Russia-Ukraine war: Off-duty New Zealand soldier didn’t tell army bosses or family he was going to fight

Off-duty New Zealand soldier Dominic Abelen was killed in Ukraine fighting with foreign troops and has been remembered as a tough professional “warrior” who “died doing what he loved”. Video / NZ Herald

A Kiwi soldier killed in Ukraine did not tell his New Zealand military commanders or his family that he was going off to fight alongside international volunteers.

Dominic Bryce Abelen, 30, was on leave from the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) when he was reportedly killed in a firefight with Russian forces during a dawn assault to retake a trench network.

The corporal with 10 years’ army service, based at Burnham Military Camp outside of Christchurch with the famous 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Regiment, had been attached to Ukraine’s International Legion at the war-torn country’s eastern front.

Yesterday, the Defense Force said it was still looking into Abelen’s case but revealed his leave request did not include plans to travel to Ukraine.

Dominic Abelen, from the Royal NZ Infantry Regiment's 2/1 Battalion, killed in Ukraine.  Photo / Facebook
Dominic Abelen, from the Royal NZ Infantry Regiment’s 2/1 Battalion, killed in Ukraine. Photo / Facebook

It also admitted it does not know how many ex-serving personnel may have traveled to Ukraine, while former soldier and No Duff Charitable Trust co-founder Aaron Wood put the number at around 100, with many coming and going, and just a few, somewhere “in the very low tens”, fighting on the frontline.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said news of the soldier’s death was “devastating to us all”.

Heartbroken father Bryce Abelen spoke of his son as someone “always thinking of helping others”.

“Dominic was in the NZ Army for 10 years but never got to fight for his country,” he said.

“He didn’t tell us he was going to Ukraine until he was there. He knew we would talk him out of it. He also knew the risks of going there but still went to fight for them.

“We understand why he went and hold no grudge against the NZ or Ukraine Army and fully support what he did.”

Dominic Abelen has been remembered as a kind, gentle man.  Photo / Supplied
Dominic Abelen has been remembered as a kind, gentle man. Photo / Supplied

I paid tribute to a “kind, gentle man” who loved the outdoors and tramping.

“I’m extremely proud of my children and especially Dominic for standing up and doing what he thought was right.”

The NZDF is working with consular officials on options around formal identification and bringing his body home, noting the “very difficult circumstances of doing so in a conflict zone”.

Commanding Officer of 2/1 RNZIR Lieutenant Colonel Cory Neale said Abelen was a well-liked and respected soldier who had been deployed to Iraq during his time in service.

“Corporal Abelen was a quality junior non-commissioned officer, a trusted go-to member of his company and an absolute character who genuinely cared for his soldiers and friends. He will be missed, but also remembered long into the future,” Neale said .

It’s not clear how long Abelen had been in the country but he had been with other Kiwis and foreign fighters and had already been engaged in other enemy “contacts”.

Sources told the Herald he had been involved in a joint operation to retake a frontline trench network.

During a dawn assault, Abelen was killed in a firefight with Russian forces and died instantly, sources say.

Another American fighter with the international troops is understood to have also died.

They also claimed many casualties on the other side.

One former NZDF soldier fighting alongside Abelen with Ukraine’s International Legion paid tribute to his fallen comrade.

“The bro was anything but scenery. Strong, hardcore, handsome but extremely humble,” he wrote online.

“Best believe he died doing what he loved and was extremely good at.

“We will miss you brother. So much. You have left a hole that we are feeling and we could never hope to ever fill.”

I called him a “warrior until the end”.

Corporal Dominic Abelen.  Photo / NZDF
Corporal Dominic Abelen. Photo / NZDF

Others spoke of their shock at losing a “solid operator” and a 2nd/1st battalion brother.

No Duff’s Wood, a former army marksman, felt it was only a matter of time before a New Zealander was killed in the fierce arena.

“If anything, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened sooner, and more often,” said Wood who likened the fighting in eastern Ukraine to “every bad nightmare story that came out of the eastern front circa 1944/45”.

“When people engage in that, you’re counting the days,” he said.

“While it is obviously very sad that he was killed, he knew what he was doing. I don’t mean to sound cliched or callous, it’s more of a pragmatic approach.

“He would’ve known the risks and had been there a while … and quickly figured out whether or not it was for him … and the fact that he stayed, he was comfortable with it.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the formation of the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine on February 27 which called for foreign volunteers to join the fight against Russia under the Ukrainian flag.

Within 10 days, it had reportedly received 20,000 requests to sign-up from people across more than 50 countries.

Wood has been in touch with several former NZDF personnel who have answered Ukraine’s global call for help.

He says it would total around 100 people, with some being there for a brief period, others returning for multiple trips, and a few who have been there for the duration of the war.

The number at “the tip of the spear” like Abelen numbered “in the very low tens”, Wood said, along with doctors, medics, and others in support.

Each individual has their own reasons for going, Wood said, ranging from those wanting to stand up against Russian aggression in what they see as a “righteous fight”, to those servicepeople who trained for years but maybe never had the chance to put their skills or mettle into action, and the many “at a loss” after leaving the NZDF and struggling with the transition to civvy-street.

Earlier this month, the Government announced it was sending a further 120 NZDF personnel to Britain to help train Ukraine soldiers as part of an international effort to help Ukraine continue to defend itself against Russia’s illegal war.

It followed a completed deployment of 30 NZDF personnel in May to train Ukrainian military personnel in operating artillery.

None of those personnel entered Ukraine.

The NZDF said any uniformed personnel are required to notify their chain of command of international travel plans when taking leave without pay, however, are not required to check in routinely.

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