KYIV—The vehicle carrying fallen soldiers pulled into the courtyard of the morgue in Ukraine’s eastern city of Dnipro at dusk. Iryna Khoroshayeva, an elegant former events manager, was watching on with high hopes. “Maybe this will be my lucky day, and I’ll finally find my beautiful American,” she said.
Her mission in this brutal war is to search, recover and expatriate the bodies of international voluntary soldiers. Since Sept. 22, when she learned about missing Californian Jericho Skye, Khoroshayeva has been on a relentless search for him around eight morgues in eastern Ukraine.
Animated by belief in the black and white moral cause of the Ukraine war, hundreds of Americans, including Skye, a tall, handsome 26-year-old construction worker, arrived in Ukraine in the early days of the war and continued to fight or to investigate war crimes even amid signs that the U.S. governmental support is wavering. Skye is believed to have been killed on a battlefield in the Donetsk region in early September.
This job is not just a formality for Khroshayeva. During her research, she learns about the fallen soldier’s life. She discovered that Skye had returned to Ukraine several times during the war, and described his Ukrainian brothers in arms as “my guys.”
“I was not sure all the bones were there, I counted them when I opened the bag; there was a skeleton. He had a helmet on and boots”
— Iryna Khoroshayeva
She will not give up looking for him. “Skye has a beautiful family, I have to bring him back to his wife and little son, who deserve to have a place where they would think of him in his own country,” she said. “This is the least we can do in our gratitude.”
Searching for the remains of soldiers who’ve long been missing in the fog and chaos of war sounds impossible, and it certainly takes an extremely stubborn and devoted person to track them down. Khoroshayeva, 40, just happens to be perfect for the job.
It takes her weeks to search for the decomposed remains of soldiers which are often hidden among many other decomposed bodies. But Khoroshayeva refuses to take no for an answer. She sends relatives 18 questions about identifying features, goes through thousands of photos, talks with military leadership and finally goes to morgues to find the missing soldiers.
Khorosheva, a joyful woman with long sleek hair, from the city of Cherkasy, works with the U.S. humanitarian group, the Weatherman Foundation, which focuses mostly on evacuating and helping children as well as human rights issues. “Our new mission is not only bringing the soldiers home but also doing it with dignity,” the foundation’s president Meaghan Mobbs told The Daily Beast. She shared a photo of a sheaf of wheat bound with blue and yellow ribbon, which was placed on top of the American flag that was covering the remains of ex-U.S. marine Grady Kurpasi. The group repatriated Kurpasi in May more than a year after he was killed in a battle outside of Kherson. Since June, the Weatherman Foundation has discovered and evacuated 30 fallen international soldiers from Ukraine’s battlefields.
Every one of these foreign volunteers had a choice not to go on their missions, Kurpasi could have stayed in Mykolaiv on the April day in 2022 but he went to the occupied Kherson region to help organize the evacuation of civilians. “Russian fire covered them, Grady was killed. In three days our reconnaissance drone took a picture of Grady’s body on the ground. It was decomposing in the sun on the wet ground,” Khorosheva told The Daily Beast. “To bring his remains home, the military had to de-mine the ground first.”
“We lifted the remains up in plastic bags; there were eight bodies at the Mykolaiv morgue; I think some wild animals might have dragged Grady’s body to the other side of the field, into the grayzone,” Khorosheva remembered. “I was not sure all the bones were there, I counted them when I opened the bag; there was a skeleton. He had a helmet on and boots, his ammunition was on him.”
Foreign volunteers, including many Americans, often fight on the most brutal eastern and southern fronts shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians. They sign up both for the International Legion in the regular military forces and for volunteer battalions, in most cases without letting their embassies know and without registering their DNA so they can be identified if they are killed in service.
“I respect each one of them greatly for their service for my country, I just wish some private agency could register the DNA of volunteer soldiers before they go to the front—that would be an immense help,” Khorosheva told The Daily Beast. She has helped to search, recover and repatriate the remains of Dutch soldiers Redsdorf Rasmus Askjaer and Oskar Aleksander Koksvik Johhansson, as well as Kurpasi, who enlisted in the Marine Corps after 9/11, went to Iraq as a scout sniper three times and was killed in Kherson region in April 2022.
Many soldiers have been killed during Russia’s almost two-year-long invasion of Ukraine. “We say more than 50,000 soldiers have been killed, although exact numbers have not been published and a huge number of fallen soldiers, up to a half of all the killed go missing,” Sevgil Musayeva, chief editor of Ukrainska Pravda told The Daily Beast.
The spectacular St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv hosts funerals of foreign soldiers nearly every week. Trumpets and drums played funeral music, as a couple of dozen Ukrainian and international soldiers said goodbye to their fallen friends there last Wednesday.
There were male and female soldiers gathered, some very young, some on crutches. The procession carried the coffins to a memorial wall covered in photographs of soldiers killed during the years of Russian invasion. In one of the coffins, there was a 25-year-old Canadian soldier, Austin Lathlin-Bercier, who traveled across the world, led “by the call of his heart to defend Ukrainian women and children,” one of his friends told The Daily Beast.
Two days earlier, St. Michael’s had a service for Yusef John Conners from the U.K.
The news of more foreign deaths seems endless. Khoroshayeva often goes to the improvised memorial on the Independence Square in Kyiv to find new names of Americans in the field of little flags with names of the fallen.
The project has become a mission for all of Khoroshayeva’s family. Both of her daughters have helped their mother: her 12-year-old daughter recently sold her pony-tail and her 14-year-old daughter sold a painting at an auction to raise money.
Days and sometimes months pass by before the bodies of the fallen can be picked up from the battlefields. “I can promise the other families looking for their missing loved ones that I am doing—and I will do—everything to find them, so they could be buried in dignity,” Khoroshayeva said. “It drives me on to find their bodies, have funerals with dignity and make sure families get compensated for the service of their loved ones.”
“I have a feeling I am very close to finding Skye, bringing him back to his 6-year-old son.”
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