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Ben Dusing: An open letter to the community back home from shell-shocked outreaches of Ukraine

(Editor’s note: Suspended attorney Ben Dusing and his colleague John Gardner have been in the Ukraine for several weeks, involved in the massive humanitarian effort there. They have acquired a van and an ambulance to carry food and medical supplies to people caught in the crossfire and devastation of parts of the Ukraine occupied — or formerly occupied — by the Russians. Dusing’s Russians language skills have propelled him to a leadership role among the various volunteer groups who have joined in the humanitarian service.)

Seated in the driver’s seat of the ambulance parked under a leafless tree on a dirt road on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukraine, around midnight, Russian mortar rounds landing every minute or so — only hundreds of meters away on all sides. For the first time in my life, I seriously contemplated the prospect of imminent death.

The indiscriminate shelling was getting closer and closer. It seemed only a matter of time before a Russian drone in the sky overhead detected the protruding contours of the vehicle, clearly not civilian, and fired directed precisely to our coordinates. There was nothing I could do – nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

In the passenger’s seat was Ezra, the 25-year old German volunteer medic who had been assigned to my vehicle. His purpose was to keep alive the critically-injured Ukrainian soldiers we were waiting to be brought to us from the front lines down the street. I am racing across town in the pitch dark of night, without use of headlights, to get the men to the field hospital roughly 20 kilometers away.

The fact that Ezra’s medications stored in the back of the ambulance had frozen in the indescribably-harsh sub-zero degree temperatures was a problem we hadn’t yet had occasion to address, because we had yet to be delivered a casualty. I presumed that Ezra had a plan to deal with that problem since he was fast asleep with his head on the dashboard, thoroughly exhausted after being pinned down in a bunker and under heavy fire the previous day – a near-death experience that several in the group to which I had been assigned had spoken of throughout the day.

In that moment – one that I will never forget – I thought longingly of my children most especially.  But I thought too of all the others back in my ol’ Northern Kentucky home I would have preferred to have had the opportunity to say “goodbye” to.

There was nothing to do but pray. So pray I did. And, like all the other times over the past ten months during the course of my humanitarian work in Ukraine and at its borders when I have found myself believing that I had finally bitten off more than I could chew, the Good Lord saw fit once again to lead me out of the mess I had gotten myself into.

An hour later I was safely back with the rest of the team at the local battalion headquarters for the troops to which I had volunteered to be attached, men of Ukraine’s 28th Mechanized Battalion. The harrowing experience over, I didn’t so much regret agreeing to help out for a day with so-called “second line” medical evacuations as I wondered whether the experience should be taken as a sign that the Good Lord had me in the palm of his hand or, alternatively, that I continued to push my “luck.”

And yet, everything about my experience over the past 10 months – a whirlwind experience born of a simple but strong calling to travel to the Ukrainian-Polish border to assist the refugees fleeing there in droves in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine – suggests that I remain very solidly in the palm of the Good Lord’s hand. From the beginning, there is no other explanation for how way has led on to way, and how at every defining moment of my destination-less journey the fates have conspired to propel me onward. In virtually every circumstance, seemingly against all the odds.

But we are no longer at the beginning. We are far from it.  Gone are the days of work in the safe environs of Europe, albeit at the border, greeting wave after wave of refugees arriving to the gates of humanity. Although I will forever treasure my unlikely experience as the unofficial, costumed meeter-and-greeter of the refugees arriving to the border at the crossing in Medyka, Poland – the busiest border crossing in the biggest refugee crises the world has seen since World War II – that experience seems very much in the rear view mirror at this point.

Currently in the middle of my second multi-month stint living as an independent, foreign humanitarian volunteer in Kharkiv, Ukraine – in Ukraine’s far east, 26 miles from the Russian border – being on the ground in Ukraine and being involved in operations around and often in the conflict has been a quite different experience.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever dreamed that I would be doing what I’ve been doing these last many months, experiencing what I’m experiencing. Even the short list of notable examples is both too long and, I should think, to farfetched-seeming to mention here. It must therefore suffice for the moment to say that I have experienced a real, active, contemporary war up close in person in a way that has changed me forever.

Indeed, I am changed forever.

One thing, however, hasn’t changed — except for growing stronger. It is my fondness for my home – our community back in Northern Kentucky – and my appreciation for all we have that I have come to see many others around the world do not. Many, most especially, in my beloved Ukraine right now.

Mired in delicate, dangerous humanitarian operations in places like Bakhmut, Dnipro (I was one of two foreign volunteers on the ground assisting the locals after Russia fired a cruise missile into an apartment building there, a war crime and humanitarian catastrophe you might have seen in the headlines), the newly-liberated territories of the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, and – very soon – the horrific humanitarian landscape that is newly-liberated Kherson, I have found myself face-to-face with human suffering of a kind I could not have imagined. Among my foremost thoughts in the aftermath of these experiences is a deep and profound feeling of gratitude – profound, sincere gratitude.

Yes, for all of the blessings I personally have in my life. But more than that, for my home – our community – and our way of life. Home isn’t perfect, to be sure. We have our own problems. Those problems are real. We have our own versions of injustices that cry out to be addressed in their own right.

But, we have a lot of things – things we all tend to take for granted – that people here do not. Food, light, warmth. The absence of daily fear of bombs, drones, and cruise missiles reigning down from the skies. Freedom to live a life unimpressed by a war being fought right in the midst of life’s daily activity. And so much more.

My experiences on the whole have inspired me in so many ways, my perspective forever changed. One thing I was felt inspired to do is to write this letter home, to communicate a simple if two-fold message:

• Thank you for all your love and support, in every way and from every corner. It has been a beautiful thing to see. On behalf of the Ukrainian people, thank you for helping them by helping me.
• Please take a moment to be grateful, and be inspired by that gratitude to help others in our community when and where you can.  Gratitude is, after all, an “action word.”

I miss and love you all.  I look forward to being home and seeing you soon.

If you see my kids out and about – in the grocery store or at a sports event, perhaps – tell them their dad says “hello,” loves them, is proud of them, and will be home soon. Tell them “thank you,” if you would, for the sacrifice of their time with their dad they have made out of love for their fellow human brothers and sisters, the people of Ukraine.

I cannot express in words how important your continued ongoing support is for the people of Ukraine.  And on behalf of so many here – indeed, if I may dare, the entire Ukrainian people.

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