“This is like a game of cat and explosive mouse.” This is how Ryan Hendrickson described to katu News the work he has been devoting himself to over the past year. The retired United States Army Green Beret has been fighting Russian soldiers—after they are gone.
When Vladimir Putin’s Russia widened its fighting in Ukraine to a full-scale war, the Ukrainians proved so surprisingly well armed and well trained that Russian forces had to retreat. But before Russian troops left areas such as Bucha, Irpin, Izyum and Kharkiv, they planted thousands of landmines—explosive devices designed to maim or kill any who stumble across them.
The Russians rigged the corpses of Ukrainians they had killed with mines so that when loved ones come to collect their dead, they instead join them in death. They hid mines in houses and public locations of all kinds, including— in a twist of sheer evil—playgrounds. They mined acre after acre of farmland that 13 million Ukrainians depend on for their livelihood and their sustenance.
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“The area of mined territory is larger than the entire Korean Peninsula,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Yonhap News Agency on January 9. “It’s currently the largest minefield in the world.”
Much of the breadbasket has been turned into killing fields. This perverse practice means that long after the Russians retreat from a given area, the number of victims continues to grow.
“Both anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines, trip wire devices, and boobytraps were commonly planted,” Hendrickson writes on his website.
He knows the situation well because when the war broke out, he felt “a calling to do something,” he wrote. He arrived in March 2022 and assisted with general humanitarian efforts, delivering food and supplies to those who had lost everything and helping families evacuate from war-torn areas. But after weeks of witnessing the suffering that landmines were inflicting, Hendrickson was inspired to start helping in a different, more specific way—one he is uniquely and painfully qualified for.
A Hard-won Skillset
Hendrickson served in the United States military for 22 years, in the Navy, Air Force, then Army. Over half of that time was spent as a Special Forces Green Beret engineer, where his primary job was locating and neutralizing improvised explosive devices (ieds).
In 2010, Hendrickson was on a clearing operation in Afghanistan when he took a step that would change his life. A live ied detonated underfoot, blowing his right leg to tatters and nearly killing him.
Once he stabilized, surgeons gave him a 10 to 15 percent chance of salvaging use of his leg. A year or two earlier, this would have been zero percent, but new methods had been developed that they hoped would accomplish the impossible.
Hendrickson underwent 28 surgeries. They were so numerous and painful that he often wished the shredded leg had been amputated. But his leg was eventually salvaged (though he describes it even after years of rehabilitation as “meatloaf-looking”), and he spent months slowly learning to walk again.
Hendrickson then did something that few who had suffered such agony would have considered: He returned to Afghanistan. For seven more deployments, in fact. For each, he remained focused on locating and neutralizing those diabolical devices that had caused his suffering.
“I went back,” he writes, “so I could do everything in my power to ensure my teammates and my Afghan counterparts never had to go through that pain.”
Hendrickson spent eight more years risking his life over and over in an effort to spare others what he had suffered. And he kept learning more of the intricacies of how to neutralize those weapons. “I learned from the best,” Hendrickson wrote on Twitter. “Taliban, [the Islamic State] and al Qaeda are masters at using explosives to target, injure and kill Americans. I spent eight deployments finding and destroying ieds. My school house was Afghanistan.”
Hendrickson has received four Bronze Stars, the Silver Star, a Purple Heart, an Army Commendation Medal With Valor and the Frederick Award. In January 2020, as a Green Beret, ranked E-7, he retired from the Army.
But two years later, that same desire to spare others the pain he had endured prompted Hendrickson to unsheathe his ordnance expertise to de-mine Ukraine.
“As Ukrainians return to what’s left of their homes and villages, they face these dangers,” Hendrickson writes on his website. “People have survived the fighting only to now face landmines and boobytraps, injuring and killing civilians daily.”
In many cases, even though residents know their land is riddled with mines, circumstances compel them to walk out into the danger. “Ukrainians have been driven by desperation to enter known minefields to fish, gather food, or collect firewood, only to be injured or killed by mines,” he writes. “Farmers working their fields hit landmines in their tractors as they cultivate the ground ….”
“I knew I had so much experience from my time in Afghanistan with a mine detector, and I felt like I could be helping these innocent people who were stuck in the middle of the war,” he writes.
So Hendrickson organizes missions in various parts of Ukraine in order to locate and neutralize the mines. The process, though insanely high risk, is straightforward. He and his colleagues—often Ukrainian volunteers—travel to areas where the Russians were known to have been. Local farmers and other civilians often tell them where unexploded ordnances have been spotted, or the team may just begin walking and sweeping with metal detectors until they hear the beep.
Once one has been located, the task gets easier. “They usually run them in patterns, for the best effects, whether linear or horizontal patterns,” he said. “Once you find that one, then it’s game on. You follow the lines until you run out, then you move on to the next one.”
After a given field or other location is cleared, they conduct a controlled detonation. Then they proceed to the next potential killing field. Then the next, then the next. Hendrickson told the Trumpet that he has so far found and dismantled 450 mines. The best estimates say it could take up to 10 years to fully demine Ukraine. The scale of the task is immense. But Hendrickson is not daunted or discouraged.
He told katu News: “If I can save anyone that pain and the life-changing events from stepping on an explosive device, if I can save anyone, especially a child, then it’s all worth it for me.”
His willingness to risk it all for others, in the best traditions of the human spirit, brings to mind the words of the Savior of mankind: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).