Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, an American who bravely joined the war effort in Ukraine, said her first battle resembled “something straight out of World War I.”
Ashton-Cirillo, a transgender woman and junior sergeant with a Ukrainian battalion based in Kharkiv, shared her experience combating Moscow’s forces during an event at Yankee Stadium Saturday organized by Mindy Franklin Levine.
The native of upstate New York began serving in the Ukrainian army in October 2022, after working with non-governmental organizations in the region and as a war reporter for “LGBTQ Nation,” a digital news outlet.
“No foreigner has spent more time in the Russian border zone than I have,” said Ashton-Cirillo, whose family is from the Bronx.
“With my experience as working as a civilian for them, and I was doing a lot of analysis, and ultimately it made sense in September, I was doing so much with the military, that in October, the decision was made that I would enlist,” she said.
Ashton-Cirillo was brought to Kyiv after making the decision, where she submitted to a background check, an IQ test and a physical.
She returned to the U.S. in December, where she addressed Congress and met with Washington officials in conversations she called “very fruitful.”
Ashton-Cirillo said knew she wanted to join the front line once she returned to Ukraine, so she asked to be transferred to a combat unit.
“I transferred on January 31 and on February 2, I was fighting,” she said.
“It was very strange,” she said of her surreal first battle. “Very cold, 10-15 degrees, there was no roads. The Russians during that period of time were anywhere from 200 to 800 meters from us, very close. Their trench like was just across a field.”
“There is nothing. You’re living in dirt and ice, you’re living in the trenches, and there is a field with some mines,” she added.
Ashton-Cirillo said she fell asleep in the trench and awoke to her commander telling her, “Grab your rifle, it’s time to fight.”
“I’ve never been so scared, because I knew it was the moment of truth,” she said. “I had requested to go to the front, and now I was getting it.”
That night taught her more than the previous 11 months she had spent in Ukraine.
Less that a month after joining the fighting, Ashton-Cirillo was hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell, which damaged the nerves and muscles in her right hand, put a hole in her cheek and lip, and left her in the hospital for 16 days.
After being released, she immediately returned to the front.
Ashton-Cirillo said she has faced “zero” harassment or negative reactions due to her being a trans woman.
“It’s freedom…It doesn’t matter that I’m a trans person, it is irrelevant,” she said. “I’m first a soldier, second a human being, and everything else comes after that. The Russians put me on Russian television all the time, they always focus on calling me ‘it.’”
Ashton-Cirillo said she would be in the U.S. for 12 days for her son’s high school graduation and would also be speaking with politicians in Washington during her leave.