May 25, 2024

Army National Guard veteran Ryan O’Leary saw what a difference it made when U.S. cluster munitions were delivered to the front lines in Ukraine.

O’Leary, who left the Guard as a corporal in 2015, is one of dozens of U.S. veterans who felt compelled to join the fight in Ukraine after Russia launched its invasion there in February 2022.

O’Leary also saw what happened to Ukrainian forces when U.S. weapons ran out. For most of 2023, he fought just south of the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, which Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw from last month as their ammunition dwindled after months of daily Russian bombardment.

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“When the cluster munitions got over there, we used them effectively, like nonstop,” he said Wednesday. “The cluster munitions worked great to break up the assault. The problem is, we ran out of them within months.

“When we ran out of the shells, it became harder and harder to push back the Russian troops,” he added. “And then when Russia launched the Avdiivka offensive, it was even harder. Like, there would be days where we wouldn’t even shoot any artillery because we didn’t have any.”

O’Leary, a self-described conservative who said he voted for former President Donald Trump twice, was speaking to reporters after a news conference outside the Capitol building in which he, the father of a U.S. Marine veteran killed fighting in Ukraine, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocacy group VoteVets implored House Republicans to allow a vote on a stalled bill to provide more U.S. weapons and other aid to Ukraine.

“It is unconscionable to me as a Marine Corps veteran who loves his country and who lost a son who died protecting freedom and democracy that the speaker [of the House] won’t even allow a vote on an aid package that has already cleared the Senate,” said Rick Harris, whose Marine veteran son Thomas was killed fighting in Ukraine last year. “If he were here today, he would be joining me in saying these four words — however, he would use much more colorful language than I would use — and I would say to the speaker: Call the vote now.”

The news conference was part of a campaign VoteVets, a political action committee of left-leaning veterans, launched Wednesday advocating for the bill. The campaign also includes an ad that will air on Fox News over the next week. The ad was played on a video billboard that circled that Capitol on Wednesday, though many Republicans the ad is aimed at left town immediately after the House’s 10 a.m. vote in order to attend the annual House GOP retreat in West Virginia.

The bill containing Ukraine aid passed the Senate last month in a bipartisan 70-29 vote. It would provide about $60 billion for the war in Ukraine, including about $48 billion for weapons, training and other U.S. military support. The bill would also provide about $14 billion for the war in Israel and about $8 billion for U.S. partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has resisted taking up the bill in the face of hard-right opposition to providing more funding for Ukraine — even though the legislation would likely pass by a large bipartisan majority if it received a vote. Johnson has said the House would “work its will” on the issue of Ukraine aid, without elaborating on how.

On Tuesday, House Democrats launched an effort to try to force a vote in their chamber on the Senate bill. But that effort is seen as a long shot because of opposition both by moderate Republicans who are typically supportive of Ukraine aid but wary of defying their leadership and progressive Democrats who oppose aid to Israel.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 177 members, all Democrats, had signed onto the effort, known as a discharge petition. The petition needs at least 218 signatures in order to force a vote.

“In the military, we have a phrase: Lead, follow or get out of the way,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a Navy veteran, said at Wednesday’s news conference. “That’s exactly what our speaker has to do.”

A separate discharge petition filed by centrist Republicans to force a vote on a bill to provide about $66 billion for Ukraine, Israel and the U.S. southern border has garnered 14 signatures as of Wednesday.

In the meantime, U.S. officials have issued increasingly dire warnings about Ukraine’s doom if U.S. aid dries up. On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced a $300 million weapons package — the first new package since December — after it said it was able to find savings in a previous Army contract. But officials also warned such budget tricks aren’t enough to save Ukraine as it runs out of munitions.

U.S. veterans who have fought in Ukraine and family members of veterans killed in Ukraine have previously tried to break the congressional gridlock over the aid, but the political fighting continues.

In addition to participating in Wednesday’s news conference, O’Leary said VoteVets helped him arrange meetings with some congressional offices while he was in town, including with some Republicans who have expressed firm opposition to Ukraine funding. He said he’s hopeful hearing from someone “physically invested” there will change minds.

Regardless of whether more U.S. aid comes, O’Leary is planning on returning to the fight. He got back to the U.S. a week ago and is leaving again for Ukraine in another week.

“I ain’t stopping, not till the end of this war,” he said. “If the Ukrainians have to, they’ll fight with shovels. They don’t care. It’s their country; they’re not going to stop. And I’ll be right alongside them, fighting with a shovel, I guess.”

Related: Marine Veteran Ethan Hertweck Died Helping Ukraine. Now, His Family Begins the Daunting Task of Bringing Him Home.

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