Merriam-Webster defines a hero as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities” or “one who shows great courage.” The character of a true hero is not limited to cultural or geographical boundaries – it is in their soul. Many Americans question what would possess our very own to take on the problems of another country. The war in Ukraine is not our problem, right? Some might believe we should be more concerned about the welfare of Americans – not foreigners.
That has not been the case for many individuals who have chosen to risk everything for the lives of strangers they have never met. Their backgrounds vary as much as their reasons for fighting. Some individuals are retired veterans, while others have little to no military experience. Some had personal ties to the country of Ukraine and others saw this as a struggle between good and evil; knowing they had skills that could help others in their time of need.
At the beginning of March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally appealed to foreign volunteers to join their cause. President Zelensky had announced he was creating an “international legion” for volunteers from around the world to help defend his country against Russia, more specifically, military veterans and others who would not require substantial training. The Ukrainian Embassy estimated that 3,000-4,000 Americans have contacted them expressing an interest in volunteering after the Russian invasion in late February.
Although the Biden administration has sought to discourage American citizens from joining the fight in Ukraine, it is not against the law to do so. U.S. citizens can join foreign militaries under certain circumstances only if they are not acting as mercenaries or recruited while still in the U.S., according to the Washington Post. Regardless, the situation continues to be an incredibly dangerous mission. Aside from language barriers and volatile surroundings, Russia has stated that they would consider foreign fighters to be mercenaries and therefore not protected by the normal rules for prisoners of war.
Despite the warnings, Stephen D. Zabielski (“Steve”), a 52-year-old US veteran, was one who felt compelled to join the fight. A New York native, Zabielski has been a resident of Citrus County for the last several years. Zabielski once served in the Persian Gulf War with the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, according to comrade Miceál Francis O-Hurley. It is also reported that Zabielski had been part of a multinational combat squad called the Wolverines, which was comprised of 13 English-speaking foreign combatants.
O-Hurley revealed in an interview with the New York Post that the pair had crossed paths in Kyiv, when Zabielski joined Ukrainian forces. According to O-Hurley, Zabielski was concerned his age would trump his experience, thus preventing him from being accepted as a volunteer. Regardless of his age, Zabielski’s sense of duty was ultimately derived from his personal beliefs. A child of Polish American descendants, Stephen Zabielski knew and understood sacrifice – ultimately giving his life for Ukraine’s freedom.
It is not known at this time when Zabielski deployed for Ukraine, however, according to his obituary, Zabielski’s final moments were spent in the village of Dorozhniank, Ukraine. Details surrounding his death have not yet been revealed by the State Department out of respect for the family, but they confirmed on June 21st that Zabielski died on Sunday, May 15th, 2022.
Rolling Stone reported that Zabielski’s comrade, Tristan Nettles, claimed Zabielski died after stepping on a land mine. Tristan Nettles, a U.S. Marine veteran, was with Zabielski the night he died. He told Rolling Stone magazine that “the 52-year-old and one of his comrades were on a mission to clear mines ahead of a planned Ukrainian offensive when he accidentally touched a tripwire hidden in thick vegetation in foggy conditions.” The explosion killed the married father of five and seriously wounded another.
Stephen Zabielski is a native of Cranesville, New York, born on July 1, 1969 in Amsterdam, New York to the late Edward S. Zabielski and Joan K. (Vitus) Zabielski. Since 2018, Stephen Zabielski has been a resident of Hernando in Citrus County, Florida. Zabielski’s obituary written in The Recorder (Amsterdam, New York) describes Zabielski as someone who lived life to the fullest and greatly enjoyed hunting, fishing, and riding his Harley. He leaves behind a wife, five stepchildren, seven siblings, one grandchild, eight nieces, six nephews, many cousins, and extended family members. Stephen was predeceased by his brother Roger W. Zabielski, his sister Sharon L. Zabielski, and his first wife Colleen (Kaminski) Zabielski.
Due to the sensitive nature of the situation, the family has chosen to refrain from giving interviews and held a private funeral. We offer our sincerest condolences to Stephen Zabielski’s loved ones during this difficult time and our utmost respect and gratitude for his service.