Grady Williams (center) and members of his unit in Ukraine, where he volunteered with the Georgian National Legion. | Credit: Courtesy

In early March, retired Santa Barbara consultant Grady Williams was on a plane to embattled Ukraine, pondering the fact that he might not come back. A week before, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had pleaded with foreign nationals to join in the defense of the country. Williams, a mixed martial artist and recreational sharpshooter, said that he was answering the call. “After watching and reading about [national resistance], I felt a wave of admiration for [the Ukrainian people’s] strength and determination,” he remembered. “Even though I’m 64 years old, I’m in great shape. I felt like I had to do something.” 

Williams and legion leader Mamuka Mamulashvili | Credit: Courtesy

After landing in Poland, hitchhiking across the border into Ukraine, and spending five days in Kyiv, Williams came into contact with men from the Georgian National Legion. The legion fights under the umbrella of the Ukrainian military and is a 1,000-volunteers-strong unit founded in 2014 by ethnic Georgian officers. Upon passing a background check and completing military instruction on March 20, Williams was tasked with performing base security, distributing humanitarian aid, and helping train recruits. “The recruits came from many different countries — Germany, Cyprus, Spain,” he explained. “Everyone was friendly and trusting of each other, and ultimately ready to die for a common cause.”

Williams also witnessed (but was not directly involved in) some heavy frontline combat, including an ambush that destroyed most of a Russian armored column. “[The Georgian Legion] blew up the front and rear of the convoy and flooded the surrounding fields.” Once the vehicles were trapped, the legion fighters picked off any Russian soldiers who did not flee the scene. According to Williams, the legion specializes in reconnaissance and ambush tactics of this nature.

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The war in Ukraine has been marked by often extreme viciousness, with Russian forces committing numerous documented atrocities. Nevertheless, some Georgian Legion members have been among the Ukrainian units also accused of war crimes — albeit on a much smaller scale. One video shows an alleged member participating in the shooting of a Russian prisoner.

During his time in the legion, Williams had gained the confidence of Mamuka Mamulashvili, the leader of the Georgian Legion who also fought against Russian forces in Chechnya during the 1990s and served as military advisor to former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 Russian invasion of South Ossetia. “One thing that stood out was [Mamulashvili’s] reluctance to let new recruits go to the front line,” he said. “Even though he wanted to make sure they were well-trained before letting them be put in danger, this was a source of frustration for many new volunteers.”

Williams departed Ukraine on April 24, the date of his return ticket, and now fundraises for the Georgian Legion in Santa Barbara and elsewhere in California. While he was in Ukraine, he and other volunteers downloaded an app to warn them of incoming bombs and missiles. Even now, he keeps the app on his phone, hearing the air siren noise whenever a strike is about to commence 6,000 miles away. “I can’t let go of being there — it was an unbelievable experience,” he said.

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