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A former U.S. Special Operations commander from the Tampa area is in Ukraine training soldiers

Two men in military gear crouched down on the ground at a training facility. One is holding a gun.
Andrew Milburn
The Mozart Group, run by Col. (Ret.) Andrew Milburn, has set up a military training facility in Ukraine.

Retired Marine Col. Andrew Milburn of Lithia says he wants to help Ukrainian soldiers defend themselves against Russian forces.

A former U.S. Special Operations commander from the Tampa area has set up a military training center in Ukraine, and along with fellow American and British veterans, is passing on skills to soldiers and delivering critical supplies.

Andrew Milburn joined the U.S. Marine Corps from London as a private and retired 31 years later in 2019 as a colonel. His last position was Deputy Commander of Special Operations Central (SOCCENT), which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.

Milburn lives in Lithia, but has been in Ukraine the past month and recently formed an organization called the Mozart Group to aid Ukrainian soldiers. The name is meant to counter the Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which experts link to the Kremlin and whose members have been accused of committing war crimes.

Man stands in a wooded area holding a gun.
Courtesy: Andrew Milburn
Col. (Ret.) Andrew Milburn is in Ukraine passing on military skills to soldiers there and helping secure them equipment.

WUSF's Stephanie Colombini talked with Milburn about his work with the Mozart Group:

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

How did you get involved training Ukrainian special forces?

I was asked by my former colleagues who work in the special operations community in the States to check on our counterparts in Ukrainian Special Operations Forces. I’ve been out here a couple times to help train them in the past. Once I got in contact with them I realized, wow, you know, these are the guys who are really the most proficient, and yet they were short of pretty much everything. From drones, to decent body armor, to secure radios to medical kits, you name it.

I realized we really could help, and the way to help wasn’t providing mercenaries, guys to go on the frontline and, you know, trigger pullers. The way to help was by building capacity, getting the equipment in the hands of those who needed it. So, we have been purchasing various drones, handing them over to the frontline units and ensuring that they get the training, because this is a drone war. That’s just one example, you know, we're doing the same thing with medical supplies.

And then to my surprise, the Ukrainians — even their best units — are hungry for training. None of them are saying, “Hey, we've got this, we've been at war.” They know where their shortfalls are and have reached out to us to provide training.

What kind of training are you providing?

Anything from sniper training through what we call close quarters battle, you know, room clearing, urban clearing. The Ukrainians lack a real medic program. So we're trying to instill the training and standard operating procedures that allow them to save their guys on the battlefield.

Now, this is an anecdotal story, but I've heard it more than once, that their casualties are dying at an alarming rate. And so guys who would easily survive in United States or British militaries are dying. It's quite horrific, because it is an easy thing to prevent. And I realized we could save, you know, who knows how many lives by just establishing medical training. So that's just one example. I could go on.

I mean, EOD, explosive ordnance disposal, which is going to be a huge deal. The Ukrainians continue to take casualties, civilians and soldiers, from everything from Russian booby traps, to cluster munitions that have been just simply dropped. The Russians are, as you've probably gathered, very indiscriminate about the use of artillery and bombs.

They use anti-personnel, just like little bomblets, for lack of a better word. They don't explode on impact. They just stay there, and then they're either time fused to explode later or they detonate when touched or when someone moves near them. It's a death trap, I mean, it really is, you know. Regardless of combat, just clearing all that stuff is going to take a tremendous effort.

Warning: This video contains graphic content with sounds of gunshots that could upset some viewers.

Mozart Group Video 041222

How did you get this team together of former military personnel to help you?

We’ve got a saying in the Marine Corps that your most valuable asset is your reputation. And so word of mouth. We brought some people out from the States, but you know, the word gets around very quickly. And I've had terrific guys show up, you know, British EOD guys, a U.S. former scout sniper, looking again for a sense of purpose. They wanted to do something, and they were proficient, proficient soldiers and Marines, and keen to instruct. So we brought them into the fold.

The mandate I have for them is no, you're not going on the front line if you're working for me. And I do want your listeners to hear that because I do get poked from time to time — no, actually consistently — about people who think that I'm running some kind of mercenary organization. That's why, for the sake of our reputation, I'm very keen that our guys are not involved in direct combat.

Yes, we do train lethal skills. I don't have a problem with that at all. I mean, this country is fighting a defensive fight. Unfortunately, it is a kill-or-be-killed situation, just as in any war, and we're trying to make these guys as proficient as they possibly can be so they can evict Russians from their country. And that’s not, I think, an unreasonable expectation, and Ukrainians now, in light of the atrocities that occurred, are more determined then ever do so, and they’ve got a long way to go.

So your job isn't done. And I know you've said you're not getting any money from the U.S. government. So you're just surviving off donations.

It's all donations. I tell my team, “I’ll take care of you as best I can, no one is going to leave poorer, but I promise no one is going to leave richer,” because we’re getting no U.S. government money at all. We’re just surviving off donations.

And people have been generous, you know, to this point. I realized my biggest concern in going ahead is that we don't raise expectations and then not be able to follow through.

You can only go back to the well once or twice before people just get fatigued of contributing to Ukraine or any cause, right? I mean, the news cycle moves on. Will Smith slaps Chris Rock and the public's attention moves, and yet the Ukrainians are going to be at war for a period of time. That is what keeps me up at night.

For more information about how to donate to the Mozart Group, visit this website.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.