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Ex-NZDF soldier fighting in Ukraine returns for emotional reunion with son

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Former New Zealand Army soldier Shannon Dillon has made an emotional return to family in Christchurch after an 18-month tour of duty fighting in war-torn Ukraine.

After a successful Givealittle campaign, 40-year-old Dillon was able to raise over $10,000 to return home to surprise his young son for Christmas.

“He had been looking forward to that hug 18 months in the making,” Dillon told the Herald.

“Coming from so much hatred and violence to the innocence and joy of a happy child … (as) any parent can tell you, it’s the best thing to see your child happy.”

Dillon, who spent four years in the New Zealand Army infantry, moved to Ukraine to assist in military operations in June last year.

Shannon Dillon was in the New Zealand Army for four years before travelling to Ukraine to fight. Photo / George Heard
Shannon Dillon was in the New Zealand Army for four years before travelling to Ukraine to fight. Photo / George Heard

“When it kicked off, it didn’t sit right. Ukraine didn’t want the war, they didn’t ask for it,” he said.

“So initially I thought, ok I can go over there and offer my assistance to help train some soldiers (and) give them a bit more of a fighting chance.”

When Dillon first arrived in the war-torn country he was tasked with training the Ukrainian ground forces.

However, the language barrier made things difficult, so he transferred to the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.

“We had to use Google translate, which in a war setting isn’t perfect,” he said.

Shannon Dillon was initially tasked with training the Ukrainian ground forces. Photo / Supplied
Shannon Dillon was initially tasked with training the Ukrainian ground forces. Photo / Supplied

This was when his day-to-day operations moved from training soldiers to assisting on the frontline.

Dillon suffered many serious injuries, including being hit by an artillery round and a grenade launcher.

“I got shrapnel in my shin, shrapnel through my knee, a bullet through my hip and a pretty decent chunk taken out of my arm,” Dillon said.

During one mission in the Donetsk Oblast region, Dillon and his unit were tasked with taking over a village to secure a foothold in a major Russian-held city.

Dillon said he was hit by a suicide drone.

Shannon Dillon was hit by an artillery round and a grenade launcher while fighting in Ukraine. Photo / Supplied
Shannon Dillon was hit by an artillery round and a grenade launcher while fighting in Ukraine. Photo / Supplied

He told the Herald it was the closest he’d ever been to death.

“It’s probably the one time there that I was thinking, ‘Well, sh**, ok, maybe this is it,’” he said.

“I remember lying in the paddock after being hit, just thinking because I couldn’t move my leg, the next one’s gonna land right on top of me.

“All I could think about was my son, (how) I had made (him) a promise that I was going to come home and how upset he would be if I broke that promise.

“So I dragged my ass up off the ground and managed to drag myself out to safety, (then) spent the next two months getting back together.”

Dillion went through five surgeries to remove shrapnel from his body. He’s completed gruelling rehabilitation and is manning a hefty scar down his right arm.

Shannon Dillon went through five surgeries to remove shrapnel from his body. Photo / George Heard
Shannon Dillon went through five surgeries to remove shrapnel from his body. Photo / George Heard

Back in August, he set up a Givealittle page to cover his travel back home to New Zealand.

He received over 92 donations, amounting to over $10,610.

“Thank you to everybody who helped me to get back to New Zealand (and) to make this possible… without their help, I wouldn’t have been enough to do it,” he said.

He plans to enjoy the summer break in Christchurch with his son before heading back to Ukraine early next year.

“My plans are still tentative, but my intention is to go back for another couple of months,” Dillon said.

“I have some unfinished duties there to take care of and then I’m going to assess my situation from there.”

Dillon plans to enjoy the summer break in Christchurch before heading back to Ukraine early next year. Photo / Supplied
Dillon plans to enjoy the summer break in Christchurch before heading back to Ukraine early next year. Photo / Supplied

Three New Zealanders are known to have died in the war-torn country.

Earlier this year, former NZ Defence Force (NZDF) soldier Kane Te Tai was killed fighting in Ukraine.

Te Tai was instrumental in setting up a charity for service veterans and their families who found themselves in crisis.

Corporal Dominic Abelen was killed in Ukraine last August while on unpaid leave from the NZDF.

Dr Andrew Bagshaw died alongside British volunteer Christopher Parry while trying to rescue an elderly woman in an area of intense military action in Soledar.

A street in the Donbas region will be named after Bagshaw in recognition of his service.

The New Zealand Government has made it clear that those who choose to fight in Ukraine go on their own accord, without the support of the defence force.

However, NZDF personnel have overseen the training of more than 2,500 Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) recruits in the United Kingdom.



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