Russian woman on ‘terrible suffering’ in Ukraine
There were around 30 minutes of sunlight left and Brandon Mitchell was terrified. The volunteer combat medic at the Ukrainian Hospitallers Medical Battalion had just made a gruelling return journey alongside another volunteer from inside Russian-held Soledar, carefully edging their way along a mine-lined road to evacuate a family.
It was only just as they’d prepared to leave that his colleague, Phillip, had found more Ukrainians who, through gritted teeth, wanted to leave their homes. The Russians were coming. Phillip stayed with them and Brandon promised to come back for him and the 15 civilians.
“At this point, I’m terrified,” he told Express.co.uk. “I’m terrified I won’t do the right thing, that when I get back, I won’t go out there again.”
On the return journey, he sped around a corner. Dust sprayed up from the ground in the wake of his colleague’s car in front.
His line of sight impaired, Brandon veered off the track and hit two anti-personnel mines. His car exploded into a ball of fire, “a hot flame”, he says. The windows shattered and the air was pierced with a fierce ringing sound. For a moment, everything hung in the balance.
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Brandon Mitchell has been volunteering in Ukraine for just over a year
Things have changed for Brandon since that day. His health has been irreparably damaged. He’s told he has traumatic brain damage and a perforated eardrum.
Yet, after a few weeks spent recovering in hospital, he was back out again, helping with what he could.
A lingering sense of guilt and doubt hung over his head like an invisible cloud — what might he have done had he not been stuck in hospital?
Even to this day, Brandon feels guilty about the things he may have done. The people he may have saved if he were in the right place at the right time. When Express.co.uk meets him, he gently frets over what isn’t being done in his absence.
He has only been out of Ukraine for a few weeks, and in June, he will go back. Rather than a holiday or a leave of absence, Brandon is spending every minute of his time outside the war promoting his and other battalions’ efforts, procuring things they need, like walkie-talkies and night vision goggles.
A soldier fires a missile in Soledar; Brandon almost lost his life in the Russian held area
In Ukraine, he does this through his wildly popular social media channels in which he films himself in nail-biting situations: evacuating civilians near the frontlines as shells fall all around, rescuing wounded soldiers, and ferrying Russian prisoners of war (POW) to Ukrainian bases. They show a reality and closeness to the war like nothing else, also capturing the humanity and mundanities of volunteer life.
The videos call for donations and are themselves monetised, helping to raise thousands of pounds to put straight into the cause. Brandon estimates that for the 36 Brigade alone, he has “probably put $50,000 into them”.
This isn’t bragging. Brandon talks about his help in a clinical way, as if he himself didn’t have a hand in it.
He is humble and softly spoken and humorous, yet self-conscious in a way that doesn’t make sense unless you understand his personal story.
Born in the small Canadian city of Miramichi, Brandon’s life was immediately marked by tragedy. His mother took her own life when he was one year old, “and my father was never really around. So I lived with my grandparents”.
He excelled at school but fell out with it after getting involved with drink and drugs. He didn’t see a future for himself in Miramichi and saw the army as the only way out.
He joined the Canadian Territorial Army at 16, then the full army some years later. In an unlikely meeting with a Royal Marines Colour sergeant, he was encouraged to sign up for the British Army — something that had been his dream. This was the early Noughties.
But, one Christmas break, it all went downhill. “Not even a year into my time in the British Army, I went home and a lot of my old habits came back. I went on a drug binge.”
Back in the UK, Brandon failed a compulsory drug test and fell into a deep depression. At 21 years old, he was thrown out of the army.
A sense of guilt and shame formed. Feeling like he couldn’t go back to his family, he stayed in the UK and worked as a trader. He has been sober for 11 years and found purpose.
Brandon pictured in his Twenties during his time with the British Army
‘When Mr Zelensky called for volunteers, I felt compelled to go’
When President Volodymyr Zelensky called for volunteers in the first days of the war, Brandon knew he would go.
Within weeks he was bound for Lviv to help the humanitarian effort.
It was never his plan to aid soldiers and medics on the frontline, but a colleague by the name of Oleg pulled him aside. Two gunner positions had come available, did Brandon want to do it? He grimaces: “No, I didn’t. But you know, that’s my time to shine, yes or no. Do you want to do it or not? I said yes.”
He was present during the battle of Kyiv, close to the atrocities that occurred in Bucha. In much of the most intense fighting that took place in the east of the country, Brandon was rarely far away.
In one mission, he was shot at by a 12mm sniper rifle round. “It put me to the ground because, my understanding is, large calibre rounds can actually cause haemorrhages in the brain if they come close enough to you without even touching you. It put me to the ground, almost flat on my face.”
He encountered many Russian prisoners of war, sometimes taking them to Ukrainian hospitals and bases. “They’re quiet after they’re captured. They don’t say a f*****g word,” he says.
They are curious figures for the Ukrainians who inspect them: Are they underweight? Are they malnourished? Are they dehydrated? What sort of equipment do they have?
Brandon’s patch for the Hospitallers Medical Battalion (R); his Ukrainian Volunteer Army patch (L)
“The Russian POWs are quiet after they’re captured. They don’t say a f*****g word”
In January, Brandon picked up a Wagner Group mercenary. “He was dehydrated and malnourished. Being picked up by us was probably the best outcome he could’ve faced in this war. He didn’t have a single wound on him.”
Brandon was told to take pictures of all his clothing, his equipment, and all the labels on his clothes. “I was specifically told there were 100,000 multi-camouflage winter uniforms ordered for the Central African Republic, produced in Turkey. Where did they go? Probably not to the Central African Republic — they were looking for Russia circumventing sanctions.”
Tragedy fills Brandon’s world, yet he won’t stop his work. On an individual level, he has been crucial to the war effort, raising tens of thousands of pounds and helping produce specialised equipment.
He has saved countless Ukrainians’ lives, all at the risk of his own. Yet, there is something in him that seems not to understand the magnitude of his actions. “I feel guilty when I’m not helping,” he says.
It is a difficult thing to understand: Why would someone continue to put themselves through all of this while feeling their efforts aren’t effecting great change?
Ukrainian soliders hold the photo of their colleague who died in battle in Bakhmut
‘There’s not enough support’
“Some people in these situations experience what we call ‘moral injury’,” Dr Heather Sequeira, a chartered psychologist, tells Express.co.uk.
A member of the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Psychology Section, she specialises in helping victims and witnesses of war.
While not commenting on Brandon individually, Dr Heather says in general, “feelings that actions have not made a difference can stem from a variety of factors, but it is likely to be the sheer magnitude of suffering and violence that has been seen.
“People may find themselves grappling with the thought that their contributions are inconsequential or easily overshadowed by larger forces or systems that perpetuate injustice or suffering.”
This perception of ineffectiveness, she says, can be “particularly disheartening” when people invest both time, energy, and emotional commitment into things that appear to “yield minimal results compared to the utter magnitude of the problem”.
“People may perceive their efforts as falling short. This can lead to feelings of guilt, self-blame and also a dislocation from others who have not had these intense experiences,” she says.
She adds: “There is not enough help for these people when they return from war.”
Brandon’s dog Masa, who he says is his best friend
In the few days that Brandon has had free since leaving Ukraine, he met up with friends. “I just wanted to go watch a movie,” he says.
“Every second week, when I was at home, we’d have a pizza and movie night. We’d watch the Goodfellas or the old Robert De Niro films — but we couldn’t even do that. My friend wanted to know everything about the war.
“I didn’t want to repeat the same old stories after three hours. That was hard in a sense.”
He now finds himself being approached by people he has never met asking to take him for lunch, for a beer, or for a coffee. “But there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he says.
“They’re not interested in me, even as well-intentioned as they are. They just want to hear stories, and I don’t want that.”
The war has affected Brandon in many ways, both realised and unknown. But to say he is an entirely different person would be wrong.
Since leaving Ukraine, he has rediscovered his love of walking. He has started again to interact with strangers on the street, having normal conversations. “And just to be with my dog, that’s amazing,” he says.
He has also recognised things he took for granted, like Western toilets: “You have no idea what it’s like in Donbas,” he says.
“You have to go over a hole, you put your phone in the pocket and you zip it. You don’t dare lose your phone down that hole. But what does everybody do nowadays? When you’re on the toilet, you scroll on your phone! And as silly as that is, I really appreciate it now I’m back.”
But still, some things are different. Towards the end of the conversation, a London Underground train runs deep beneath the ground. Its vibrations send through the floor something that may resemble the far-off landing of a mortar shell.
Brandon stops for a moment, wide-eyed. “Did you feel that?” he says. “I’m ok. I’m fine. But just for a split second…. Yes. I can’t quite articulate that feeling. It feels cheesy, but it’s the truth.”