In 2015 Stanislav Chechko joined the French Foreign Legion, a corps created in 1831 to allow foreign nationals to serve in the French Army. The Foreign Legion recruits highly trained soldiers from anywhere in the world.
During the first several years of service, legionnaires are considered foreign nationals, but are entitled to French citizenship after three years. After 15 years of serving in the Foreign Legion, they receive a one-off financial aid package and a lifetime pension, even if they move abroad.
Candidates willing to join the French Foreign Legion are subject to rigorous checks and countless tests, including a personality profile. Stanislav said that only about 10% of candidates who applied alongside him were accepted.
On the morning of 24 February 2022, Stanislav decided to return to Ukraine and fight for his homeland’s independence. He told the Village Ukraine about what he left behind and everything he’s had to go through since making the decision.
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Disclaimer: This interview was recorded during Stanislav’s treatment in an Ivano-Frankivsk hospital. He was undergoing rehabilitation after an injury he received in Luhansk Oblast.
Before I came back to Ukraine, my life was rather steady and sensible, even though others might not think of it as such. I took part in missions outside France, for example in Mali, Niger, and Lebanon. I’ve been in the French Foreign Legion for eight years and have risen through the ranks to become an officer.
What was my service there like? Quite similar to serving in Ukraine, except for the fact that the legion took part in many missions outside of the country. France has interests in several African countries. I have only now started to consider these supposedly benign interventions into the affairs of those countries from a new perspective. During my service I hardly questioned which side is right and which is wrong.
It would have been to the detriment of my service. I knew that I just had to get my job done during the four-month deployment and return to France. Thinking too much about the political situation [in the countries where I had been deployed] in those circumstances would make anyone depressed.
I found out about the legion in 2005, during my service in Ukraine. I was out for a smoke and one of the demobbed soldiers was saying that this organisation existed. Usually when you’re approaching the end of your service, you think: “Alright, I’ll get back and then think about what to do next.” I filed the information away for later. At a certain point in my life, I decided I’d try living abroad, in France. I could choose between becoming a worker or joining the legion. I chose the latter. There were a lot of candidates, the selection process lasted a month.
I was under the impression that they were choosing people not so much based on the strength of their will, but rather based on whether they had an “appropriate” psychological profile. For example, growing up without a father, or having a father who was an alcoholic, was considered a drawback. [The recruiters] psychologically profile you – a good profile was a prerequisite of being hired. There were instances when I’d talk to some of the candidates and think that I wouldn’t be able to go out or have a drink with them, let alone be in any kind of a dangerous situation with them. Because they wouldn’t help or support you in danger. But they’d be accepted, because they came from the “right” kind of families.
There were many other tests and exams: emotional resilience, intelligence, physical fitness. A special service (some of our Ukrainian former military personnel and police officers work there) also checks whether you’ve had any problems in Ukraine. People from around 130 different countries served in the legion during my time there. There was someone from Ukraine during the selection process who knew what the right questions to ask a fellow Ukrainian were. At best 10 out of a hundred candidates would be hired after the selection process.
I joined the legion in 2014. Even then I had considered going back, after Russia annexed Crimea and launched its war against Ukraine, but I failed to understand many things about what was going on, how long it would last, how the situation would develop. I decided that it would make sense to get proper training before going back to Ukraine, that I’d be more useful that way. I’m a combat engineer, I wanted to be able to teach my comrades the things I’d learned. But I kept putting off my decision.
I stayed in France. I had to learn the language and adapt to the new environment. A typical day would start in the barracks, I really enjoyed that: it introduced order, discipline, and aims into my life. I enjoyed myself even more once I was made an officer and took on some management responsibilities. In Ukraine my rank would correspond to that of a senior lieutenant.
After breakfast we’d always exercise, they really love running, we’d run 10-15 kilometres in the mountains. Then we had lunch, then classes. If you’re a soldier, you then have a series of chores and responsibilities, but if you’re an officer you have some free time and can leave the military base. (I became an officer after five years of service.) On weekends, we even had croissants for breakfast.
The morning of 24 February, however, began not with breakfast but with messages and calls from Ukraine. I realised that I couldn’t put off the decision to go back any longer.
The night before the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion was interesting; we were in the forest, doing field exercises with the French army. There were around 800 of us, from different units: artillery, infantry, paratroopers, combat engineers. Around 23:30 on 23 February our training was called off, we were taken back to the barracks. I had no idea what was going on and thought maybe it had something to do with Covid, or something like that. We went to bed. The following morning I got a call from my friend who said “Hey Stas, our airport [in Ivano-Frankivsk] was fucking hit.” I was fucking shocked.
Me and a couple other guys from Ukraine appealed to our commanders with a request to let us return to Ukraine. They said: “Okay, we will review your request.” We waited for their response for two days. Then they summoned us and read us a statute stipulating that we are French soldiers and have no right to fight on the side of other countries. Even our motherland.
Obviously we weren’t satisfied with that decision. They saw that. There were a total of maybe 400 Ukrainians [in the French Foreign Legion]. They started to explain the consequences of our possible desertion: we would lose our French citizenship, financial aid upon the completion of service (nearly 30,000 euros). They were trying to pressure us into staying.
I realised that I needed to start packing my belongings and sending them to Ukraine whenever possible. I’ve accumulated lots of stuff in my eight years in France. By then, European authorities had already started searching for legionnaires who might have gone to war.
They knew how to look for them, what to look for. But we went to war with the full realisation that we needed uniforms and equipment. The things that I managed to send home had been decommissioned in France: sleeping bags, clothes, things like that. Legionnaires caught in Europe were given a choice: either to return to the legion with all their possessions, or to surrender everything and keep going empty-handed. Knowing this, I looked for roundabout ways to get to Ukraine. I drove a civilian car, with none of my military papers.
It all looked like this: imagine working a job and one day simply not showing up for it. I could be prosecuted for my desertion and sentenced to three to seven years of imprisonment. Though it’s possible that nothing like that would happen and they’d just fire me… I have no idea what will happen. But if a criminal case is opened, I can be detained in any European country.
Despite that, I realised that my motherland was fighting for its freedom and I couldn’t do anything other than join the fight. If I didn’t, I would have lost all self-respect
I arrived in Ukraine in early March, after two days of travel. I immediately went to enlist in the Safari Regiment [a special forces regiment of the National Police of Ukraine – ed.]. I knew that the commanders of some units drank, and didn’t want to end up in one of those. I thought that I shouldn’t waste the eight years I spent serving in one of the world’s best armies. Safari comprises several special units, including the Rapid Response Corps, Sokil (Falcon) [a rapid response unit of the Department for Combating Organized Crime of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was disbanded in 2015 and whose servicemen joined the newly formed Rapid Response Corps – ed.], and other special forces units. It’s an elite battalion, many people dream of joining it.
At first we were deployed in Kyiv [Oblast], we were there in time for the Bucha and Irpin battles. From there we went to Sumy [Oblast], where we spent a month or so. From Sumy we went to Kharkiv, where we spent another month. From Kharkiv we went back to Kyiv, where I submitted a request to be transferred to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. My contract will end once the war is over.
I’ve always been curious about how I’d behave in an extreme situation, whether I’d blow it. I’ve seen adults, experienced officers, crawl under a tank during shelling and remain there until it was all over. That’s the power of shell shock, and nothing can be done about it. It’s human nature. So I was thinking: “If they start to hit us really fucking hard, will I screw up?”
You can be a great person, an expert at what you do. But during an attack, you still might just freeze. You yell at a person in that state to bring you ammo, and they’re just blank. Of course that’s dangerous – and not just to the person experiencing shock.
I remain quite calm during close combat and artillery shelling. There’s some adrenalin, but for the most part it just gets your energy going and blood pumping. But when a tank fires at you, that’s really frightening – when you’re sitting somewhere and realise that the enemy forces can see you, that they’re aiming right at you. But experience and training have helped me, I knew what I had to do, how I had to move, how to act in the event of attacks from different types of forces.
The hardest thing emotionally is when you can’t do anything. One night in Luhansk Oblast we couldn’t move around: the enemy forces would immediately kill us because they had thermal imagers. On top of that, several tanks were firing at us. They have a very specific sound, a rather unpleasant one. First you hear the shot. The next two or three seconds are quiet, and you keep wondering: “Was it me?”
I was injured during a mission. We pushed the enemy troops out from a power plant and then had to hold it while waiting for reinforcement. The battle lasted four days. We ran out of cigarettes, that was also stressful. It was our biggest issue at the time.
During moments like that, it really helps to believe in something. It’s all about little details, like letters from children that we used to receive together with food and equipment. Kindergarten- or school-aged children writing to you that you are defending the country. That keeps you warm and supports you even in the freezing temperatures.
On the fourth day of the siege of the power plant, enemy forces were only 20–30 metres away from us, attacking us two or three times a day. We were running out of ammunition and food, we had to constantly keep moving from one power unit to another, sometimes going back to positions where we would receive supplies from the rear. I volunteered to pick up those supplies.
I collected everything I had to collect and returned to the first power unit. As I was leaving, I knew roughly where the enemy sniper and machine gunner were hiding. I figured out how fast I had to run and where. I was second to run. I was lucky, the bullet hit my leg.
I had my phone on me and it recorded everything that happened. After the first bullet hit me, there were around 15 more, which missed their targets. I got to the power unit while firing in response. There I underwent surgery.
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Ivano-Frankivsk is my home town. When I ended up here for treatment I was glad to see that life here kept going. Some people find going back to civilian life difficult, they can’t understand how people keep living, going to work, having coffees, meeting up with their friends while the country is at war. For me it’s the opposite: the calm city, the place where I grew up, reminds me what I’m fighting for.
I get tired, exhausted by the atmosphere of constant mourning. Life on the front is difficult. When being at home gets difficult as well, when wherever you are you feel exhausted and frustrated, how can you fight?
What supports me the most are simple and heartfelt words of gratitude. I recall coming to Dnipro after getting injured. It took about seven hours to get me there. I had nothing with me when I arrived: no underwear, no socks, no clothes. The doctor said: “Have you got anything?” And when I said no, she took me with her.
She took me to a room full of clothes where I could choose anything I needed. It wasn’t just any old junk, everything looked just like in a store. I’m guessing it’s the work of our volunteers. I was very pleasantly surprised. All of Ukraine has come together to help us defend it.
I think that attention and words of support is what military personnel need the most right now. That, and long-range weapons.