Matt Roe was devastated when he discovered a medical condition would prevent him joining the Australian military.
“It took me years to get over it … if I ever did,” the South Australian landscaper says.
“It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
But now Roe, 36, has found a different – though potentially illegal – way to become involved in a military campaign, by leaving Australia to join the Georgian National Legion, a unit formed to support Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion.
Roe is not Georgian, or Ukrainian.
He grew up in the north-east of Adelaide, and says that in a lot of ways, he “was living the dream”, earning good money as the owner of a small gardening and landscaping business.
But when the war began, the footage and reports coming from Ukraine kept Roe awake at night.
“It was really eating me up inside just sitting back at home, you know … drinking beers and plodding along enjoying my three-day weekends, whilst people over [there] were suffering.”
Roe says he is someone who “likes to put his neck out and isn’t afraid of taking risks, and I have a strong sense of right and wrong”.
It wasn’t the first time he had felt compelled to volunteer for someone else’s fight.
“I wanted to do the same thing when the war started with Isis – I was thinking about joining the Peshmerga [the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State] back then.”
Roe says one image finally broke through any hesitation to go to Ukraine.
“There was one particular news report video that I saw of this family, and they were carrying this little girl – she was probably about six or seven – and she’d been killed.”
“That was the moment where I said, ‘nah fuck it, that’s it.’”
‘The Russians would see me as a mercenary’
Sarah Percy, associate professor in the school of political science and international relations at the University of Queensland, has researched and written widely on the role of mercenaries and unconventional combatants. She says men who sign up to fight overseas often find things are very different from what they had imagined.
“There is a very effective romanticization of war for young men, and particularly when there is a cause involved,” she says.
“Certainly with … Syria, what you found often was that they got there and were absolutely horrified by the reality of the war.”
She says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “had all the characteristics of the kind of conflict that does draw people to go and fight for someone else”.
“There is a clear aggressor, there is quite a charismatic leadership which is fighting back, there is a sense that ideals are really at stake, important ideals – and that’s what gets people to go.”
In March, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, announced the formation of an International Legion, and tens of thousands of people from around the world responded, including an estimated 200 or so Australians. Like Roe, some had little or no military experience, and some faced similar legal hurdles.
One British recruit said he had been stopped at the airport as he left and told he could be arrested for terrorism when he returned, though signals from the UK government have been ambiguous. In February the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said she would “absolutely” back anyone who volunteered to fight, but her fellow cabinet minister Grant Shapps later stressed it was illegal to do so and warned potential volunteers they risked making the situation in Ukraine worse.
Roe traveled to Ukraine with a 23-year-old Melburnian whom he had met through Reddit. Before leaving, he sold his landscaping business for “about 20% of what it was worth”.
By the time they arrived, both were carrying several kilos of body armour, were severely sleep-deprived, and – despite concerted efforts to leave the country undetected – were known to the Australian government.
Australian law says it is an offense to “enter a foreign country with an intention to engage in a hostile activity, unless serving in or with the armed forces of the government of a foreign country”, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment.
The foreign affairs department declined to comment on Roe’s case, or the application of the law to anyone who has gone to Ukraine to fight. The advice on the Ukraine page of the government’s Smartraveller website makes no reference to the law, but says simply: “Do not travel.”
Dr Carrie McDougall, a University of Melbourne academic and a former assistant director of the international law section in the department of foreign affairs, says the definition of a country’s armed forces is untested, and arguably could extend to the Georgian National Legion.
Even if a narrow interpretation were favored by the courts, an offense would only be committed if a person intends to engage, or actually engages, in “hostile activity” such as attempting to overthrow the government of a country.
Any decision to prosecute would also require the consent of the attorney general, meaning the impact of any prosecution on Australia’s relationship with Ukraine might be taken into account.
McDougall says: “I think a strong argument could be made that it would be the exception rather than the rule that someone who has gone to fight for the Ukraine armed forces or any associated entity would be captured by Australia’s foreign incursion offenses.”
Roe knows he will have to consider what might happen if he wanted to return to Australia, but he says questions about the legality of his action are “not the most important thing for me at the moment”.
“The important thing for me at the moment is that Ukraine wins.”
There is also the fairly pressing matter of the Russians. The consequences of any legal action in Australia pale against the day-to-day risks in Ukraine.
At least one Australian who joined the International Legion has been killed in action. Tasmanian Mick O’Neill, who also had no previous combat experience, died on 24 May when his unit was hit by a Russian mortar strike outside Kharkiv, the Australian reported.
The prospect of being taken prisoner is not much less terrifying.
“[The Russians] would see me as a mercenary,” Roe says. “To be put to death.”
At least two British men reportedly face the death penalty after being captured while fighting with Ukrainian forces.
Missile strikes and untrained volunteers
Roe arrived in Ukraine at a bad time for would-be foreign fighters.
Many deserted hurriedly after a missile strike on a base used by the fledgling International Legion only 10km from the Polish border.
“There were a lot of people in the International Legion during that bombing attack who were laying down their rifles, and they just ran for the Polish border,” Roe says. Some of them forgot to unpack their bags, and they tried to cross the border with five, six hundred rounds of ammunition.”
After that, the Ukrainian government’s policy changed dramatically: volunteers were welcome, but they would need to prove their mettle before they were trusted to fight.
“We were all pretty pissed off,” Roe says of learning that he wouldn’t be fighting. “Quite a few people…just left.”
Roe stayed. He enlisted in the Georgian National Legion, receiving training as a military instructor, despite his own lack of experience.
Since then Roe has criss-crossed Ukraine’s central regions training boys and men – often the only instruction they receive before being sent to the front.
“You’ll … be like ‘how many people here have fired a rifle?’ There’s like 100 people and two hands go up,” Roe says. “Unfortunately, we have lost quite a few people that we have trained. But it’s better than nothing … and you can see how much of a difference it’s making.”
When Roe arrived in Lviv in late March, Russia was still pursuing a north-western push down through Belarus, with the goal of capturing Kyiv.
Lviv, the hub through which most aid to Ukraine passes, was receiving regular shelling.
“Those first few days, when a siren went off, you noticed it and you were running for that shelter,” Roe says. “But as time goes on, everything becomes normal.”
When the Guardian spoke to Roe, Russia had conducted its first missile strikes on Kyiv in almost a month. He says his reaction was a far cry from those first few days in the country.
“Yesterday… we were just going out. We went to a museum.
“There’s missile sirens and there’s rockets exploding … But you can’t just stay inside, and a missile is just as likely to hit someone if you’re in an apartment building as if you’re out and about in Kyiv.”
‘He’s doing something that feels right’
Sarah Percy says her research shows there is often no easy path back to civilian life for those who go to fight, and exposure to war can have lasting effects both for the individual and those around them.
“You could certainly speculate as to whether or not that could reduce people’s barriers to the use of violence,” she says.
And while the current the current royal commission into defense and veteran suicide has called greater attention to the importance of post-conflict treatment of mental health, people outside that structure risk losing any chance of institutional support.
“One of the dangers of going off on your own bat … is that you’re doing it outside the umbrella of the state that is meant to look after people with PTSD,” she says.
“That’s one of the risks that you take … there’s no one there to pick up the pieces.”
Back in Adelaide, any thoughts of how Roe might readjust are far from the first consideration for his sister Ali, 36, as she waits anxiously for news of her brother.
She says he is one of her best friends, but doesn’t know if or when she will see him again.
When she speaks about Matt’s motivations, his sister talks in terms of purpose.
“You have a purpose in life, and you really feel that purpose so strongly. [Matt’s] just never felt settled and has never been able to be really truly happy, because the one thing he’s always known he needs to do, he hasn’t been able to do.”
She says that – for better or worse – he has found his purpose in Ukraine.
“It’s hard…it’s really freakin’ hard. But … for the first time ever, he’s doing something that feels right.”