Correction: A previous version of this story said there have been at least eight Americans killed in Ukraine. That was inaccurate. There have been at least ten. This story was updated at 4:15 EST on Nov. 16, 2022, to reflect that change.
Trent Davis, a 21-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Kansas, was killed on his first mission with the International Legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on Nov. 8 near the southern city of Kherson. He is at least the tenth American to die fighting in Ukraine since Feb. 24.
Davis joined the International Legion out of a sense of duty, he told family members, and was eager to help Ukrainians repel the Russian invasion that began last February. After a stint with a smaller foreign volunteer outfit that declined to send the inexperienced Davis to the front in the spring — he never deployed as a U.S. soldier — the hopeful volunteer found a more willing unit with the International Legion this fall.
“He wanted to do his part to bring kids into a safer world, even if it could cause him to sacrifice his life,” said Davis’ mother, Janie Broadbent. “He said Russians are pretty much bullies, and he just wanted to help people.”
That’s why he went to Ukraine, she said — not once, but twice.
On Nov. 4, a couple of weeks after he returned to Ukraine from the U.S., where he spent a few months at home with his loved ones, he called his mom to share the good news — he signed a contract and was now officially part of the International Legion. Davis was overjoyed, she said in an interview with Military Times. He told her that he would soon be heading out to join the counteroffensive in the south of Ukraine.
But Davis never got to see the fruits of his labor — the triumphant yellow-banded troops moving into Kherson, the country’s only regional capital to have been seized by Russian forces and subsequently liberated last week. He didn’t get to feel the flood of appreciation for troops like him who helped bring about that freedom.
“He would look me dead in the eye and say I’m invincible,” Davis’ father, Christopher Davis, said about his playful, yet stubborn, son. “He had that young-man confidence. He believed it and he made me believe it.”
As a combat veteran himself who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army, “I should have known better,” the elder Davis said. “The enemy gets a vote no matter what you plan.”
Davis’ parents were told by an International Legion representative that their son and another soldier sustained serious injuries during battle but were pulled out by another unit member who was able to bring them to safety. Davis died shortly thereafter from his wounds while being medically evacuated to a field hospital, the representative said.
Davis signed up with the U.S. Army when he was 17 as a chemical operations, or CBRN, specialist at Fort Riley, Kansas. He finished his service contract as a private with no deployments last December, according to a statement by Madison Bonzo, U.S. Army spokeswoman.
After leaving the military, Davis sought work but found nothing satisfying, his family said. Then the war in Ukraine broke out. Although he had enjoyed his job as a CBRN specialist while serving, he sometimes grew frustrated that he never had the chance to put much of what he learned to use in the real world, said his girlfriend, Seraphine Eyres, another U.S. service member based at Fort Riley.
“In Ukraine, he saw an opportunity to really help people,” she said. Davis and Eyres began dating about a year and a half ago after meeting on the base. She was dismayed when he decided to go to Ukraine, she said, but understood that it was just the type of guy he was, “always trying to help people.”
Tens of thousands of foreigners have reportedly joined the ranks of Ukraine’s International Legion since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a global call to arms just days after Russia began its invasion on Feb. 24. “Anyone who wants to join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians,” Zelenskyy said in a statement on Feb. 26.
Zelenskyy announced the creation of the International Legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and soon lifted visa restrictions for volunteer fighters coming to Ukraine from most countries. By March 5, the government laid out the requirements to join the Legion — non-Ukrainian citizenship, belief in freedom and democracy, and combat experience — and set up a website to streamline the registration process.
But Davis had never been deployed and had no combat experience before joining the Legion. When asked why he was brought to the front, a spokesperson for the International Legion, who goes by the callsign Mockingjay according to Ukrainian military security protocols, would only confirm that Davis was killed during an operation on the country’s southern front on Nov. 8 but offered few other details.
She said that combat experience is a prerequisite to join the Legion but that “recruiting decisions are made by officers in western Ukraine” and she “cannot comment on individual situations.” She later added, “No commander takes on inexperienced soldiers who did not have the appropriate training and skills.”
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv declined to comment, as did representatives from his unit.
Davis’ first unit, the Georgian Legion, refused to put him in a combat position because of his lack of hands-on experience, said Legion Second Deputy Commander Henryk Diasamidze. The Georgian Legion is another international battalion in the Ukrainian military that predates Russia’s 2022 invasion and is primarily composed of combat-ready veterans from the south Caucasus country of Georgia. It focuses on training other Ukrainian units and carrying out stealth reconnaissance and combat missions across the country.
Skilled but inexperienced vets like Davis are utilized as trainers for civilians and new recruits away from the front line, Diasamidze said, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin put a target on “foreign mercenaries” from the West in talks last spring. Over the two months Davis was with the Georgian Legion, he said, the eager volunteer provided medical and tactical training to hundreds of people across the country.
“He had a big heart and always tried to make everyone smile,” Diasamidze said as he flipped through his phone to pull up photos of the two posing together in front of an American flag and sitting down to a family-style meal. “He was our brother and he will be missed.”
The commander of the Georgian Legion, Mamuka Mamulashvili, also made a statement expressing his sadness at learning of Davis’ death and emphasizing that “we are grateful to the American people for their help protecting world democracy.”
Although friends and family members said he considered his work with the Georgian Legion to be meaningful, it was not the type of work he’d come to Ukraine to do and he itched to get closer to the front line. Davis soon learned that the International Legion, which is much larger, would be able to afford him the opportunity.
Alongside Davis, at least nine other American citizens have died fighting in Ukraine: Timothy Griffin, an American from New York, and 23-year-old Skyler James Greggs from Washington state were killed in action while on separate missions with the International Legion earlier this month, while 34-year-old Army infantryman Dane Partridge, 34-year-old Army paratrooper Paul Lee Kim, 24-year-old Army veteran Joshua Jones, 51-year-old Bryan Young, 31-year-old Luke Lucyszyn, 52-year-old Army veteran Stephen Zabielski and 22-year-old Joseph “Willy” Cancel died earlier this year.
Ukrainian and Russian governments closely guard official casualty numbers, but experts assess that overall rates for injuries and deaths in both groups of combatants during this year’s war have been large. Just last week, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon estimates that over 200,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded in the war this year alone.
Casualty rates of foreign fighters in Ukraine have not been tallied separately and are officially unknown.
Although Davis had never seen combat before arriving in Ukraine, he seemed to understand the high stakes of the risks he was taking, his family said.
When Davis came home last summer, he made sure to write a will that included individual notes for each of his family members. He asked that, were anything to happen to him, his family fly a Ukrainian flag over their homes as a representation of their support for freedom and as a symbol of his sacrifice. “I’m putting one up as soon as I can,” his father said. “Right next to the American flag.”
Upon learning of his death, Ukrainian troops placed Davis’ photo with bouquets of yellow daisies at the Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine in central Kyiv, an ever-growing shrine to the heroes of the country who have been killed during the war. Davis’ family said they received several messages from friends and fellow service members in Ukraine expressing their condolences.
“I hope Ukrainians know that they are not alone, that there are people that are willing to sacrifice their lives for them,” Broadbent said when asked if she could find any meaning in her loss. “I may not completely understand my son’s choice to go fight so far away, but I am so proud of him for doing what he knew was right.”
Trent Davis is survived by his mother and father, both remarried, along with one older sibling, three younger siblings and his girlfriend. His family plans to hold a funeral for Davis, once his remains arrive from Ukraine, in the coming weeks.