Why a suburban Minnesota teen sought action in Ukraine's civil war

Josh Nieters' epilepsy prohibited him from service in the United States military.

Josh Nieters' epilepsy prohibited him from service in the United States military. Submitted photo

One day when he was two years old, Josh Nieters’ eyes rolled up in his head. He bit his tongue, drawing blood, then fell unconscious.

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” says his mom, Katherine, whom most people know as Kit.

Josh had epilepsy, a cruelly pervasive neurological condition. Medication can lessen the incidence or severity of seizures, but there is no cure.

The worst one, by Josh’s account, happened when he was 14 and running on the Spring Lake Park High cross country team. A couple miles into his second race of the day, Nieters felt his cognition slipping away.

“It’s like you can’t process the date or the time, or understand people,” Nieters says. “And then... the next thing you know, you’re waking up slowly, trying to remember what’s going on.”

Josh’s cross country career ended. He wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of another public seizure.

Still, Nieters was a highly motivated student. Kit remembers her son creating a school newspaper for his classmates—when he was in first grade. “Josh always had something he was interested in,” she recalls.

Often, that thing was World War II, where his grandfather served on a Navy cargo ship. Nieters wanted to follow in his footsteps. His plan disintegrated the day he learned the United States military does not accept enrollees with epilepsy.

Nieters had two options: lie or give up his dream. He came up with a third. Couldn’t he just sign up with someone else’s military?

Research taught him he could, so long as he didn’t wind up fighting Americans. Without telling anyone his plan, Nieters found his alternative in Ukraine.

As he was finishing high school last year, the Ukrainian civil war—started by righteous separatists, or cynical Russians on a land grab, depending which side you ask—was wedged in a stalemate. Soldiers patrolled a half-dozen front lines. Occasionally someone got clipped by a sniper, but open engagement was rare.

Nieters planned to join Pravyi Sektor, or “Right Sector,” a nationalist outfit spawned during the overthrow of a corrupt, Russia-backed government. Right Sector is often accused of fascism, but Nieters thought he could separate the group’s politics from its aim of protecting Ukraine from Vladimir Putin.

He bought a plane ticket and told his family he was going camping with friends.

Things did not go according to plan. Right Sector members weren’t waiting for him at the Kiev airport. Instead, Nieters fell in with men supposedly raising money for a veterans’ charity.

He contacted his family. His mom, still planning a post-graduation open house for Josh, thought it was one of Josh’s jokes. He sent pictures to prove it.

“I was worried out of my mind,” Kit says. “I thought, ‘Who’s he with? Does he know what he’s doing?’”

He didn’t. Nieters says it took several days before the vets’ charity fraudsters he met were “apprehended,” and he finally linked up with Right Sector, who shipped Nieters off for a 10-day training session in rural Ukraine.

Nieters’ troop spent “a couple hours a day” on weapons training and wandering in the woods. They ate borscht (beet soup) for all three meals. Among those who could speak English, some “tried to get money” from the American, but others were “very nice.” A few told him he shouldn’t be there, risking his life for something the Ukrainians should work out themselves.

After training, Nieters was sent to the front. Or something like it. “There had been some farmers fighting over land. We were there to make sure nothing happened.”

The only person in much danger was Josh. Afraid he would run out of epilepsy medication, Nieters cut his dosage to stretch it out. He had a seizure, which alarmed his fellow Right Sector members. Then he had another.

Nieters’ parents had managed to ship him one package of medicine. A second got hung up in Ukrainian customs, which demanded a $700 fee from Josh, who considered this a solicitation of bribery. Kit, losing sleep back in Blaine, saw a chance to pull her son to safety.

“I told him this was a medical emergency,” she says. “I also think by that time he had let go of some of the idealism, once he realized the layout of things.”

While in Ukraine, Nieters messaged often with Jessica Staricka, a close friend of his older brother’s, who describes Josh as “shy” and “gentle, certainly not scary.” In late August, Josh asked her to help him surprise his family.

At the airport, Staricka was stunned at Nieters’ new appearance: fatigues and boots, his “big curly hair” replaced by a soldier’s trim. On the ride to his house, Nieters made a request.

“We stopped at an Arby’s,” she says, “and he gave me some of his hryvnia [Ukrainian currency], and I bought him a shake.”

Kit Nieters concedes her son’s disappearance tested her Christian faith. But his risky transgression was soon forgiven.

“I remember being that age,” Kit says. “Questioning my lifestyle, where I was from, who I was. I remember doing the whole identity thing, asking what do I want to do with my life. And I remember, at the time, I didn’t think about my parents much.”

Josh is now enrolled at Moorhead State University, where he’s studying to become a paralegal, and slowly making friends through a history club and a church group. He’s only starting to tell them about his bizarre summer trip into the frozen, boring core of a geopolitical morass.

“I don’t feel like it went so well, but at the same time, I did it,” he says. “It did change my view, too. I wanted to be a soldier. I realize now it’s more important to figure out how to end wars, instead of fighting in them.”

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