Early in the morning they were at their frontline positions, firing artillery at Russian forces. Hours later, wearing the same uniforms and body armor, they passed their final test — an obstacle course — to officially become Ukrainian marines.
Running through puddles and mud, climbing under barbed wire and across simulated anti-tank ditches, they shouted, “Glory to Ukraine!” and “I love the marines!” Commanders barked orders and made them drop for push-ups.
When they were done, they piled into pickup trucks and drove back to the front to rejoin Ukraine’s counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military, straining to replenish its ranks in the middle of war, trains soldiers and puts them through qualifying tests even after they are deployed to the front. The obstacle course the marines went through on a warm summer afternoon recently was one example: built just a few miles from the actual fighting, including the same kinds of trenches, bunkers and barbed wire used in the war against Russia.
Candidates from the 36th Marine Brigade were rotated off the front line to run the course. To take part, candidates needed at least three months of combat experience. Many in the first group of 40 artillerymen had seen more than that.
“I am fighting for eight months already and all the time at the hardest parts of the front,” said Lieutenant Arseniy, who, like others interviewed for this article, asked to be identified only by his first name and rank for security reasons. Though an artillery platoon commander, he had not yet qualified to wear the marine beret.
Muddy and exhausted, the men nevertheless were in good spirits, greeting one another before running the course.
“A day has come when you can show that you are a true marine,” Maj. Nazariy Tofan, who was helping to lead the training, told the candidates. “You should remember this race for the rest of your life.”
As Ukraine fights along hundreds of miles of front line in a war that has lasted 17 months and shows no sign of easing, it must replace fallen soldiers and continue training those who deployed without completing formal preparation. The 36th Marine Brigade fought in the southern city of Mariupol after Russia began its full-scale invasion last winter, holding out for weeks in a steel factory that was pounded relentlessly by Moscow’s forces.
Many died or were wounded, and more than a thousand were captured. The brigade’s former commander is still a prisoner of war in Russia.
Only about 200 marines escaped the encirclement. Survivors were redeployed to fight in the southern Kherson region and new troops were called up. The 36th is now around the typical size of a brigade, about 4,000 marines.
The obstacle course was designed to simulate as closely as possible actual combat conditions. Smoke grenades and fireworks went off. There was an ambush. Fellow marines fired blanks and yelled at the candidates.
Private Serhiy, 54, started to fall behind. A doctor came to check on him, found he had high blood pressure and administered an injection. He did not pass the course.
“This war is not for me anymore,” he said.
“It’s not for any of us in Ukraine,” the doctor replied.
The other candidates ran on, struggling through mud and burning tires. When the course was over, 39 of the 40 had qualified.
After other groups completed the challenge, a ceremony was held where the newly minted marines swore their oath — to be brave and not leave brothers in arms behind — and received their berets. Then they returned to the front.