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News / Clark County News

Former Vancouver Marine volunteered in Ukraine, hopes to return

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 8, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
Michael Young, who served in Ukraine last year with a volunteer military organization, is pictured at Esther Short Park on Friday morning, April 7, 2023.
Michael Young, who served in Ukraine last year with a volunteer military organization, is pictured at Esther Short Park on Friday morning, April 7, 2023. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver resident Michael Young spends most of his Saturday mornings at rallies on the Interstate 205 Bridge supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

It’s the most that he can do, but not for long.

Young, who spent most of last year in Ukraine helping the country’s military efforts through several volunteer organizations, says it’s only a matter of time before he returns to help

“I’m dying to go back. I want to go back,” Young said. “People are still dying. And every once in a while, you get news of someone that passed and you feel like you’re sitting back here and there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s frustrating.”

Growing up, Young and his parents lived all over Washington and abroad, including a year in Latvia. When he returned to high school in Eastern Washington, his desire to travel prompted him to join the Marines.

“The Marines was my ticket to get out in the world,” Young said. “That’s all it was. I was just ready for an adventure and I didn’t really care where it took me.”

After two years in the Marines — which took Young all over the country — he left due to emotional distress, and he returned to Vancouver, near his parents in Battle Ground.

Young enrolled at Washington State University in Vancouver, where he earned a psychology degree in 2014. For the next eight years, he floated between Portland and Vancouver, working in social services for several years before finding work as a tree arborist, which he continues to do.

But Young’s early fondness of adventure never left him, and when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February of 2022, he knew he wanted to join the fight and help in whatever way he could.

Within a month, he was on a plane to Ukraine.

“I just always kind of told myself that if something like this were to happen, and I was in a position to do something, that I would feel like I needed to,” Young said.

In Ukraine, Young found a foreign volunteer military group, the Georgian Legion, via social media. Within a few days, he had joined the organization and began training.

For the next two months, Young lived and trained far from the front lines with members of the Territorial Defense Forces — Ukraine’s military reserves — and other volunteer groups, including the Georgian Legion.

In those first days, Young met U.S. Army veterans Mark Watson and Dallas Casey, a medic, who had also come from America to aid Ukraine’s war efforts.

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The trio quickly bonded, and after several weeks, left the Georgian Legion to help form a medical aid organization.

“We decided that the Georgian Legion wasn’t our thing because we weren’t getting anywhere, we were being kind of dragged on,” Casey said. “We were there for a couple more months toward the beginning of summer. We stayed in Kyiv most of the time training the Territorial Defense units there.”

During this time, Young began participating in military supply runs and civilian evacuations, which he described as equally fulfilling and exhausting.

He described one particular evacuation as eye opening. Upon entering a small village, he noticed two older women walking around an apartment block and marking unexploded mortar shells stuck in the ground.

“They were marking them with some kind of red handkerchiefs — something to let the kids know not to play on them, because there were kids running around,” Young said.

For most of the summer, Young helped train other volunteers and continued to deliver supplies and evacuate villages in Ukraine, hoping to get closer to the action on the front lines.

Casey describes Young as intelligent, humble and someone who purely wanted to help others, even giving out supplies and clothes off his own back. The two would reunite in the International Legion, a volunteer military group which Young joined in August.

“Mike and Mark and I, we were like a trio for a very long time,” Casey said. “And we were just 100 percent real with each other about everything. And when something would come up, we would talk about it, whether it be our personal things happening in our lives back home, or something that we needed to address about an operation that one person didn’t feel comfortable with.”

With the International Legion, Young served with various groups providing security to Ukrainian artillery units, pushing against the Northeastern line against Russia.

In September, Young participated in the Kharkiv counteroffensive push, in which Ukrainian forces retook more than 500 settlements captured by Russia.

“People were crying when they saw us come through, because they didn’t know we were coming,” he said. “You just come across this village and people are running out, waving their hands the whole time, wanting to give you kisses and give you hugs, and that was really special.”

In October, Young injured his ankle jumping off an artillery unit, which pulled him out of combat for several days. Dejected, Young returned to Vancouver, and within two weeks, he was back at his old job after seven months of supporting war efforts.

“You go from that to coming back to Vancouver, Washington, and trimming trees. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like whiplash,” Young said.

Since returning, Young has spent his time working and processing what he went through last year. He is unsure of what the future holds for him, but is thinking about pursuing a career in counseling to help fellow veterans.

In the meantime, Young said he’ll continue attending the weekly rallies in Vancouver. One thing he’s certain about: He wants to return to Ukraine later this year to help the country in their fight.

And one thing that Casey is certain about: Young doesn’t care about glory, he simply wants to help.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you’re a hero, you’re brave,’” Young said. “That’s nice for people to say, but I feel like Ukraine was more about what I witnessed than what I did. I saw so much sacrifice and hard work out of so many people there, that for me, I was just humbled by it.”

Columbian staff writer