A former American special operator died early Thursday morning after being wounded days before fighting alongside the Ukrainian military during intense combat in the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut.
Daniel Swift, 35, lived mostly in the Pacific Northwest and served as a Navy SEAL. The U.S. Navy told Rolling Stone on Friday that Swift is currently designated as an active deserter, and has been since March 2019.
Divorced, he leaves behind four children. Swift represents a climbing number of U.S. military veterans that have been killed over the past year while fighting Russian forces despite President Biden’s pleas for Americans to stay away. News of his death was first reported by TIME magazine.
Adam Thiemann — a former U.S. Army Ranger who previously fought in Ukraine with Swift and stayed in contact with his platoon through phone calls and late-night text messages — told Rolling Stone that during an operation in Bakhmut on the night of Jan. 14 and into the early morning of Jan. 15, Russian forces launched an anti-personnel rocket-propelled grenade at Swift and two other soldiers, knocking them down.
An American intelligence official, who first told Rolling Stone about Swift’s death, said he suffered a massive traumatic brain injury and died early Thursday morning. The official asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Thiemann wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian troops were doing everything they could to keep Swift alive, but their resources are stretched thin as they attempt to accommodate all of the wounded.
Swift was left in critical condition with severe head trauma, per Thiemann, who was not on the operation at the time but briefed by his platoon mates. The other two soldiers are stable and in recovery.
Contacted by Rolling Stone, Swift’s sister confirmed his death but declined to make a statement on behalf of the family.
For months, intense fighting around the small city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine has resembled a battlefield out of the First World War rather than the insurgencies of the post-9/11 era.
Ukrainian soldiers fight from trenches as waves of Russian soldiers and hired guns from the Wagner Group—a nominally private military company run by Putin confidante Yevgeney Prigozhin—assault over open terrain. This war of attrition is raw and ugly as gun battles rage for hours on end amid heavy artillery bombardments. Success is measured in patches of dirt and whether one cheats death to see another day.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who formerly served as head of U.S. Army Europe, told Rolling Stone that Bakhmut has become a test of Prigozhin’s influence within the Russian military hierarchy.
“His PWC Wagner organization of mercenaries has been focused on this area for months, without much success, pushing thousands of Russian troops into the ‘meat grinder,’ said Hodges. “His force consists of veterans of PWC Wagner but includes a large percentage of which are recently mobilized and poorly-trained, in an attempt to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders with mass.”
He added: “The ability of Ukrainian soldiers to resist multiple human-wave attacks each day, supported by seemingly endless Russian artillery strikes, is remarkable. It is also showing the Ukrainian general staff that Ukraine can hold back Russian attacks, despite superior numbers of Russian troops, with what they have, although at very high cost. This is important because this will allow Ukraine to build up new forces for a major counter-offensive in the Spring, instead of pushing every new soldier or weapon system into the Bahkmut area. Incredible resistance at the tactical level will yield offensive opportunity at the operational level.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the U.S. Treasury Department will impose additional sanctions on Wagner Group next week and designate the private military company as a transnational criminal organization.
Before he died in Ukraine, Swift joined the U.S. Navy after a high school career of both football and wrestling, according to a self-published memoir on Amazon that Swift wrote in August 2020 under what appears to be a pseudonym. The book is called: “The Fall of a Man.”
Ironically, he arrived at boot camp on June 28, 2005—the day of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan and the subject of the 2013 film ‘Lone Survivor,’ starring actor Mark Wahlberg. 19 U.S. service members died during that operation.
By the time he was 30 years old, Swift claims to have deployed five times to combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Yemen in 2018. Swift is decorated with medals like the Legion of Merit and multiple personal and campaign awards. Later, he served as a police officer for Washington State Patrol and the Medford Police Department in Oregon.
Yet, by April 2019, a felony bench warrant had gone out for Swift for the primary charge of false imprisonment related to his divorce. The judge in North County Superior set his bail at $250 thousand. The San Diego County Sherriff’s Department told Rolling Stone the warrant is still active. A month before the U.S. Navy listed him as an active deserter.
Thiemann told Rolling Stone that when Swift unexpectedly turned up in Irpin, Ukraine, he had no equipment of his own but would still go on operations.
“He only had one uniform…He used duct tape to tape armored plates to his chest and back to go on target until he was given a plate carrier,” said Thiemann. “After our SEAL Team Six guy left, he led our team in [Kherson Oblast], Severodonetsk, and Svyatohirsk, and continued to lead the team after I left. He was one of the hardest and most tactically proficient men I have ever met.”
Swift served in the same platoon as another volunteer soldier who was killed this past weekend: Canadian citizen Grygorii “Greg” Tsekhmistrenko, who served as their medic.
“Despite having no military experience, Greg was one of the best soldiers I have ever met,” said Thiemann. “Under constant bombardment from the Russians in Hostomel on the first day of the war, with no rifle, no weapon, and little chance of survival, he was there — with only his med bag — ready to die for his country. No matter how bad or how dark things ever got, Greg was positive.”
Greg’s father, Vitalii Tsekhmistrenko, told CBC News from Kyiv on Monday that his son “wanted to build a house on the water after the war.” At Greg’s funeral on Friday in Kyiv, the platoon leader said Greg died trying to save Swift, said Thiemann, who attended the memorial service.
The life of a combatant affords little time to take stock of all one has lost in martial time. You miss birthday parties. You miss wedding anniversaries. Baseball games and dance recitals. Your child’s first steps and the warmth of a spouse under a cool set of sheets. Often, infantry soldiers are left with divorce and debt. Bad memories and another funeral. And then another.
When asked how he was coping with the loss of friends in both the Afghanistan and Ukraine war, Thiemann said: “I just am tired of it. I want the war to end because the cost will only increase, but even worse I want to stand up for what is right. It is a really terrible thing that is going on. It breaks my heart that most people will never understand the depth of their sacrifice and it breaks my heart that they’ve had to make that sacrifice.”
Jim LaPorta covers national security and military affairs. He is a former U.S. Marine infantryman and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta