WZD#28 – Death of a Ukrainian T-64

WZD#28 – Death of a Ukrainian T-64


I think there are things in war that are primeval, but also so ubiquitous to combat that a part of the human brain is hard-wired to know what they are–even if they haven’t yet been experienced. One of those is the smell of burned and decaying human flesh. It’s a vile scent, and you know in a heartbeat what it is. But you don’t know how you know. Once you’ve smelled it though, and fully reconciled what it is, it never leaves your nose. It lingers there forever like an evil specter.

         North and west of Kyiv are three picturesque towns. Three slices of Ukrainian, middle class suburbia, one called Bucha. Or it was called Bucha. Now it’s a pile of mess. I’m with two friends, I’ll call them S. and T. We’re going to visit S’s friend, an orthodontist who buried his dad in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden. S. says the Ortho was very specific as to where his dad was buried ‘in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden.’ On the ride over, my friend S. speculates that the Ortho is worried something might happen to him and then no one would know where his dad was buried. 

        Regardless, S. says the Ortho won’t leave his dad for fear someone will dig him up and bury him in the cemetery with the mass graves and he’ll never find him again. So my friend S. agreed to come over and talk with him a while before the medical team from Kyiv arrives to remove the man’s father for a proper burial. We went with him. Because sharing the burdens of misery is what real friends do.

         I recall all this just so you understand the mood in the car. Somber doesn’t cut it. We drive past wrecked vehicles, a blown-to-shreds middle school, over a mostly collapsed bridge and through places where terrible local legends have already formed.

         “Hey, this is that location where that couple was trying to escape, and they gunned them down. Did you see the video?”

         “Yeah, I saw it.” I say and look out the window with a frown.

         We drive past the spot, each man staring at the big greasy burn mark and metal debris where freedom and hope tried to drive out from under evil’s onslaught and were savagely obliterated by Russian gunfire. You can go see the video if you like – because unlike past wars, this one is going to leave graphic legacies of human suffering as never before.

         “There’s another tank. Let’s stop and look at this one.” says S.

         “It’s not theirs. That’s one of ours.” I say. Already a theirs and an ours has formed in my mind even though I’m not Ukrainian. Spend ten minutes here and you’ll have no problems taking sides either. This is the lowest form of inhumanity. This is the full combat power of a nation set loose on a public like uncaged hyenas in a zoo. No one deserves this and truly war is hell.

         “How do you know?” asks T.

         I don’t know, I just do.

        “We fought the Soviets in all my military schools, and I have them all memorized. Mostly all.” I add, because I thought I’d forgotten those things or in case I’m wrong. “It has the hull and turret markings of a T-64. I think the Russian’s only had T-72s in this part of their advance.”

S. slows up the vehicle and so do our friends in the car behind. Everyone looks. Everyone gets out. Reluctantly, I do too. It’s clear to me how and why this tank was killed. I know why, because too many other times I’ve been the guy inside the armored vehicle who thinks he’s found a lucky spot. I explain it all to S. and T. In this case, the T-64 was rolling back and forward, covering both axes of this intersection. I look down the road. A knocked out BTR and a T-72 tank hull with its turret popped confirms my instinct. The T-64 scored some good shots, made some kills and thought he had the magic, lucky spot. But that only works a few times. Then you have to move on. And these guys didn’t. They stayed in the lucky spot a little too long. Because, you see, in combat luck is everything, but you can curse your own luck by thinking you’re invincible. Because you are not.

         I smelled it as soon as we were ten feet from the tank. Burned, dead and rotting human flesh. Lord knows, I’ve seen enough dead bodies to last a lifetime. Times ten. But it’s different when it’s your own guys. You realize they’re dead and a million thoughts cross your mind at once. And you realize that if you don’t do your job, it just as well could be your buddies or you next. That’s usually how most veterans lose the first layer of the ‘invincibility’ armor. Eventually it all goes away and it’s just you and some asshole trying to kill you. And you’re not going to be the one dying, and neither will your buddies, or your unit, or your tribe… so you kill the son-of-a-bitch first.

         One of our friends from the vehicle behind hasn’t gotten the word and goes to a corner next to the tank to take a whiz. Everyone halts him loudly and explains. His face goes from ‘wtf’ to ‘oh shit.’ Then everyone parades solemnly past, like an open air casket in a funeral parlor and stares at the dead T-64. We peer inside. Torn, burnt, twisted, seared, melted nothingness. There’s no form to most of what’s there. Maybe a few things catch my eye as some familiar military item, but really, it’s just burned beyond all recognition.

         “How did it happen?” asks T.

         “Missile hit here.” I point to a penetration mark. “It went through this side of the turret and ignited the ammunition storage rack on the other side.” The turret had popped off in the resultant explosion and landed nearly perfectly back on the hull. From afar it still looked intact.

         A neighbor comes over to ask who we are. The guys explain about the father buried in the yard and the man makes the sign of the cross and proceeds to tell them about the T-64. People trade stories about suffering here. We all have a simultaneous and unintendedly synchronous moment of silence and then get back in our cars.

         “What did the guy say?” I ask.

         “He said what you said.” says T.

         S. starts in, “He said there were seven-

         “Eight.” interrupts T.

         “Ya, eight guys were riding on the top of the tank. He’d been watching them out his window. He stayed here during the fight.” S. doesn’t finish the story and goes silent.

         “Then they got hit.” I finish. More of a statement than a question.

         “Yeah,” says T, “He’s been picking up the pieces for the past two days. He’s waiting for the medical team to come and collect their parts. He has them mostly collected over there in garbage bags but warned us he didn’t think he’d found everything.”

         “Yeah, no shit.” I say under my breath. No shit.

         We drive onward to where the Orthodontist’s dad is waiting for us, in the front of his apartment down by the stairs near the entryway garden.

         None of this needed to happen.

         And there’s the smell, back again.


Author’s Note: I have pictures of this T-64, but I won’t show them. Probably should just delete them, though I know I won’t. Besides hiding my friend’s names, I also altered the Orthodontist’s profession to preserve his dignity. He is battling some alcohol problems right now and doesn’t need the scrutiny.


  1. Tom Tomlinson on April 27, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Excellent writing. Thank you for the article.

  2. lisa king on April 27, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you for bearing witness for those of us who can not. I know it takes a toll and will keep you in my prayers. Stay safe!

  3. Elizabeth on April 27, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Heart wrenching, so much absurd and unjust suffering and death.
    May God protect you all and gives eternal life for all those unfortunate souls. 🙏🙏🙏

  4. David on April 27, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    Well, this hits hard and true. Hard and true.

  5. Michael Rader on April 27, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    Exquisite writing. I can smell the stink half-a-world away.

  6. Kirk Buscho on April 27, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks, Sir. I will pass this on. None of this was needed. Now the battle is joined in the East, hope and faith to you and yours.

  7. Art C on April 27, 2022 at 3:17 pm

    A very moving story and I can relate from Vietnam. It can’t be unseen and the smell stays with you. I feel for these people because this is not a war between countries started over issues and disagreements. It was an invasion and innocent civilians were targeted and slaughtered, simply to demoralize, overcome in attempt to win.

    Rip, thanks for sharing that moment and no, please don’t post any pictures.

  8. Dawn Gardner on April 27, 2022 at 3:36 pm

    War is hell on earth it’s true. As a child my step dad wouldn’t speak for wks & wks after a obvious bad event with his AF unit… somewhere in Jordan, Afghanistan, or wherever. The whole house would stay silent. Now I think I’m grateful 😢💔 I hope Ukraine 💙💛 & all involved will seek whatever helps to heal their hearts.🙏 Including the witnesses, who Sacrifice unbelievable horrors to make the world see what it needs/should do🙏🙏💛💙

    • Kate on April 27, 2022 at 3:51 pm

      Amazing writing and so heartbreaking. Thanks for your service

    • Dana on April 27, 2022 at 4:31 pm

      Very sad, all of it. For what? It is all so insane. Btw, you are are very good writer.

  9. Julie Rapson on April 27, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    What a moving story. An eye-opener to say the least.
    Thank you.

  10. Tom McGugan on April 27, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    God help us all

  11. Petra P. on April 27, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing and keeping us emotionally present in this war. We can’t become numb or nonchalant to what is happening.

  12. Steve on April 27, 2022 at 4:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing your words.

  13. Jens on April 27, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    I think it’s important to share these stories, no matter how cruel and horrific they are. For one thing, to let the world know what has happened and what you have witnessed. For another, so you can reflect on them and each time you are telling or writing about it, the burden hopefully gets a little lighter.

    • Kimberly on April 28, 2022 at 1:39 am

      Agree, for those of us who have never been inside a war, reading or hearing from those who have is the only way we will ever know such feelings and sensations. Thank you for sharing; it is necessary. 🙁

  14. Alexandra on April 27, 2022 at 4:22 pm

    Hi Rip,
    thank you for your story and ofcourse for your help defending Ukraïne (and Europe and really just democracy/ the free world in general)
    I hope you keep us posted on your journey there.
    I wish you and your friends a lot of good luck! Although I haven’t been raised religious I hope and pray some celestial force exists and helps end this pure evil that is happening.
    My heart cries for you all.
    Sending you lot’s of love!

  15. Marion on April 27, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    Firstly, deepest sympathy for your friend. Can’t imagine loosing a family member like that, in such an insane, unnecessary war.
    An amazing piece of writing. The guilt I’m feeling sitting here on my couch, deciding what to snack on from the fridge when people are being buried in someone’s front garden and there’s a tank blown up outside someone’s front door. It could be my own front door. It could be one of my neighbours. The feeling of being useless and not able to physically do anything to help these poor people is breaking my heart. Thanks for all your doing to highlight this and keep this in our news cycle. Fabulous piece of writing.

  16. Rod Schiffman on April 27, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    Don’t stop doing these. You stand as a witness is a way 280 characters can’t.

  17. Joanna on April 27, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    Powerful writing about the things that matter most: life and death, good and evil, seeing or not seeing. Remaining human in the midst of all that is a miracle in itself – like the man who’d picked up the pieces of those poor soldiers, you’re telling the story of him and them and their country and yourself- and giving your readers a context that photos can’t communicate in the same way. You have a very important book to write there.

  18. Water Tsui on April 27, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    After reading… I feel bad and heavy, I’ve remembered “ so you kill the son-of-a-bitch first ” in the war !
    Thank you for your record and share, take care !

  19. M, M & W on April 27, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    Thank you for the honest description of the humanity and Inhumanity you are witnessing, Rip. We follow your posts, as well as other brave soldiers and squadrons in Ukraine, and can only share that we are with you and the Ukrainians every day. in thought, spirit and heart. Please send details for further donations for the cause. We can only repeat the sentiments of the commentators above – we feel helpless and thank you for fighting and writing for the greater good of Europe, democracy and truth. Stay safe and Slava Ukraini. X

  20. Ellen Witt on April 27, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    My God. Thank you for this beautifully written and heart wrenching account. This a real eye-opener for those of us who live freely and have never seen the horrors of war. Thank you for your service.

  21. Kim Kazur on April 27, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    Every person who glorifies war needs to read this. Unending respect to your and your colleagues. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the horror you guys are living. I feel like I was there experiencing it with you. I would be no help there but I can continue to support your efforts through donations. Thank you for saving humanity.

  22. Renee on April 27, 2022 at 7:16 pm

    Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse. The soldiers fighting the war or the people living in the area of the fighting and what each witnesses .
    I’ve wondered if all the citizens of Ukraine will be reburied. The anguish of not being able to find your family member. All of it. Just endless.
    Loved this post.

  23. Luke on April 27, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for sharing these stories. You know as well as anyone how important it is that they are told. Unfortunately, most humans don’t care about this situation because it is other peoples problem. They are not affected…………. Yet!

  24. R on April 27, 2022 at 8:15 pm

    One. It takes one if he has unchecked power …

  25. Rick Neifeld on April 27, 2022 at 10:27 pm

    God that’s hard to take.

  26. Superleste76 on April 28, 2022 at 12:30 am

    I admire your dedication and your ability to sacrifice, but I do not want what you are seeing on a daily basis, not all of us can go there because we would be a hindrance instead of a help, although there are a lot of parlor soldiers and PlayStation. The ability to overcome the trauma of the death of colleagues and continue in your work is not easy at all, I have been through it and I continue to dream of those deaths, and to think that leading my colleagues to death is part of my decisions, I think that perhaps it is worse than you do, but someone has to do it and better someone with military experience than some poor men who instead of deploying and protecting the tank feel safe on top of it like little children, I feel sorry for those men and their poor ignorance that led them all to death and those tank crewmen who get into those matchboxes, literally, to fight with tanks far superior in quantity (because the quality is just as bad) my deepest admiration. Thank you for defending freedom on behalf of all of us, I prayed for you daily

  27. Angela O. on April 28, 2022 at 1:02 am

    Such senseless violence. It breaks my heart everyday. Praying for the end of this brutality and victory for Ukraine. Bless you and thank you for your service. Slava Ukraini.

    powerful writing. <3

  28. Annie on April 28, 2022 at 1:43 am

    Such an unnecessary war. Thank you for writing about this – there must be a thousand similar stories.
    Why? Why? Why?

  29. rsm on April 28, 2022 at 3:18 am

    Thank you for writing this. Now I go deal with this the way I have been dealing with every image I really didn’t need in my brain that I have seen over the last two months.

    Keep up the good and necessary work.

  30. Steve Williams on April 28, 2022 at 8:04 am

    That was powerful, raw and real…. Thank you for you and others standing up and doing what your training has taught you to do, we can kid ourselves that we could be some sort of impact if we engaged as you do however the reality is you are very special people… thank you for doing what you are.

  31. Danielle on April 28, 2022 at 10:32 am

    Thank you for your service. Keep writing. I wish more people read, but there are those of us who do. Thank you for telling the stories that need to be told. Stay safe

  32. Kelly on April 28, 2022 at 10:38 am

    I’m crying tears of rage at this point. How can any of this forgiven? History says it can, but at this moment, that seems inconceivable. The loss is unimaginable and it’s only the tip of a very large and horrific iceberg.

  33. Julie Watson on April 29, 2022 at 2:04 am

    Rip, as ghastly as it sounds, people need to see, smell, remember the scene of death for this war. You could be called as a military expert at The Hague when this goes to the ICC at The Hague. Professional battlefield experience. You can Tell at a glance from a photograph what happened, how it happened, and the accuracy of information on a given event. Arrange to send your photos back Stateside, to someone who can file and hold them as documented evidence.

    You’ve been at Bucha, the Russians are trying to blame the Ukrainians, create fake evidence, just as they did for our elections. You’re a battlefield tactician I assume, you know at a glance what you are looking at. I’m historian trained. This is no different than the ghastly films I saw of the German concentration camps in Eastern Europe as Allied troops freed the skeleton prisoners. Those 1940s newsreels have never left my memory. Just like the little Vietnamese girl torched by napalm, running down a dirt lane in Vietnam’s War. Bucha is no different. A professional needs to document ALL OF THIS.

    In a sense you are an independent third party observer, documenting the evidence. You will be the one bringing justice to all Ukrainians who has lost spouse, children, parents, cousins, elderly grandparents. You alone can document the evidence before it’s obliterated and razed to the ground. I applaud your courage in writing the stories behind the deaths of a nation. You paint a still shot with your words. You are a battlefield author writing, having documented battles in countless reports. You are a professional at doing this, and the Ukrainian nation need you more now than ever to document what you have seen. For justice sake. So may God watch over you and your family, your brothers in arms, your friends. May He gift you with peace to sleep at night. And sharp eyes to spot danger. Our prayers go to each and every one for you. Thank you for this precious gift you bring to the Ukrainian people. Never give up the fight.

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