The life of being a Foreign Fighter as told by French Legionnaires

The French Foreign Legion is shrouded by mystery and legend; often referred to as the Legion, with a capital ‘L’. This French military unit is comprised of mostly foreigners, commanded by French officers. It’s popularized by its depictions in movies like Legionnaire starring Jean Claude Van Damme, and Sir Bear Grylls (Man vs. Wild) who documented undergoing a shortened version of Legionnaire training*. Those who are able to tough it through the rigorous 15 week-long training and five-year long contract may be rewarded with a new identity, and a freshly minted French passport.

Of course, whether or not you make it is not always up to the individual. About 80% don’t make it through the selection phase, and many who drop out, or are dropped from the training, still claim to have been in the Legion, though they were never given an opportunity to serve in its ranks.

So, what’s a western man to do if they couldn’t make it in the Legion and didn’t want to join their own military because they don’t consider it ‘elite’ enough?

Well, apparently, they become a foreign fighter.

This is a broad generalization, of course, since there are several veterans of other militaries, and more than a handful of real Legionnaires who become foreign fighters because they have a taste for war and have no interest in going civil. There are some civilians who come to fight in foreign wars because they believe in it, and have backgrounds as fighters, have extensive weapons training and simply look for adventure. But there are others who, molded by what they see in movies and play in video games, decide one day that they’d like to take a hand in this whole “war thing”, and while they are at it, they might as well take a selfie with a sniper rifle so they can use it on their facebook profile.

301555_2514279457003_1027535805_nThe foreign fighters in the rebel territories of eastern Ukraine that have been here for almost a year have made a name for themselves and become D-list celebrities. Boasting thousands of facebook friends, most of whom they don’t know, and are recognized on the streets of the rebel territories. Journalists expend a lot of effort trying to contact them on social media to ask for interviews.

With their notoriety comes a flood of messages from “fans” begging them to join their ranks.

“Look!” Rafael Lusvarghi, the Brazilian fighter and head of the national-socialist Team Vikernes, said as he held up his laptop, “Another guy who couldn’t make it in the Legion, asking me if he can come fight in Donbas.”

He often doesn’t respond to them, simply stating that “if they couldn’t make it in their own country’s military, and they couldn’t make it in the Legion, why do they think they would make it here?”

Indeed, coming to Donbas does come with some of the similar benefits of the Legion. Many of them arrive and, though they do not discard their own passports, they are often allowed to choose a different name, or at least a nom de guerre. They might even get citizenship into a pseudo-recognized pro-Russian territory such as Abkhazia or Transnistria (though I don’t know if that’s ever been realized). They get notoriety, they have their hands shaken when they walk down the street, and they get the recognition of being in the military without completing 15 weeks of training – many are under the impression that they arrive, get a weapon in their hand, and go to fight with the same ease as it takes to log into a first person shooter game.

Charles, a former Legionnaire, describes his experience in Donbas as “harder, because you’re not surrounded by professionals, you don’t have the infrastructure of a real Army to get you food, supplies and ammunition and you don’t get paid.”

Rafael describes most of those begging to volunteer as “civilians, often overweight, physically unfit and unable to figure out how to get into the rebel territory on their own. Come on! Journalists , humanitarian volunteers and war tourists can figure out how to do it. How can I accept a volunteer fighter who needs his hand held like a child for the safest task he’ll have to do to get here?”

Others who volunteer and make it into the territory seem to leave, on average, after three months, often citing disillusionment at not seeing as much combat as they wanted. Others are frustrated by the poor food, incredibly poor living conditions and the lack of infrastructure (as Charles pointed out).

“I have been in the Brazilian Military Police, and the Legion,” says Rafael, “and it’s different here because you steal or scavenge your magazines. We raid Ukrainian blockposts in order to get ammunition, and we buy our own uniforms, our own gear, and we pay with our own money.”

IMG_20141202_151746Like the Legion, though, he says that some of the foreign fighters are seen as expendable because they are not local, are cut off from their families and often stuck at sea without a flotation device. That suits some of the fighters just fine, they enjoy the independence and would rather depend on themselves rather than some supply sergeant in a closet somewhere in the company headquarters. Others do not fare so well, and end up stranded in the rebel-held territories, grasping for a way to beg for a way home after having spent all their money.

They say that ISIS, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish fighters suffer the same issues with western volunteers. Many come for the bang-bang, but never realize that they’ll have kitchen duty, and that there are no F.L.U.O.R. civilian contractors to do their laundry, or cook their meals. Others never realized that it was a standard duty to end up pulling guard for hours on end where nothing happens, then end up huddled inside a trench as the enemy fires on their position, and they can’t pop their head out enough to even get a shot off.

Maybe movies and video games could do a better job of conveying these hardships by adding additional levels where they do nothing but clean toilets, fill sand bags and dig trenches before their rather ornery superior officer allows them a taste of combat. And even then, they’ll probably get picked on as the new guy, and told to quit their complaining or go home to their mother.

They could end with someone like Rafael kicking them out of the barracks, telling him to find their own way home in a country where they don’t speak the language, where the bus schedule isn’t posted anywhere, and they end up spending hours making phone calls begging for a place to stay because they don’t have enough money to pay 5 euros for a hostel bed.

That would be much more realistic.

* Altered from previous version which stated Bear Grylls was in the Legion

About The Author
Kat Argo
Kat Argo is an indie writer and filmmaker covering the war in Ukraine; A former military analyst and Afghanistan veteran living out of a backpack and sends articles and video dispatches from war zones that blogs at