An American veteran working at a volunteer organization is accused of illegally carrying weapons and misrepresenting his military service in Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia.
James Vasquez, a former U.S. Army private, arrived in Ukraine in March 2022 and began posting frequently on social media about his service alongside Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU) fighters while working as Chief Strategy Officer at Ripley’s Heroes, a for-profit company that provides non-lethal aid to Ukrainian fighters and is funded by donations. However, Vasquez’s fraudulent behavior, including lying about military service, likely endangered Ukrainian troops and discredited a volunteer network helping Ukraine resist Russia’s encroachment, according to social media posts, news reports and volunteers who knew Vasquez and spoke to the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“James is like a puppet. He liked the fame and brought in donors,” April Huggett, a solo volunteer who shuttles humanitarian aid to the soldiers on the front lines and has interacted with Vasquez, told the DCNF. But, he also put lives at risk, she said.
The DCNF confirmed Vasquez served in the U.S. Army at minimum from Dec. 28, 1993 to Nov. 19, 1994 using records from the Defense Manpower Database. At some point, he joined the Army Reserve and was recalled to active duty from Feb. 7 to Aug. 2, 2003, the records show.
But, Vasquez misrepresented his military service, according to The New York Times. He claimed to serve two tours abroad and reach the rank of staff sergeant in the Army reserves, but neither of those assertions were true, a Pentagon spokesperson told the outlet.
“I had to tell a million lies to get ahead,” Vasquez told the NYT. “I didn’t realize it was going to come to this.”
Other volunteers who have interacted with Vasquez called him a play-actor, telling the DCNF he routinely embellished his combat activities.(RELATED: Pentagon Scraps Plan To Build New Tanks For Ukraine In Bid To Accelerate Delivery: REPORT)
“The public LARPing… Rip knows that’s not true,” said Matthew VanDyke, founder of nonprofit security contracting firm Sons of Liberty International, referring to the founder of Ripley’s Heroes, Hunter “Rip” Rawlings.
“He’s used James Vasquez as his cash cow for a year,” VanDyke told the DCNF.
‘The Rules Are Different For Me’
Vasquez was just one of many apparent U.S. veterans who received media attention for leaving their homes to support Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion. Some joined Ukraine’s international army, while others took up supporting roles, collecting and distributing essential gear and supplies to Ukrainian forces.
Vasquez began posting his exploits on social media almost immediately, saying he participated in the capture of 25 prisoners of war, served under a war hero and destroyed seven tanks in one assault — although he later acknowledged not all of the vehicles could be characterized as tanks.
Other foreign volunteers grew suspicious of Vasquez, the DCNF learned through interviews with individuals familiar with Vasquez and reviewing social media posts.
For example, Vasquez traveled in and out of Ukraine on his own, something contract soldiers are not allowed to do, the people, volunteers for Ukraine’s military, said. In October, he traveled to the United Kingdom and Washington, D.C. after the death of his friend and fellow soldier known as Viktor, which he widely publicized in tweets.
People who wish to volunteer in a military capacity must prove that they have combat experience and sign a contract to enlist with the International Legion under the ZSU, according to a website operated by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.
Vasquez explained on social media that he was “not signed with anyone,” so the “rules are a little different for me.”
But, he called himself a “lower tier commander” in September and posted that he’d “received orders” to deploy to a “real bad place” in February.
In early March, he posted videos on social media and said he was serving with Wild Fields, a platoon under the Wolf of DaVinci battalion whose leader, Dmytro “DaVinci” Kotsyubailo, was killed in action on March 7, according to the NYT. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy honored Kotsyubailo as a war hero.
Although Vasquez had traveled to the area of fighting and likely faced artillery bombardments, that’s not difficult to do, Huggett explained to the DCNF. As a noncombatant delivering aid, she said she had come under fire in places like Bakhmut and Kherson.
At one point Vasquez posted a video of a transport convoy destined for the front, less than 48 hours before the Russians struck a specific target within the convoy, Huggett told the DCNF. She and others believed Vasquez exposed their position to the opposition.
Vasquez was known to struggle with alcoholism, according to the Wolverines, a volunteer military training group working in Ukraine since 2013, as well as Huggett.
Vasquez also posted about violating international laws of war after claiming to capture a fighter belonging to the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, saying he took a photo of the prisoner shortly after his friend Viktor was killed.
“You can only imagine what I wanted to do to him,” Vasquez wrote, referring to the captured mercenary. In a reply, he added, “This is a non [United Nations] country … I don’t think I have to worry about the Geneva Convention here.”
Vasquez’s words and behavior had become too much of a threat to volunteers and servicemembers to ignore, Huggett told the DCNF.
“This endangers the real soldiers at the front when Russians think we over here don’t care about the Geneva Convention,” she said.
Volunteers Say Vasquez Fought Illegally
On March 21, Vasquez announced he was taking a break from combat to “decompress” on a European road trip, according to tweets.
On March 22, a volunteer combat medic said it was confirmed that Vasquez never signed a contract with the ZSU.
“Vasquez just confirmed to me in writing that he does not and has not had a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, who joined the military in October and confirmed her service after getting permission to share what appears to be her personnel file, wrote.
“James Vasquez is not a soldier in Ukraine,” Ashton-Cirillo wrote.
After authorities discovered he fought without a lawful contract, which Vasquez had publicly admitted, Vasquez deleted his Twitter account, according to the NYT.
“I’m done … I’m a ghost,” he tweeted.
Neither the ZSU nor the International Legion responded to the DCNF’s inquiry regarding Vasquez.
Ripley’s Heroes also did not respond to a request for comment.
For some time, those harboring doubts continued to coordinate with Vasquez and Ripley’s Heroes on aid deliveries for Ukrainian forces.
VanDyke said he confronted Rawlings about promoting an individual who fought in an unofficial capacity, carried a concealed firearm without a permit and may have received U.S. government-donated weapons in a social media chat group centered on nonprofit ethics. Rawlings gave no response; instead, VanDyke said he was removed from the group.
“To see Vasquez go out and make a mockery of all their sacrifices that they’ve made it’s appalling. That’s the problem we have with it,” VanDyke, who has been training Ukrainians to fight since April 2022, told the DCNF. Vasquez’s behavior was an affront to the volunteers who have for months or, in some cases, for years fought alongside Ukrainian fighters, none of whom have the liberty of leaving the front lines at will, he added.
Ripley’s Heroes Speaks Up
Hours after Ashton-Cirillo accused Vasquez of operating illegally in Ukraine, Huggett came forward with additional allegations against Vasquez for lying about front-line service, endangering fellow soldiers and scamming people who donated to Ripley’s Heroes.
Huggett told the DCNF she had remained quiet over concerns for her safety. Others said they hoped to prevent the situation from gaining traction on social media.
“He did take things that were donated — gear, electric bikes, etc. — and instead of using them at the front lines, he paraded around Kyiv with it,” Huggett said. Ripley’s Heroes still has stockpiles of cold-weather gear donated in November that never saw the front lines, she added.
“We should be standing together against grifters or organizations that misrepresent what they are doing. This is war, and simple things like not giving out aid or sending the wrong photos kill people, and as Westerners, we have so much less to lose,” Huggett told the DCNF.
Ripley’s Heroes continued to support Vasquez and said he would seek “help” for “trauma on the battlefield.”
“Out of compassion for our friend, and volunteer, James Vasquez, we will not engage in public speculation. We wish him well, and very much pray that he will work on his personal well-being,” the organization wrote on March 23.
Ripley’s Heroes has since removed Vasquez from a page featuring descriptions of “The Heroes” the organization supports, but Vasquez’s bio is still visible on an archived version of the site page. Vasquez’s LinkedIn page still lists him as CSO at Ripley’s Heroes.
Former Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger became an advisory board member at Ripley’s Heroes in September, according to an announcement, and previously called Vasquez a “freedom fighter.” It’s unclear whether he knew of Vasquez’s apparent misrepresentations.
Malcolm Nance, a former MSNBC commentator and Navy cryptologist who served in Ukraine’s International Legion for several months, appeared to say that it had benefited from donations from Vasquez and Ripley’s Heroes, according to tweets from Nance’s account.
“James was NOT fake, he was troubled,” Nance wrote, saying he and others had urged the former fighter to recuperate and return to Ukraine in a legal capacity in the future.
On March 24, Vasquez returned to Twitter for a brief period before his account became inaccessible once more.
“There have been many accusations. Some are true, most are false. I’ll address it when I’m ready,” he wrote.
Vasquez did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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