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He owes his life to a dog named Gypsy who saved him from crippling PTSD.
And now this ex-soldier is on a mission to repay the favour by rescuing the animals of war-ravaged Ukraine.
Using his military skills, the veteran has so far saved more than 3,000 animals including dogs, cats, ponies, donkeys, nine lions and a 600kg bear.
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Tom S-N, whose full name we are not revealing for security reasons, says: “There is no situation I wouldn’t put myself in to rescue an animal.
“Animals have given me life, peace and love. Everything I do is for them.”
Tom, 34, carried out his first rescue mission six days after the war started in February.
While humanitarian aid organisations flocked to Poland, he entered the conflict zone from the Romanian border, taking his mate Steve with him.
When the pals heard there were 70 dogs facing certain death on the frontline east of Kharkiv, they sprang into action.
“A one-vehicle military escort guided us to the shelter,” says Tom. “We drove through the city which was derelict, like a scene from a zombie apocalypse with only wild boars roaming the snow-covered streets.
“When we got to the shelter, we were 500 metres from the Russian frontline. Bombs were dropping either side of us, rounds whistled overhead and shells were dropping 10 or 15 metres from the walls so we had to move quickly.
“In the end, we got all 70 dogs evacuated within an hour.”
Since then, the two-man rescue team has expanded into a four-man frontline crew of ex-military.
They are supported by a 20-strong team of veterinarians and shelter staff as well as a small army of volunteers, all operating under the banner Breaking the Chains.
The organisation has also built two shelters, with a third underway, and is now in the formal process of registering as a charity.
“There are two things I’m good at,” says Tom. “Soldiering and rescuing animals. Breaking the Chains is a team with a unique set of skills that is willing to go to lengths most people won’t – and my goal is to create the purest, most elite animal rescue organisation going.
“I owe my life to animals and I will do everything in my power to help them when they need it.”
Tom, from Yorkshire, was a “mess” when he was discharged from the army in 2019.
Having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with PTSD, a condition that left him house-bound as he struggled to cope with depression and panic attacks.
Finally, another army pal suggested he take on a retired military service dog and after visiting the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, Tom returned home with Gypsy, a bomb-sniffing springer spaniel suffering from a disease that was slowly blinding him.
With the help of his dog, the veteran slowly began to embrace life again – and realised he too could make a difference.
Tom adds: “We won’t leave any animal behind.” Which is how he ended up with a Ukrainian German Shepherd named Sara.
Sara suffered severe facial burns in a phosphorous missile attack that “incinerated” six other dogs in the home she once lived in.
When Tom received the SOS to save Sara and a number of other animals from the premises – including dogs, cats, ponies, a donkey and a goat – he was urged to leave the Alsatian behind because she was so dangerously aggressive.
“I couldn’t do that,” says Tom. “Sara was in agony. I had to help her. Today, she is healed and living with me and she is an incredibly sweet and loving girl, which shows how much pain she must have been in.”
Over the past few months, Breaking the Chains has gone above and beyond in their mission to help all of Ukraine’s endangered animals – including a 600kg bear named Bolik and a wolf named Elza that they transferred from a hotel to a sanctuary in Romania.
Tom and his team also helped two wildlife organisations extract nine lions from a zoo in Odessa, southern Ukraine. They are now in Romania awaiting relocation to a sanctuary in South Africa.
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“Yeah, the lions were a good one,” laughs Tom, who volunteered to carry the head end of the sedated beasts as they were moved from their compound.
“I’ve been in charge of some huge weapon systems in my time, but I have never ever felt anything as powerful as having a lion’s head in my hands.
“Of course, just like the military, you don’t think about what might happen, you just make your plans and get the job done.
“Plus, there is no greater feeling than seeing the animals you rescue getting a second chance in life. This is why we do what we do.”
For more information and to donate, visit the Facebook page: facebook.com/breakingthechainsinternational.
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- Russia Ukraine war
- British Army
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