It wasn’t exactly a vacation, but it was still summer.
Last week, I was in Ukraine, driving an ambulance. More specifically, I was barreling down the E40 motorway (“expressway” might be too generous), heading east from Lviv toward the nation’s capital, Kyiv, in a refurbished Peugeot Boxer ambulance with 160,000 miles on the odometer and a load of medical supplies packed in back. We were in sixth gear and running smoothly, but the road conditions generally kept us below 60 mph.
Before departing Lviv, the Director of the Ukraine Ambulance Corps had told us with a smile that any ambulance with less than 400,000 miles was considered a “new ambulance.” More somberly, he also mentioned that the life span of an ambulance in Ukraine was less than six months. “So, yes, we need ambulances,” he added.
This story started a few months earlier, when I connected with an old school friend who was supporting this ambulance project, and he invited me to come along. (Isn’t the point of old school friends to pull you into driving ambulances in foreign wars?) Organized by a marvelous U.K. charity called Medical Life Lines Ukraine (MLLU), I was able to help raise funds (thanks, everyone) to contribute toward purchasing and refurbishing ambulances, which were then delivered to the areas in Ukraine where they would have the greatest impact.
The MLLU Guidance for Drivers says: Russia’s tactics have included targeting civilian infrastructure and healthcare—a war crime. By providing ambulances (and the aid they contain) we help to redress the balance. Our ambulances are delivered to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health which swiftly delivers them to civilian hospitals near the front line which really need them. We are connected with numerous hospitals (such as Ukraine’s prosthetics centre of excellence—the Unbroken Project in Lviv) as well as the Ministry of Health and have their latest list of needs. The aid we take is what is needed and through you we will deliver it to where it is needed most.
After my self-funded flight to London, I spent a good part of Saturday in familiarization exercises. There’s nothing particularly tricky about the ambulance, but the gearbox is operated with the left hand since we were all sitting on the right of the vehicle, so it was worth practicing some basic maneuvers, such as lane changes, parking, and reversals a few times to more or less get it down pat.
Nor is a lot of prep work necessary, but I do recall lessons from when the U.S. government sent me on short assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The order of the day then was no socio-economic or geographical indicators should be apparent from how you dress. No branded apparel. No bling. If your grandfather gave you his Rolex, leave that at home. Similarly, no sweatshirts with your school or your hometown. The goal is to avoid attracting any unwanted attention.
Beyond that we discussed communications protocols, what not to post on social media, and other management and logistical details. The briefings answered the usual questions about mobile phone service in Ukraine, what currency is most widely accepted, and so on. No vaccinations or visas were required. We also downloaded the Ukraine air raid app, so we’d have real-time warnings of bad news. To clarify, we were not conducting missions of any kind in Ukraine, we were simply delivering the vehicles so that the Ukrainians could conduct the missions. No heroics, just duty.
I was assigned to a four-ambulance convoy, with two drivers for each vehicle, and we scooted out of London at 4 a.m. Sunday. Never quite sure why a 4 a.m. departure was necessary, but it does have the huge advantage of allowing us to start off with essentially empty roads. Our team leaders, both MLLU old hands, were Mike, the chipper, problem-solving retired British firefighter, and Dan, the upbeat methodical British lawyer, both excellent captains.
More MLLU Guidance for drivers: As we mention, the Foreign Office advises against all travel to Ukraine. The risks of entering Ukraine include death, mutilation, capture and torture as well as a variety of serious psychological injuries. Anyone who enters Ukraine does so entirely at their own risk. You must not be in any way blasé about the risks. They are very real. If, having reached the border with Ukraine you judge it safe to do so—and take full responsibility for your decision—then we will not arrange a Ukrainian driver and you can continue the journey. If at any time you change your mind, you are free immediately to leave. We will cope even if you leave your ambulance at the border or at the side of the road.
On Sunday, we were able to cover some 900 kilometers, including the Channel Tunnel crossing, and driving across France, Belgium and the Netherlands to spend the night at a German truck stop. Monday, we started relatively late at 7 a.m. and crossed Germany and Poland, ending up at Przemysl on the Ukrainian border. Tuesday, our convoy crossed the border and we made it to Lviv.
MLLU Guidelines: Family and friends emergency contact details both digital and paper are needed.
We were able to take a break in Lviv, and we went to the fountain at the town square to soak up some of the city atmosphere. Downtown Lviv was vibrant, with shops, restaurants, and bars all radiating the lively pulse of the city, not a place weighed down by the burdens of war. At the fountain, a young man and woman walked by engaged in conversation. They strolled past a flower stand and a moment after passing, the young man does a double-take. He turned back to the stand and purchases a single flower for the woman. I don’t know if he has won the woman, but he has certainly won the moment. On the far end of the fountain a young girl sits with her mom, methodically, almost scientifically, attacking an ice cream cone.
As we get closer to Kyiv, the signs of war become more apparent, with bombed-out homes and shops increasing in frequency. Also increasing were the pillboxes, sand-bag redoubts, trenches, and checkpoints—all of which we were reminded not to photograph. Most moving, as we arrived at the center of Kyiv—Freedom Square—we could also see an increasing number of memorials to the dead. Memorials on the side of the road. A placard of photos in a church. And Freedom Square itself is covered with some 50,000 Ukrainian flags, each one of them representing a service member who died for his country.
Kyiv is a lively city, though the war atmosphere is more palpable. Still, people need to live their lives. Fortune was smiling on us during our few days in Ukraine. We encountered no rocket attacks, no air raids, and no direct exposure to violence.
Americans do not need any prodding to sympathize with the victim rather than the aggressor, nor to side with the smaller country against the larger. If we add to this Russia’s dreadful behavior as it inflicts its invasion, it is no surprise that U.S. feelings are overwhelmingly with Ukraine. Still, a debate persists in the U.S. as to the extent and consistency of that support. Fortunately, groups such as the Hudson Institute have done an impressive job in taking apart the cheap shots taken against Ukraine.
This issue came up repeatedly during our discussions. A Ukraine Army lieutenant said to me one night over dinner, “We do need your help. Russia is much bigger than we are and they have considerable backing from China as well, so without the support of the U.S. and Europe, we would not be able to hold our own. But we will never ask for U.S. troops. This has to be our fight. If we are not willing to fight and die for our country, we certainly cannot ask others to do the fighting for us.”
I agreed with the lieutenant. This has to be Ukraine’s fight, but the U.S. has a role to play. The harsh lesson of the 20th century was that if aggression succeeds, it will lead to more aggression. The leading democracies need to work together to check that aggression. It is hard to credit Russia with any justification for its actions. As the columnist Tom Friedman noted, “What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not just reckless, not just a war of choice, not just an invasion in a class of its own for overreach, mendacity, immorality and incompetence, all wrapped in a farrago of lies.”
We delivered the ambulances to the Ministry of Health on Thursday after a useful meeting with the Deputy Minister. Then it was a night train from Kyiv to Lviv, and a car to the Polish frontier. I was able to return to a safe, happy home in the U.S. Meanwhile, the London team continues its work of procuring more ambulances, and the Ukrainians continue their battle for survival. America becomes less secure and peace becomes more distant if we live in a world in which the likes of Vladimir Putin call the shots. We will all be better off in a world in which the biggest questions we face on a late summer afternoon is not the possibility of a missile attack, but whether a young man will have the presence of mind to buy a flower for his girl, and whether a young child will triumph over her ice cream cone.
Let’s make sure Ukraine gets the tools it needs to defend itself.