Richard Harris, left, speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 13, 2024, on Capitol Hill. Listening at right is veteran Ryan O’Leary.

Richard Harris, left, speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 13, 2024, on Capitol Hill. Listening at right is veteran Ryan O’Leary. ( Joe Gromelski/Special to Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A week ago, Army veteran Ryan O’Leary was on the front lines in Ukraine, leading a company of almost 100 men as they fought against Russian troops.

On Wednesday, O’Leary found himself on Capitol Hill, fighting for weapons for his comrades as a bill containing $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine languished in the House without a vote.

“We still need artillery, we need mortars. We need short- and mid-range [systems], like [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems] missiles, to effectively do offensive maneuvers and also provide defense,” he said. “It’s gotten worse and worse as time goes by.”

O’Leary spoke about his battleground experience after taking part in a rally in support of Ukraine aid alongside congressional Democrats, who staged a news conference in conjunction with the nonprofit group VoteVets.

O’Leary, 37, joined Ukraine’s resistance in March 2022 to help fight off Russia’s full-scale invasion. Today, he is the commander of Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade’s Chosen Company, a group that includes other foreign volunteers.

Two years of war have not softened the morale of the troops in his unit, O’Leary said, but the delayed supply of critical weapons provided by the U.S. is leaving a mark.

The cluster munitions that were so effective in dispersing mass Russian assaults are all used up. The heavy weapons that can break through Russian fortifications are lacking.

There were days during the defense of Avdiivka, the eastern city that fell last month to the Russians, when O’Leary’s unit had no artillery rounds to shoot.

“People are getting injured, they’re getting killed,” he said.

O’Leary has no personal connections to Ukraine but the decision to risk his life and take up arms in defense of the country came easily, he said.

“I grew up as an American saying ‘freedom isn’t free’ … I feel like our politicians forget that freedom doesn’t end at our borders,” he said. “I’m just a firm believer in democracy and we should support it wherever we can.”

O’Leary also sees his work in Ukraine as an extension of the vow that he took when he enlisted in the Iowa National Guard some 20 years ago. The decade he spent in service included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, he went on his own to fight the Islamic State.

O’Leary plans to return to Ukraine next week. In the meantime, he is meeting with Republicans and Democrats in Congress and trying to convince Republican holdouts that the Ukrainian cause is still worth supporting.

“I hope [it’s] enough to move the needle a little bit,” he said.

Supporters of more military aid to Ukraine listen during a rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.

Supporters of more military aid to Ukraine listen during a rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Joe Gromelski/ Special to Stars and Stripes)

Rick Harris, the father of a Marine Corps veteran who died in November serving in the Ukrainian military, is also part of the lobbying effort.

He said people often ask why his son, 33-year-old Thomas Gray Harris, went to Ukraine but they should instead be asking “why would he not go to Ukraine?”

“I believe Ukraine is a place where good is standing its ground against evil,” said Harris, who is a former Marine Corps colonel. “I’m heartbroken for the loss of my son but I am proud of what he did.”

He urged House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to put the Ukraine aid package to a floor vote. The Senate passed the legislation, which also includes funds for Israel and Taiwan, last month but Republican resistance in the House has stalled the bill there.

Democrats unveiled a discharge petition on Tuesday to force a vote but it faces long odds of succeeding.

O’Leary said he has no intentions of abandoning the fight for Ukraine, even if U.S. assistance dries up and Ukrainians are left fighting “with shovels.”

Many foreign fighters serve for three months and then leave but O’Leary said he is physically and emotionally invested in the battle and cannot bear to leave his men behind.

“I’ve been there two years,” he said. “I ain’t stopping — not until the end of this war.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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