Meet a Canadian medic escaping Russian artillery strikes and saving lives on Ukraine's front lines
Warning: This story contains graphic details from a war zone
As he raced in his Land Rover to help families flee a Russian onslaught near Bakhmut, Ukraine, Brandon Mitchell of Miramichi, N.B., escaped death twice in a single day.
It was last August and Russian troops were closing in on the nearby Donbas town of Soledar, which at the time was still under Ukrainian control. Artillery strikes were intensifying and families wanted to leave in a hurry.
But as Mitchell and his partner raced through what had, in effect, become a Russian artillery alley, a shell whizzed through the air and hit just a few metres in front of his speeding car.
Swerving to avoid the crater without stopping, he finished his mission and brought everyone in the house to safety.
"We got seven people out that night, including a baby," recalled Mitchell.
But the evening would bring yet more drama. Mitchell was returning to make another evacuation run when suddenly an enormous explosion engulfed his car.
He was lucky — the vehicle absorbed most of the blast but it still shattered his eardrums and left him concussed.
"I drove over two anti-personnel mines," Mitchell told CBC News. "I ruptured my right tympanic membrane — my eardrum — and I'm told I have a traumatic brain injury."
Mitchell's medical and evacuation work was paused as he recovered and contemplated his scrapes with possible death.
"I've struggled with it," he told CBC News in the town of Kostyantynivka, not far from Bakhmut, which has been under constant attack and bombardment from Russian forces.
As our team spoke to him, the cracks and detonations of incoming and outgoing artillery shelling were constant and intense enough to set off car alarms.
But even with his injuries and close calls, Mitchell says the war in Ukraine has now become too personal for him to leave.
"I've had several friends that were personal friends who've died now in this war. So this is now my war," he said.
A medic on the front lines
Mitchell says was raised by an aunt in Miramichi after his mother died when he was young. He joined the Canadian military reserves and served at CFB Gagetown before moving to the United Kingdom and joining the military there.
Mitchell left the British Army in 2007 and he says his last job before he came to Ukraine was assembling Ikea furniture in Sweden.
When Russia invaded last February, President Volodymr Zelenskyy invited foreigners to enlist in an International Legion and defend the country.
Instead, Mitchell said he felt he could be more useful doing humanitarian work, which eventually led him to join Ukraine's Hospitallers Medical Battalion.
Since March, he's been doing battlefield first aid, helping with evacuations, delivering medicines and transporting wounded soldiers.
"I think this war is a shame. Mr. Putin cast his country into terminal decline and wasted an entire generation. But I've made my choice to be here."
The horrors of war
Spending so much time near the front lines has given him unusual and piercing insights into the war and its cruel absurdities.
Such as the time, he says, he had to chase down a dog whose owner had just moments earlier been killed by a Russian mortar strike.
"[The dog] had his owner's shoulder in his mouth and he just ran off."
Mitchell says the whole episode was so preposterous he had to laugh about it afterwards as there was no other way to process the horror of what had just happened.
The behaviour of many Russian soldiers to the Ukrainian civilians they encountered was especially abhorrent.
"I've seen how they butchered people. I've dug the bodies out in Soledar with civilian evacuation work."
He said one woman, who was a math and science teacher from the nearby village of Nevsky, was tortured by its Russian occupiers because they suspected she and her husband were hiding guns and ammunition.
He says the men threatened to "commit another Bucha in her house" if she didn't confess. Bucha, outside Kyiv, is the site of a mass grave that was filled with the bodies of civilians murdered by occupying Russian troops.
"She was tortured," said Mitchel. "She showed us the scars on her back."
Mitchell says he also encountered Russians as prisoners of war, who were brought into his medical centre for treatment after being captured.
At least one was a member of the Wagner mercenary group, a Russian paramilitary organization which is made up largely of prisoners from Russian jails. Wagner has relentlessly pursued the attack on Bakhmut and suffered horrendous casualties as a result.
"This Wagner man wouldn't have been more than 120 pounds," said Mitchell. "He was malnourished, he was dehydrated [but] I have no sympathy for him."
He says his own experience with Russian PoWs confirmed what has been widely reported: that the Wagner soldiers have exceptionally poor morale, are poorly equipped and many see surrender to Ukrainians as their best option.
'I think it's the right thing'
Being a medic in Donbas, particularly in Bakhmut, comes with exceptionally high risk.
Two British medics were killed near the city earlier this month, as was 28-year-old Canadian Gregory Tsekhmistrenko, who served with Ukraine's International Regiment.
He died after being hit by a blast from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) as he tried to treat wounded soldiers from an earlier RPG blast.
"I don't want to die. I don't want to die," repeated Mitchell, but he said there are other things in Ukraine that actually worry him more.
"I'm terrified some day that actual fear itself might paralyze me. And I might not do my job."
In fact, Mitchell's actions have far exceeded the role most field medics play.
By posting videos of his life-saving and other battlefield activities in Ukraine to his tens of thousands of subscribers on Instagram and YouTube, he's been able to raise enough money to purchase more than 100 diesel generators for Ukrainians around Bakhmut to keep the lights on during the many power outages.
Mitchell admits that after lacking a focus for much of his life, he's found a new purpose and a new mission helping Ukrainians defend their country.
"I really, I really struggled. I struggled with a lot of things in modern society. But here they don't really apply.
"I'm doing what I want to do here. And I think it's the right thing."