What happens when an American dies in Ukraine but can’t be recovered?

U.S. Army veteran Dalton Medlin was executed by Russian troops in the aftermath of an ambush. But he is still listed as 'missing' because his body was not recovered.
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Dalton Medlin
Army veteran Dalton Medlin died in Ukraine on Sept. 27 while serving with “Chosen Company,” a group of foreign volunteers that is attatched to Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade. (Photo courtesy of Vicki Dulaney)

More than 30 American veterans have died in Ukraine since February 2022, but not all have returned home. The intense fighting and World War I-like conditions on the front lines mean that the bodies of many soldiers have remained where they fell on the battlefield indefinitely, including at least four former American service members

It took more than a year for American volunteers working with Ukrainians to find and return the remains of retired Marine Capt. Grady Kurpasi to the United States. The bodies of other Americans, such as Army veteran Jericho Skye Magallon and Marine veteran Cooper “Harris” Andrews have not yet been returned to their families.

At least four Americans – and many more Ukrainians – who have likely died in combat are officially listed as missing because their bodies have not been recovered. Because their status is in limbo, their families cannot yet receive survivor’s benefits, said U.S. veterans familiar with the repatriation process. Ukraine is working to increase its capabilities to identify the remains of both missing foreigners and its own dead. 

Americans who volunteer to fight with Ukrainian forces generally sign a contract with the Ukrainian military. If they are killed, the Ukrainian government is responsible for paying the costs of shipping their body home to the U.S., a Ukrainian military official told Task & Purpose. The families of Americans killed in Ukraine while under contract are also entitled to roughly $400,000 in survivor’s benefits, which is divided equally among the recipients.

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According to Ukrainian law, when a soldier’s body cannot be retrieved or identified through DNA testing, families must petition Ukrainian courts to have their loved ones declared legally dead, the military official said. The process involves an investigation to prove that the missing service members have been killed in combat rather than wounded or captured.

Dalton Medlin
Army veteran Dalton Medlin died in Ukraine on Sept. 27 while serving with “Chosen Company,” a group of foreign volunteers that is attached to Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade. (Photo courtesy of Vicki Victoria Dulaney)

For the family of Army veteran Dalton Medlin, the ordeal of getting his personal belongings home has been wrought with frustration. Medlin died when in an ambush on Sept. 27 while serving with “Chosen Company,” a group of foreign volunteers that is attached to Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade.

Medlin was wounded in the ambush, but a Ukrainian drone watching overhead sent back video as Russian troops executed Medlin, Task & Purpose has learned. The drone then recorded video of his body, which showed no signs of life.

However, it is currently unclear when – or even if – Medlin’s body will be recovered, his sister Vicki Dulaney told Task & Purpose.

“We don’t know when they are going to be able to safely get Dalton,” Dulaney said. “He is in an area that is under constant shelling and artillery strikes, so it is very dangerous to try to get his body back. War is not predictable, so we have no idea when they will safely be able to get back into that area.”

Because Medlin’s body has not been recovered, the Ukrainian military has listed him as missing in action, not killed in action, which has prevented the repatriation process from starting, she said.

His status has so far delayed the return of his personal belongings. Normally, the Ukrainian government would pay to return his belongings, Dulaney said. But when she asked the Ukrainians to send her brother’s cell phone, wallet, driver’s license, passport, and other important personal possessions, the Ukrainians told her that their repatriation policy prevented them from paying to ship those items separate from his body.

In the initial weeks after his death, Dalton’s fellow soldiers in the Chosen Company took up a collection to pay to send his personal effects home.

Dalton Medlin
Dalton Medlin served as an 11B infantryman in the US Army from July 2017 to November 2021. (Photo courtesy of Vicki Victoria Dulaney)

Medlin’s family initially thought they would have to pay the shipping costs themselves to have those prized possessions returned to the United States, she said.

“We needed Dalton’s things back home for some kind of closure, just for the fact that his phone may have pictures on there, maybe a diary – things like that that could bring us some kind of closure and have forever,” Dulaney said.

Even though Medlin’s body showed no signs of life as a drone observed him after he was ambushed, the fact that the Ukrainian military has not listed him as killed in action means the U.S. embassy in Kyiv is not allowed legally to pay to ship Medlin’s personal effects back to his family, said a source familiar with the matter.

But one American organization is stepping in to help the families of Americans killed in Ukraine. Since Task & Purpose began reporting on this story, The Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation has agreed to pay all costs associated with sending Medlin’s personal belongings back to his family, Dulaney said. 

The Weatherman Foundation is a group of US veterans, relief and humanitarian workers, and Ukrainians dedicated to delivering humanitarian and informal security assistance. The group spent months looking for Grady Kurpasi’s remains in 2022, finally finding them early this year. They ultimately employed a drone, a dog team, and mine clearing experts to reach his body among mines and unexploded ordnance and then spent close to two months preparing the necessary paperwork to finally reunite the Marine veteran with his family.

The Ukrainian military has taken several steps to help Medlin’s family, including getting is unit to release his personal belongings, giving them to the US embassy in Kyiv, and contacting The Weathermen Foundation, a Ukrainian military official told Task & Purpose.

Despite those efforts, Medlin’s family has said they have been frustrated by the repatriation process. Dulaney said that she feels the Ukrainian government could have done more to tell her family what resources were available to them after her brother’s death.

“We are so appreciative that they [The Weatherman Foundation] are going to pay for it and that they are doing this kind of thing, but we really don’t feel that it’s their responsibility,” Dulaney said. “We feel that the Ukrainian armed forces should be showing their fallen soldiers more respect and honor and giving their families the correct closure that they need.”

UPDATE: 12/06/2023; this story was updated after publication with information on how the Ukrainian military provided assistance to Dalton Medlin’s family.

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