Volunteering in Ukraine: The Right Thing Isn’t Always Easy — or Obvious

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According to the United Nations, more than 6.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine as of May 29, 2022. Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

The cold Minnesota spring weather hung in the air. Emotions between my wife and me were high but subdued. I had done this more times than I could count, but she was torn, both proud and upset that I was leaving.

“I love you, but where exactly are you going?” she asked sternly.

“Poland,” I responded.

“Where are you not going?”

“Ukraine.”

She made me promise not to step foot into that country, no matter what. But war clings to you. It lies dormant, paralleling the life you built since leaving it behind. After so many rounds into the fray as a Marine experiencing the unknown brutalities of war, I grew comfortable thriving in chaos. In fact, I missed it. I always envied those who could leave that way of life, move on, and lead normal lives — but that wasn’t me.

volunteering in ukraine

Aerial Recovery Group consists of volunteers who have previously served in the military but now assist in providing aid during man-made and natural disasters. Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

On Friday, Feb. 25, I woke up to a possibility turned reality only a few of us thought would actually happen: Russia invaded Ukraine. A peer-to-peer fight — conventional warfare — was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Caleb Bohlmeyer, a close friend from the Marine Corps and my time contracting, gave me a call.

“Kyiv is getting hammered,” he said. “I’m seeing if we can get food to the bomb shelters.”

“Sounds good,” I replied. “I will start reaching out to see how we can get supplies in.”

This wasn’t our first dance. We had both helped families during the evacuation of Afghanistan, and now it looked like the people in Ukraine might need our help next. It wasn’t long into that weekend before the Signal app on my phone started to come back to life. The network of individuals we had worked with before started to make noise. I went back into the old chats from Afghanistan, and one by one, the message bubbles and notifications began to build.

“Who has contacts in Ukraine?”

“What do they need?”

“What cities are being evacuated?”

For years, my brothers and I had been trained to take lives ... now, I was using my experience to try and save lives.

I was glued to my phone, answering, asking, and passing on information. The band was getting back together, and it felt good. But unlike my time working on the Afghan evacuation, I knew I needed to get on the ground.

Within three weeks, I coordinated the moves necessary to get myself into Poland. Aerial Recovery, a nongovernmental organization helping evacuate civilians and orphans, was my ticket in. The last permission I needed was my wife’s. Her permission was the only one that mattered.

For nearly a decade I have avoided divorce, alimony, and child support, which typically plague the PMC (private military contractor) circles I ran in. As obvious as it might seem, communication and trust are essential for a marriage. Throw in a 10-month-old daughter, and my do-epic-shit mentality had been eclipsed by my desire to be a good father.

But this mission to Eastern Europe felt like it was worth it. As much as my wife didn’t want me to go, she knew this time was different. For years, my brothers and I had been trained to take lives in the most violent ways possible; now, I was using my experience to try and save lives.

volunteering in ukraine

Aerial Recovery Group evacuated more than 200 children from danger zones during the author’s time on the ground in Ukraine. Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and walked through the sliding doors at the airport. With my plane ticket to Poland in hand, that feeling you get on your way to war flooded back into my system. I went through security, sat down to drink a quick beer, then boarded my flight. I’m ready. I miss this. It’s time to go to work.

On the 747 carrying us to Poland, I looked down the aisle and spotted plenty of tactical ball caps, T-shirts, and boots. Some struggled to get their tactical MOLLE bags stuffed into the overhead bins. I made eye contact with a few and offered a simple nod. In the past, I would tend to mock or crack jokes about these types, but this time was much different. Many of these people were one-way ticket holders, volunteers, retired, young or old, just creating a plan as they went, all with the same goal: to help Ukrainians.

Our final stop in Poland was Rzeszów. I linked up with Aerial Recovery, and after haggling with a Polish cab driver, we made our way to the safe house not far from the Poland-Ukraine border. It didn’t take long before our plans for helping turned into making arrangements to work on the Ukrainian side.

All the conversations with my wife and the promise I had made her surfaced in my mind. The war raging on that side of the border was growing more violent by the day, and I have a daughter who needs a dad. But it became obvious that we had to shift and move into Ukraine as time went on. It was a hard decision, but I knew if this would be the only promise I broke in our marriage, I’d better make it count.

volunteering in ukraine

Aerial Recovery Group consists of volunteers who have previously served in the military but now assist in providing aid during man-made and natural disasters. Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

The sun was bright, the air was cold, and I had been waiting in a van with six grown men for three hours to cross the border. Hurry up and wait applies even to the volunteers willing to go toward the war. The line of vehicles lurched forward, and with some patience and paperwork, we dodged potholes and passed through armed checkpoints that eventually brought us into the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Our first stop was Lviv, and the atmosphere there was electric. Shopkeepers immediately identified US volunteers and happily assisted them with menu orders and questions or expressed their gratitude with a smile and a “Stay safe” or “good luck.”

After settling into the eighth floor of an Eastern bloc Airbnb, with stairs straight out of Alice in Wonderland and a lack of building codes to go with it, we got to work. Within 48 hours of crossing the border, we were helping coordinate the evacuation of multiple orphanages in the south-central part of Ukraine, including over 200 kids ranging from toddlers, children with special needs, and teenagers. After evacuation, they were relocated to the relative safety of Lviv. Housing, food, clothing, and toys were coordinated, gathered, and distributed to give them some sense of stability, hope, and maybe even a little happiness despite the circumstances.

We built and fostered intelligence networks, communication pipelines, and vital relationships to help streamline the delivery of supplies and aid needed in the war effort. I would receive a text message for medical kits, and within a few hours, I was jumping out of a van in the middle of an intersection to hand off garbage bags full of medical supplies to people I had never met in order to get them to the front line. We moved fast all day, every day — it was the least we could do. Ukraine’s fate and freedom rest in the hands of its people, a mission they are willing to die for.

Aerial Recovery would evacuate even more people after Caleb and I left. I stood among giants, some of the bravest people I have ever met. The strength and determination that our Ukrainian counterparts displayed was inspiring.

volunteering in ukraine

Aerial Recovery Group evacuated more than 200 children from danger zones during the author’s time on the ground in Ukraine. Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Ethan Nagel for Coffee or Die Magazine.

We spent the last 20 years fighting counterinsurgencies and debating geopolitics with tribal leaders during the Global War on Terror. It was murky, frustrating, and, with the eventual failure of the Afghan government, a big kick in the gut. Ukraine seems different. I brushed shoulders with hackers, professors, and DJs, to name a few. No matter what the hardship, they were unified. That sense of unity flowed through every individual in Ukraine in a way I haven’t felt since the days after 9/11.

The two weeks I spent there flew by. The urge to go back hangs heavy, the same feeling I’ve had after returning from every deployment in my past life. I did what I could, and God knows I will try and do more.

The responsibility of staying safe for your loved ones and doing the right thing for the world we live in is often hard to balance. No one person can take on every fight; the people who pursue that life often end up with nothing left to come home to. It’s something that took me a while to put to rest. But my family is my life now. I have my wife and daughter waiting for me at the end of my day. I have an obligation to be there for them. The world isn’t black-and-white, and doing the right thing is only easy when what the “right thing” is, is obvious.


This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer, a special publication from Coffee or Die Magazine, as “Volunteering in Ukraine.”

Read Next: ‘Victory Will Be Ours’: Ukrainian Counteroffensive Routs Russians, Heralds New Phase of War

Ethan Nagel is a freelance cinematographer and occasional writer. He served in the Marine Corps and deployed as an infantryman, scout sniper, and combat adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Silver Star and then Purple Heart for not running fast enough. Ethan holds a bachelor’s degree in intelligence studies and an associate’s degree in cinematography, cinema production, and cinema history. His work has appeared in projects for Netflix, the NFL, NBC, Red Bull, Target, Coffee or Die Magazine, and Black Rifle Coffee Company.
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