The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the International Relations landscape. It has also made nearly everyone who watches the news an armchair military strategy expert. The Policy Insights Forum (PIF), in partnership with Samuel Associates, has decided to cut through the noise around the war by interviewing our top defence experts each week. This is a multi-part series authored by Jay Heisler, a Policy Research Associate with the PIF who is currently volunteering on the U.S. side of the Ukraine evacuation.
This week we talk with Perry Blackburn, a Retired U.S. Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel well-known in the Intelligence Community. Perry Blackburn is supposed to be living a calm, leisurely retirement life. Instead, he's been spearheading evacuations, safe houses, and supply drops in Afghanistan, and now in Ukraine, as CEO and founder of AFGfree, a non-profit organization. During his time in the military, Perry served in multiple roles with the US Army. The majority of that time was spent with 5th SFG (A), where he was deployed to multiple theatres. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Green Beret and was one of the first Americans on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11. He was one of the famous Horse Soldiers that rode into the country on horseback. Perry and many of the teams on the ground were featured in the film "12 Strong". His last major operation after the invasion prior to 5th Special Forces Group going back to Fort Campbell and preparing for the invasion of Iraq was as an ODB Commander commanding 6 Operational Detachments Alpha or A teams and over 900 Afghan warfighters in Operation Anaconda. In addition, Perry was a member of US Special Forces dive teams and he later played semi-professional football as a QB1 for the Abu Dhabi Wildcats. Perry is also a proud father and loving husband.
Perry sat down with the PIF to discuss his time in Ukraine on training, refugee assistance and the effect of war on women and children.
"At every major transportation hub there was some kind of humanitarian aid there," Perry told us. "Outside of the Kyiv train station, the park was overtaken by humanitarian relief. Food, water, rations and comfort items for women and children. Most of everybody that I saw went to Poland. The ones that didn't go into Poland usually had a family member or a friend they could stay with and they went on that path to get out. These were the people with a destination, some coming to the USA.”
“What really caught my attention was the women and children, ”Perry added. “You saw it everywhere, these kids just crying, like emotionally drained and the mom prodding them along. It was emotional just watching it, it reminded me of the mass movement and displacement of people I saw in movies about WWII, really emotional for everyone.”
“In Poland at one of the borders they had a refugee camp, it was a huge camp… it was almost like a mall area, a big superstore they had taken over, and they had places for people to stay and that was their transfer point,” Perry explained, about the conditions for child refugees. “The Polish people brought in a lot of supplies and activities for the kids. They did a great job of bringing in clowns and circus acts, things to see and do for the children.”
"As women and children were leaving Ukraine, there were people going into Ukraine to help with aid, training and volunteering for service. There were three levels of commitment or degrees of sacrifice, those that stayed in Poland, those that went to Lviv and those that went to Kyiv and the East. Each presented their own level of risk but, the closer you got to Russia, the higher the threat and possibility of encountering direct fire from the indiscriminate targeting by the Russians who have zero respect for civilians."
What can people back in Canada and the U.S. do for Ukrainian refugees?
"I think the biggest thing is you need to be able to provide Ukrainians with a sense of security and the ability to communicate back home with their loved ones," Perry explained. "They're not used to being away from home, they're not used to being away from their family members. And it's hard on the guys in Ukraine being away from their wives and children, one of the biggest things was to talk to their wives and children when I was there. The children need some kind of regular routine, as quickly as possible. They need to be integrated into the schools, they need to do things that kids do, and not leave them in these refugee camps. We need to allow them to be kids and to integrate into the society that they're in. It's going to help them tremendously with their day-to-day living."
But what about training? What is it like training the Ukrainian military?
"The Ukrainian soldiers want to be professionally trained and not in Russian tactics," Perry told us. "They are open to western training and tactics. That's huge because I've trained people all over the world and we all know that in some countries there's no real sense of urgency or real desire to learn new techniques, tactics or procedures. They are just going through the motions because of a geo-political partnership agreement they have no desire to commit to at the user level. Whereas the Ukrainian people and their soldiers loved the training that we gave them and there is no geo-political agreement for training. Matter of fact there is a complete desire by every country to stay out of the warfighting aspects of support to the Ukrainian armed forces. The only half-hearted commitment to training was by the UK and they folded when it came time to train on a large scale. I’m sure some small levels of technical training are conducted under the radar, but the lion's share of the training effort is conducted by people like me and my organization. As I see it this is a crime against a sovereign people and what kind of soldier would I be, and how could I live the Special Forces motto of De Oppresso Liber if I didn’t use my experience to help a nation retain its freedom and independence?”
“When we’d go to a training center, they’d have already heard about me. Word of mouth travels fast in that country and they’d mob me. I never felt more appreciated for my sacrifices. They would stop whatever they were doing and ask me for advice and they’d say 'train us.' Anything that I gave them tactically they ate up and they were very appreciative and were fast learners.
Their seriousness and commitment to their country and openness to new tactics, techniques and procedures will serve them well going forward. We will continue to provide help and be a difference maker in their readiness."