Ukrainian authorities quietly announced the deaths of four pro-government militia volunteers in heavy fighting with pro-Russian forces last week—including a Springsteen-loving, kindly bespectacled American with a tri-state accent and roots in the war-torn nation.
Known to his peers in the volunteer Donbas battalion as "Franko," the multilingual American was actually Mark Paslawsky, 55, a semi-retired investment banker, former U.S. Army officer, and witty tweeter who died just weeks after giving a delightful field interview, above, to VICE journalist Simon Ostrovsky.
According to Ostrovsky, the northeast-accented Paslawsky—whose parents were Ukrainian—had traded his U.S. Military Academy and Army Ranger experience for the rank of private in an under-equipped unit full of aging military novices:
"Given what I saw, the level of incompetence, the corruption, the lack of activity — I just decided that I needed to go and participate. If there was ever a time to help Ukraine this was the time to do it," he told VICE News.
After graduating from West Point, Paslawsky served in the US Army Rangers until he was 32 years old...
"I think he had been a major, but he never talked about it," a member of Franko's unit who goes by "Lex," told VICE News. "I got the feeling he was very wealthy, but he made a point of trying to hide it. He never used his money and insisted on carrying only the equipment he was issued with by the battalion."
His brother Nestor, who manages a Ukrainian Heritage Center in Kerhonkson, N.Y., told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the family had learned of his death from the Internet. "We grieve for him but we are proud of him as well," Nestor Paslawsky said. "He was a true American and Ukrainian patriot who supported both countries." He is also survived by his mother and two sisters.
On his Springsteen-inspired Twitter account and his candid VICE interview, in which he seemed more Upper West Side than grizzled Ranger vet, Paslawsky was sober about Ukraine's military weaknesses, and about the possibility of death.
Paslawsky died in what local photographer Maxim Dondyuk said was a "botched operation," in which the American's unit was to be supported by three other Ukrainian volunteer elements that had "chickened out" and forced Paslawsky's men to take cover from pro-Russian shelling in a nearby school:
"He had three wounds in his back," Dondyuk said. "He was saying that he was in pain and that he didn't want to die. People were telling him he was going to be okay. I think it might have been possible to save him if we had medevac helicopters or ambulances but all there was on hand were the battalion medics."
Fellow volunteers Ostrovsky spoke to said Paslawsky had a serious professionalizing effect on the battalion, but he also enjoyed a swaggering soldier's reputation for jocularity:
"The whole platoon says 'fucking' every other word, we got it from him. He used to say 'fucking Obama' all the time, because the US hasn't given Ukraine any support, he was really ashamed of that."