OTTAWA COUNTY, MI – At 54, Jeff Anderson knows he’s no longer the young man he was when he served in the United States military in the 1980s.
Yet the Ottawa County man’s passion for Ukraine drives him to volunteer to fight — with gun and ammunition — in the country’s war with Russia.
Anderson, an assistant wrestling coach at Grand Valley State University, plans to fight with the International Home Defense Legion of Ukraine. It must first be accepted by the group.
“The decision was not difficult. I have lots of friends there. They are, for the most part, good people and very nice people,” Anderson told MLive on a Zoom call.
Anderson said he was motivated by some of the images he saw of bombed-out buildings with women and children inside.
“It shoots at me,” he said.
Anderson’s girlfriend used to live in Ukraine, but she has since fled to Poland. He met her through friends of other wrestlers he trains with in Ukraine.
They were together in kyiv the day before the Russian invasion. At the time, no one knew what was going to happen the next day, and Anderson returned to the United States on his scheduled schedule.
Anderson, who runs a business, helped the GVSU club wrestling team for about 18 years and still wrestles in competitions. He does Greco-Roman, freestyle and grappling, which uses a type of martial arts.
He went to Ukraine several times and made several friends there. It uses a community in Ukraine as a training base and staging point for competitions in Russia, Greece, Kazakhstan and other countries.
“I’m always greeted with smiles and handshakes,” he said of Ukraine. “It’s a nice feeling. It feels like coming home to family.
Anderson estimated he had been to Ukraine at least 100 times. He lived there for four months two years ago.
In the Zoom interview on Thursday evening, he said he was already abroad and awaiting an assessment at the Ukrainian consulate in Krakow, Poland. If all goes well, he might be asked to report for service with the International Legion.
Anderson thinks he probably won’t be sent to the front, but will probably play an auxiliary role.
” I am realistic. While I can struggle with a young man, I’m not carrying a 50-pound bag going up and down things. It’s not realistic,” he said.
He suggested he could drive a truck to transport refugees or bring food to areas in need.
Anderson served in the US Army in the late 1980s and was stationed in Germany for part of the time. He plans to speak to officials during the evaluation of his particular military skills.
People familiar with Anderson’s plan have been supportive, he said. His mother just found out Thursday.
“She’s like, ‘I’m scared for you and I’m worried, but I respect what you’re doing. I love you and be careful,'” he said.
“I haven’t heard anything negative or bad. A lot of people say, ‘Hey, we have a lot of prayers for you,’” he said.
Anderson’s brother Jim said he wasn’t overly concerned about his brother’s well-being while in Ukraine.
“He’s smart. He’ll be safe,” he said.
Jim Anderson thinks his brother’s heart is in the right place.
“He believes in democracy and freedom,” he said.
Jeff Anderson said he just wanted to help the Ukrainian people.
“Most of them only have one apartment. They are transmitted from generation to generation. There are no huge high-paying jobs and everyone works hard,” he said. “So people lose everything they’ve worked for all their lives. It’s gone because these (Russian troops) are bombing like crazy. So even if the humanitarian effort is now, it will get worse in a year or two. It is a real tragedy.
“The sooner (the war) ends, the better,” he said.
The International Territorial Defense Legion of Ukraine is a foreign legion military force created by the Ukrainian government.
On March 6, Ukrainian leaders said that up to 20,000 volunteers from 52 counties had expressed interest in joining the legion.
The war in Ukraine is in its fourth week. Russian troops failed to take kyiv – a major objective in their hopes of forcing a settlement or dictating Ukraine’s future political alignments – but wreaked havoc and devastation, the Associated Press reported.
On Thursday, the UN migration agency said the fighting had displaced nearly 6.5 million people inside Ukraine, in addition to the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country. , according to the AP. Ukraine says thousands of people have been killed.
More from MLive
Governor Whitmer Supports Temporary Suspension of Michigan’s 6% Gasoline Sales Tax
Supreme Court to hear case that could upend adoption of 3-year-old boy
Kent County sheriff’s deputy fires two shots at unoccupied vehicle, police say investigating