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Ukraine buries a 'brave son' from America

Father George Kovalenko gives a eulogy at Christopher James Campbell's funeral in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 5, 2023.
Julian Hayda
/
NPR
Father George Kovalenko gives a eulogy at Christopher James Campbell's funeral in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 5, 2023.

KYIV, Ukraine — When Christopher James Campbell dropped out of school, sold his belongings and moved to Ukraine in the spring of 2022, his loved ones weren't sure why.

"He would always say, 'I feel like I have a unique ability to help. I have the knowledge to be here to fight, and I have the ability to help people,'" said Nelson Rumsey, Campbell's platoon sergeant when the two served in the U.S. Army in Iraq.

"I couldn't fathom putting myself in that situation [but] he was a cut above a lot of people when it comes to morals and sense of duty," Rumsey said.

Campbell's volunteer mission to Ukraine came to an end on April 7, when he was killed defending the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

According to the Associated Press, he's one of at least nine Americans known to have died in Ukraine since Russia's invasion began in February 2022.

In this photo from the Campbell family, Christopher Campbell is seen on the front line or the war.
/ Family of Christopher Campbell
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Family of Christopher Campbell
In this photo from the Campbell family, Christopher Campbell is seen on the front line of the war.

As Ukraine struggles to maintain global attention nearly 15 months into a full-scale war with Russia, groups like the foreign legion have struggled with enrollment. Still, Ukraine depends on the expertise of foreign volunteers to keep local volunteers and conscripts up to speed on NATO standards.

"The best men in the world are right here right now," said Iva Sanina, Campbell's fiancée, at his funeral in Kyiv on May 5.

"He helped us a lot to understand vehicles, weapons, and tactics," said Hlib Fishchenko, who helped recruit Campbell to fight in Ukraine. "The information he gave us is still useful."

Sanina said she feels deep gratitude for the families of foreign volunteers, like the Campbells, who know the risk their loved ones are taking on in Ukraine.

"How can a mother support her son going off to war?" Sanina said. "I don't know if I would have if I were in her shoes."

"My concerns and my want for my son to be home with us were overshadowed in knowing that he was fulfilled," wrote Cheri Campbell, Christopher's mother, in a statement provided to NPR.

Iva Sanina, Christopher Campbell's fiancee, seen after receiving the flag that draped his coffin.
Julian Hayda / NPR
/
NPR
Iva Sanina, Christopher Campbell's fiancee, seen after receiving the flag that draped his coffin.

She watched a livestream of the funeral from their home in Florida, since the U.S. State Department continues to advise Americans to avoid the country.

"After the war, he had dreams of buying a farm in the mountains and being with the love of his life," the statement continued.

Sanina said that Campbell was well on his way to becoming fluent in Ukrainian, and wanted to ask for her parent's blessing for marriage in their native language.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian civic leaders have been eager to highlight their country's diversity, including the Americans, Chechens, Belarusians and others who make a new home in Ukraine amid the war.

"God does not divide humanity based on their skin color, or nationality, or even faith, so, too, do we honor the heroism of those who defend life, defend liberty and defend love," said Father George Kovalenko, one of Ukraine's leading public intellectuals and a rector of the Open Orthodox University of Saint Sophia, during Campbell's eulogy.

"He was brave like a Ukrainian. He was stubborn like a Ukrainian," said Sanina, who is part of an influential artistic family in Ukraine. "He became a Ukrainian himself."

"They are brave sons of Ukraine who did everything to prevent people like me from getting raped and murdered. ... They are preventing genocide," Sanina said of foreign fighters aiding Ukraine.

According to his wishes, Campbell was laid to rest in a Kyiv cemetery.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julian Hayda
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