Laker Vets president who helped train Ukrainian military personnel observes stronger forces now

As Mathias Mapes-Pearson, president of student organization Laker Vets, watches events unfold in Ukraine, he has observed that Russian military forces invading Ukraine are encountering Ukrainian military members who are significantly more battle tested than those he worked with in 2015.

Mapes-Pearson, a management information systems major and U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, said he was in Ukraine then as part of the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST), working a joint operation with Ukraine and Moldova. 

He said they trained for a few weeks in eastern Ukraine on patrolling, marksmanship, identifying and eliminating improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and other drills to help Ukrainian military members address the conflict in eastern Ukraine that started in 2014.

"The Ukrainians were still trying to get adapted to fighting within the city and the area there. We were there to help them take what we learned fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how to fight in urban settings," Mapes-Pearson said.

Mathias Mapes-Pearson poses in front of a building. He is wearing a backpack.
Mathias Mapes-Pearson, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, served from 2013-2018. Part of his service was spent training Ukrainian military personnel in 2015.

Since that time, the ongoing tensions and periodic escalations stemming of that conflict have strengthened the abilities and resolve of Ukrainian military personnel, Mapes-Pearson said. 

He said the Ukrainian force in 2015 reminded him of the Afghan army, with a lot of conscripts and draftees – people who had been working normal jobs. Mapes-Pearson noted one of the first English-speaking draftees he met was an accountant working artillery. 

"Fast forward to now, they have eight years of war under their belt," Mapes-Pearson said. "That lends itself to a little more capable of an army, having veterans with combat experience under them."

That enhanced military resolve is one aspect of the Ukrainian resistance that was significantly underestimated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mapes-Pearson said. He said he believes Ukrainian military forces are also benefiting from fighting on their own terrain and getting arms and support from the West.

A group of military personnel, wearing fatigues, to the left. To the right, a U.S. military member stands near several flagpoles.
Left: Mathias Mapes-Pearson's unit poses with Ukrainian Marines; the flag is the symbol of the Ukrainian military operation. Right: Mapes-Pearson stands with the flags, from right, of Ukraine, the U.S., Moldova and the Ukrainian navy.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Mathias Mapes-Pearson

Those factors are significant, as is the insurgency of the Ukrainian people, he said. He also said the Russian military has proved inept in areas from fighting to command structure to intelligence.

"They're not necessarily the Russian bear that everyone feared for so long," Mapes-Pearson said.

Mapes-Pearson said his connection to the Ukrainian military makes watching this invasion particularly heartbreaking. He also said the ability to use social media to watch people in the middle of a conflict in real time is interesting, while also enhancing the sorrow for people like him who feel a personal stake in the conflict.

He added: "I give credit to the Ukrainian people and their military. They've been extremely resilient and willing to fight for their country, and I think they've proven they're up to the task. They may not win the entire country back, but they are at least slowing Russia and really making Russia work for every piece of ground that they've taken."