*Sarah was injured serving on the zero line in the early morning hours of February 23, 2023 - on the 365th day of Russia's war against Ukraine. She sustained permanent injuries to her hand and face and remains committed to complete victory in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!
By Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
A March day both radiantly sunny and bitingly cold. It wasn’t the brutal cold I’d eventually learn to expect in the trenches, but a cold that lingered, biting and nipping at the skin while managing to combine with the sun. It offer a strange freshness to Kharkiv, a city that had been undergoing constant mortar, artillery, and rocket attacks for weeks straight.
Approaching the scene, the body lay upon a board, partially covered and rigid, with shoes sticking directly skyward. Noticing it among the strewn wreckage of the iconic Regional Administration offices, I gingerly approached. There, in the middle of an apocalyptic vision, paused to wonder if it was disrespectful to the dead man to photograph him and the surrounding scene.
Many months later, after spring ended and the summer had as well, I found myself in the midst of global controversy for my reporting next to another body, again a Ukrainian victim of Russian terrorism. That event, which came in the aftermath of a rocket attack on Kyiv, was the last notable act I undertook as a civilian in Ukraine. Two days later, I enlisted in the army.
During the intervening time between my initial exposure to war in Kharkiv, and that capstone event on the streets of the capital city, a metamorphosis took place; I transformed impartial observer to a volunteer participant and ultimately into a combatant who swore her loyalty to Ukraine. Not only did it not happen overnight, I wasn’t willing to accept the evolution was even taking place until it was too late to do anything but move forward toward victory. Simply put, by the time I realized I was prepared to fight and bleed for freedom on the fertile fields of Europe’s breadbasket, it was no longer a choice I was making but instead a path I had to follow until its natural finish.
I’d been warned on several occasions by fellow journalists, including one of the most famous in the world, to take a break by May, to leave and reevaluate my priorities as a reporter and human. Had I listened, and in reality, I probably should have, I’d be comfortably covering politics in the United States right now. As every reader of my column knows, I didn’t listen. I willfully remained in a country at war through four seasons and an untold amount of horror.
As the world approaches the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s subsequent exposure as the head of a mafia state and sponsor of genocide and terrorism, I’ve been thinking of both the past year and what the future holds. In each case, as I bear arms in this historic effort to liberate one nation while helping inflict a transformative defeat on another, I have only vague notions about what happened and what will happen. As for the latter, we will be victorious in every way; that is certain, but the means of achieving this are as obtuse to me as the recollections of what took place on the journey from journalist to soldier.
Regarding the former, being surrounded by death played a role for sure. Witnessing the victims on streets, in houses, and hidden in mass graves never became easier. The anger of seeing so many individuals struck down by cowardly war criminals never subsided. The death of innocents has never been, nor will they ever be, forgotten by me. Yet, this is only part of it.
The larger part is at the core of who I am, and it exists because of the place of my birth. I carry a fundamental and overriding belief in the values, ideas, and ideals I was immersed in because I grew up in the world’s greatest experiment in freedom, history’s greatest republic, the United States of America. If I was willing to speak out against the fascist inclinations of a twice-impeached destroyer of democracy, Donald Trump, it became a priority, and made sense, to actually fight against a true fascist such as Putin.
Ultimately, I realize I won’t be able to truly process the hows and whys until we have achieved the peace goals set out by President Zelenskyy, and carried out under the dual leadership of Oleksii Reznikov, our Minister of Defense and the Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. So for now, as I prepare to join my unit at the frontlines on February 24th, 2023, I’ll offer this declaration as to why I’m fighting and why I will continue to do so until victory is declared.
There is no other answer and no need for any further explanation. Simply put, it's the right thing to do.