In the dark, there was a staccato beat of sound — a thundering, unplaceable boom. Then there was the pain, sudden and unyielding.
Giovanni Roman was hit.
It was just before midnight on a frigid February evening in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine when the 29-year-old Marine veteran from Garden Grove was struck by an enemy Russian rocket while inside a Humvee on the frontlines.
Blood soaked through his vest. Pain electrified him. The impact shattered part of Roman’s skull, claimed his right eye, and jettisoned shrapnel into his arm and hand. But somehow, Roman stayed awake. He remembers it all.
“I’ve always believed as a man you should be willing to die for something,” Roman said. “I have no problem dying helping someone out and helping the defenseless — and that is exactly what was going on there.”
The hours leading up to the attack were as normal as they could be in the embattled country, where Roman volunteered twice as a medic and soldier.
On a second trip that began in December, Roman was volunteering with the International Legion of Ukraine — stationed in the oblast, or region, annexed by Russia in September. As the only medic in his unit, Roman said he would sometimes insert IVs while staving off enemy fire.
Hours before the attack, Roman had booted up DoorDash to send his girlfriend Valentine’s Day flowers and made a call to his mother. But those were some of his only communications back to Orange County from Donetsk, where his unit spent each night sleeping in muddy foxholes with nary a bathroom or proper meal. Temperatures frequently dipped below zero. Often, Russian drones could be heard buzzing overhead.
As also alleged by Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskyy, Roman said white phosphorous — a weapon outlawed by the Geneva Convention — would fall from the skies, threatening to burn through flesh. The acrid smell of it still lingers on some of his gear today, he said.
Before the war began, Roman had never been to Europe, nor had he seen combat with the Marine Corps, which he joined in 2014, not long after graduating high school. He was in third grade when 9/11 happened; from then on, he’d wanted to be a soldier.
In the Marines, Roman served as an infantryman and achieved the rank of sergeant. He won a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, among other awards, before he was honorably discharged in 2020, according to military records.
Although Roman was in the early stages of becoming a Navy corpsman last February, leaving his burgeoning Naval career and a day job as an ER technician felt necessary. Russia’s invasion, he said, seemed as consequential a moment as the early days of World War II.
A flicker on the TV screen during a night shift at the hospital was enough to convince him.
“It didn’t feel right that I’m over here comfortable with my hospital scrubs, clean and living a good life, knowing there are civilians getting bombed,” Roman said.
Those close to him weren’t surprised. Roman has long been drawn to public service, his friend Scott Caceres said, recalling their first meeting seven years ago while working as EMTs.
Early in their friendship, Roman convinced Caceres to join him in the Marine Corps. They were stationed together in Japan; Caceres refers to Roman as a “brother.”
While Caceres knew there would be no stopping Roman from volunteering in Ukraine, he described a “mix of emotions” about his friend’s choice.
“I felt proud of Gio for serving the victims of the Russians’ assault, but also worried about his safety,” said Caceres, a Santa Ana police officer. “I tried my best to support him.”
For Roman, going to Ukraine didn’t seem complicated — as a trained soldier, he figured there was a way he could help. In a matter of days, his plan was in motion.
“(The invasion) happened on a Thursday, I bought my ticket Sunday night, and I flew out Wednesday,” Roman said.
Gear and medical supplies in tow, he began an odyssey that took him from John Wayne Airport to Switzerland, then Poland, and finally on to Ukraine via car.
As refugees poured out from the Ukrainian-Polish border, Roman drove toward the conflict with someone he’d met on Reddit. In a video shot by Roman, hordes of people, mainly women and children, are seen surrounding their vehicle.
Soon, they were at a crowded base camp near the western city of Lviv. Roman declined to sign a contract with the Ukrainian government, which asked for a three-year commitment. He offered instead to help where he could.
Amid the hubbub, he found a colonel ready to give orders — before asking a question:
“Are you here to kill people?”
Roman said he wasn’t — and still insists that he went to help, not to get a thrill out of the violence.
“The colonel goes, ‘Well, Russians are bombing the hospital. And they’re bombing schools. So if you want a chance to live, I recommend going to fight with the Ukraine special forces.’ And I was like, ‘Done,'” Roman said. “And I’ll never forget, he shook my hand and he goes, ‘Happy hunting, my friend.'”
Soon, Roman and a motley bunch of international volunteers — one American, several Brits, a Spaniard, and a few Mexican men — began their work in a rural village, doing tasks ad hoc to prevent Kyiv, the capital, from falling. Near-constant bombings punctuated their days; sometimes, artillery fire would come every 10 to 20 seconds. In three days, Roman said he saw an entire forest leveled.
“It was so unorganized. They were taking (volunteers) and just throwing them in the front because we’re trying to buffer the attacks with the Russians,” Roman said. “I didn’t eat for maybe seven days. I couldn’t go to the bathroom … We got these Ukrainian rations, but they were frozen because it was so cold.”
On the frontlines, Roman saw horrors. He declines to get into specifics about what he did and witnessed, but alleges that serious crimes — from rape and torture to extrajudicial executions — were committed by Russian forces.
Although they were never used, Roman kept extra magazines in his breast pocket, planning to take his life and destroy his cell phone if he were ever captured. He feared what the Russian forces would do to an American, much less a former U.S. soldier.
Though the war was far from over, as April approached, Roman’s month of paid time off was up. He’d funded his Ukraine volunteering out-of-pocket and needed to work again. For the second time, he crossed the Atlantic.
Back in Orange County, the normalcy he once knew turned surreal. With but a few plane rides, Roman was out of the battlefield and back into what he called the “Orange County bubble.” Inside, it seemed no one could relate to what he’d seen. But life carried on. Unlike a military deployment, there are no official periods of post-combat rest for volunteer soldiers.
“I literally flew back and it was right back to work the next day. Patients are coming in because they’re drunk … meanwhile, I just got flipped by an artillery round. I was dragging dudes, putting on tourniquets while they were screaming,” Roman said. “It’s hard because I come back here and people are talking about other things, (like) what the Kardashians are doing.”
It became challenging to work while he knew civilians, Ukrainian soldiers, and fellow volunteers remained in a warzone. So in December, he took a leave of absence and returned to Ukraine.
Ten months of war had given Ukraine some time to improve its volunteer coordination, Roman said. But even with the better organization, a sense of foreboding brewed inside him.
He told Caceres that he thought his luck might run out sometime soon.
Then it did.
It was morning in California when Caceres learned what happened.
“I felt a strong desire to go to Ukraine to help my friend,” Caceres said. “(But) I had responsibilities to my daughter and wife that I couldn’t ignore, and I didn’t have the resources or training necessary to carry out a rescue mission.”
Alone in a hospital bed more than 6,000 miles away, Roman said he didn’t dwell on the attack.
“I don’t regret going,” he said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
While Roman is proud nobody he treated medically died, several others he knew have been killed. Some are among the signatories on the Ukrainian-American hybrid flag that now sits on the cerulean wall behind his bed. Most of the messages are written in Ukrainian. Roman and the Ukrainian soldiers had no lingua franca other than a few words — the “You best” scrawled in the middle of the flag among them.
The flag was a gift from his colleagues-turned-friends, Roman said — the same ones who called him “Doc” and made sure the bloodstained gear that now sits on his bedroom floor got back to him.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, he surveyed the gear: a torn-up glove from the hand hit by shrapnel, a vest emblazoned with American and Ukrainian flag patches, and a helmet reading “Medic.” Next to Roman sat a pile of patches, most of them mementos from his unit, others from Russian uniforms.
These are the only items that made it back with Roman, who returned home in March. Still bloodied and bandaged, he took a commercial flight home after weeks in a Ukrainian hospital that was bombed while he was still a patient. Upon arrival, his mother shuttled him to the emergency room.
Now, even in the ostensible security of Orange County, Roman worries about his and his family’s safety. He has received death threats from pro-Russian social media accounts, he said.
They began after Roman’s social media appeared on a Russian Telegram channel calling out “Nazi activity” in Ukraine — a debunked notion that has its origins in Kremlin propaganda. It was only a matter of time before his face and name were out there, Roman said, adding that other volunteers, including those in his unit, have faced similar doxxing.
The online threats are just one of many new elements in Roman’s post-Ukraine life.
Most of the time, Roman is working on recovering — gaining back his strength after losing thirty pounds and a recent surgery that removed seven pieces of additional shrapnel from his right hand. Last week, he went to the gym for the first time in months. He’s focusing on his girlfriend and lives on a placid, palm tree-lined street near family. On Instagram, he’s keeping a diary of his progress, for those here and in Ukraine.
Sometimes, he gets frustrated when people don’t seem to care about a war that doesn’t touch them directly. Roman keeps it in, though, because as he puts it, he does not want to come across as the “stereotype of an angry veteran.” Still, he can’t shake the knowledge that people “just like us” have lost their homeland for no good reason — that even now, the war continues.
Roman has a Go Fund Me page but is still trying to figure out how to cover his medical costs. The pain lingers, and probably will for a long time. There are fragments of shrapnel, he said, that will remain in him forever.
In a few weeks, he turns 30. He doesn’t yet know what his career will look like moving forward, and what the new shape of his life will be.
With his dream of becoming a firefighter seemingly dashed, some days he considers going to nursing school.
And on others, for a brief moment, he thinks about going back to Ukraine.
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