, who lives in Bayonne, New Jersey, said. “These people that are fighting for their freedom and their lives, they’re literally backed in the corner.”
Russian forces have made gains in southern Ukraine and taken over Europe’s largest nuclear power plant since its assault on its neighbor began more than a week ago. But Russia has not managed to topple Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and the seat of its Western-leaning government. That effort has been stymied, in part, by stiff resistance from Ukrainians — trained soldiers and civilians alike.
Bennett said he’s waiting for his replacement passport to arrive so he can make the trip to join them.
The carpenter who does not have military experience, said he does not know if he has the physical stamina or mental wherewithal to be part of a battle.
“I’m not going over there to fight or play Rambo. I just want to go help people, whether it be cooking for people, carrying people, dragging people off the floor, whatever it is,” Bennett said, no matter the risk.
“You know, I’d happily take a bullet for a Ukrainian. I’d happily take two bullets for” Zelenskyy.
While Bennet’s intent is to be commended, the U.S. State Department does not want other American citizens following his lead.
“Ukrainians have shown their courage and they are calling on every resource and lever they have to defend themselves. We applaud their bravery,” the U.S. State Department of State told NBC News in a statement. “However, our Travel Advisory remains: U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine, and those in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using commercial or other privately available options for ground transportation.”
The department added, it encourages American citizens to divert their energies toward safe, constructive volunteer or civil society activities for Ukrainians such as funding for humanitarian assistance and advocacy.
More than 1 million people, most of them women and children, have fled the country since Russia’s invasion began.
At least 331 civilians have been killed in Ukraine and 675 have been injured, the United Nations’ human rights office said Friday on Twitter. The agency said the “real toll is much higher.” The dead include 19 children, the human rights office said.
Diaz has been spending time with his children, who range in age from 1 to 14 years old, before he gets the call to travel to Europe.
His 14-year-old son believes his father is doing the right thing, but his daughter wants him to stay home where it’s safe. His friends are warning him of the possibility of fatal consequences, but he remains undeterred.
“I’m a Marine, I stand for what’s right. The people in Ukraine need help,” he said.
“If I were to die over there in Ukraine, then guess what? My children will know that I paid the highest price to be able to stand up and fight for what’s right,” Diaz said. “It’s time to fight side by side and protect the nation, especially the women and children and leave a much better world and nation for them.”