A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the only American known to have fought alongside Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian separatists has been killed in eastern Ukraine.
Mark Gregory Paslawsky, 55, died while fighting with the volunteer Donbas Battalion.
Paslawsky, who fought under the nom de guerre “Franko,” was killed on August 19 during fighting in the town of Ilovaysk, near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, according to a Facebook post by Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko.
Paslawsky was born in 1959 in New York and grew up in a tight-knit Ukrainian-American family in New Jersey. He moved to Ukraine around two decades ago and informed his family earlier this year that he planned to volunteer for the Ukrainian Army, according to his brother, Nestor Paslawsky.
"We were concerned about the situation he was going into, understanding what the theater of operations look like, of course,” Nestor Paslawsky says. "We were concerned about this, but I think we were also proud of his decision."
He said his family learned of Paslawsky’s death from the Internet. "We grieve for him but we are proud of him as well,” he said. “He was a true American and Ukrainian patriot who supported both countries.”
Paslawsky was recruited to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because of his volleyball prowess.
“He was probably, at that point, as a freshman, one of the most talented kids we had on the team,” Bob Bertucci, the men’s volleyball coach who recruited Paslawsky to play at West Point, recalls.
Mark Paslawsky's West Point Yearbook photo from 1981 (E-Yearbook.com)
The nephew of Taras Hunczak, a Ukrainian-American historian and a professor emeritus at Rutgers University, Paslawsky was a history and military buff, says Bertucci, now the head women’s volleyball coach at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Paslawsky was not the only volleyball star in his family. Nestor, his older brother, was a standout at Rutgers University-Newark who later played for the U.S. national team. He currently serves as general manager of Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian cultural center in Kerhonkson, New York.
'American As Apple Pie'
After graduating from West Point in 1981, Paslawsky served in the U.S. Army Rangers until he was 32 and then worked as an investment banker and adviser in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Moscow, according to VICE News, which interviewed Paslawsky in the Luhansk region in early August.
He said that he took Ukrainian citizenship shortly before he joined the battalion fighting the pro-Russian rebels so that he could “fight as a Ukrainian.”
“I’m of Ukrainian descent, and because of my parents’ background I’m entitled to immediate Ukrainian citizenship,” he told VICE.
Paslawsky added that as far as he knew, he was the only American fighting alongside Ukrainian forces.
He said that he originally wanted the nom de guerre “Taras” in honor of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet and national hero.
“I couldn’t have that name because there’s a more senior guy here that had it first. So I had to choose another one. I just said, you know, give me ‘Franko,’” he said.
Paslawsky’s death has elicited a predictably charged response, with some Russian media outlets calling him an American “terrorist” or “mercenary” and supporters of the Ukrainian government praising his decision to join the conflict.
Paslawsky “decided to sacrifice his life to help defend Ukraine’s unity and independence, while American senators, congressmen, and diplomats pay lip service to support for Ukraine, refusing to supply us with modern weapons and reconnaissance equipment,” Herashchenko wrote on Facebook.
Paslawsky’s friends and former volleyball teammates expressed shock and sadness at his death. “He was a super positive guy,” Jim Bannantine, who played with Paslawsky at West Point, said, adding hat he had not been in contact with him since he moved to Ukraine.
Bertucci called Paslawsky “American as apple pie.” "But he still was Ukrainian, and that was a big part of his life," he said.