A major Russian media outlet claimed on Thursday that Russian forces killed three U.S. service members from the Tennessee National Guard that had gone to fight in Ukraine as mercenaries. The Tennessee National Guard released a statement to American Military News to call out Russia’s blatant lie.
The Russian publication Pravda — which once served as the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — claimed Russian forces killed three Tennessee National Guard members in Ukraine. The Russian publication based its claims on a report from a report by militia members of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR or DNR), a Russian-backed separatist area of eastern Ukraine. The Donestk militia members said they found a backpack on a slain fighter containing the Tennessee state flag and “other items that made it possible to identify the deceased Captain Michael Hawker, Lieutenant Logan Shrum and Lieutenant Cruz Toblin.”
In a statement to American Military News late Thursday, the Tennessee National Guard dispelled the false Russian media claim. “This afternoon the Russian media outlet ‘Pravda’ falsely reported that three members of the Tennessee National Guard, which it labeled as ‘mercenaries’ were killed while fighting in Ukraine.”
Hawker, Shrum and Toblin are all real Tennessee National Guard members. All three had also been photographed at Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U) in 2018. U.S. and other international forces had trained Ukrainian military units at JMTG-U in recent years.
“The three soldiers identified in the article are either current or former members of the Tennessee National Guard,” the Tennessee National Guard Statement added, citing the Office of the Tennessee Adjutant General. “They are accounted for, safe and not, as the article headline erroneously states, U.S. mercenaries killed in Donetsk People’s Republic.”
The Guard statement said the Russian media outlet likely targeted those three Tennessee Guardsmen due to past articles and photos the military publicly released about their JMTG-U deployment. In 2018, more than 200 U.S. soldiers assisted the Ukrainian Armed Forces in setting up JMTG-U’s Yavoriv Combat Training Center. The effort entailed the creation of “cadre, ranges and training areas; equipment and instrumentation requirements, and a realistic operational training environment.”
The last U.S. troops at JMTG-U were Florida National Guard troops who left the training center in Yavoriv, Ukraine in mid-February, more than a week before the Russian invasion began.
Russian forces attacked the training center in Yavoriv on Sunday, reportedly killing 35 people and wounding 134 more. The strikes fell as near as 10 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border and were visible from the Polish side.
While Pravda’s claims of killing three Tennessee Guardsmen “mercenaries” is false, the U.S. State Department did announce an American was killed in a Russian artillery attack on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv on Thursday. The State Department did not provide further details about what that American was doing in Ukraine but said the Russian artillery attack had targeted civilians.