By Earle I. Mack
Just this weekend, I returned from my fourth trip to Ukraine over the past year and what I saw broke my heart.
We went to deliver heaters, even as the unseasonably warm weather had brought buds to the trees. Signs of life anew, yet to all, they seemed only a cruel deception in the face of the treacherous fight that lay ahead. Much like the faces of the children I saw, buds so full of hope, yet withering under the brute force of Russian terror. A terror so ever-present that only hours after I left, bombs fell from the sky in a region of Ukraine that once felt out of reach, plunging it into darkness just two miles from our delivery point, knocking out the grid.
For the past year, I have worked with former Gov. George Pataki (D-N.Y.) and our respective foundations to help deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine. We have focused our efforts on Operation Heat Ukraine, as an area of humanitarian aid where we could make an immediate difference. On this mission, we delivered more than 220 heaters and generators to Western Ukraine and overall, we have donated and delivered close to 1,000 industrial and residential heaters and generators benefiting over 1 million Ukrainian civilians.
On this trip, I went to Ukraine with hope; we came to deliver hope. But over this past year, I have borne witness to the grim reality of a war that I fear Ukraine cannot sustain. I have seen the verve of defiant optimism methodically ground down into pessimistic resignation. The Russians plus Wagner Group just keep coming, unrelenting, with nary a care for the life of their own troops, who they regard as cannon fodder, let alone those of any man, woman or child in Ukraine.
Everywhere I went the optimism and the defiance that I had felt on previous trips were replaced by the grim realism of the harsh litany of sacrifices that lay ahead. I met with the chief of staff to Gov. Viktor Mykyta, Peter Petrovych Dobromilsky, the deputy head of the Zakarpattia Oblast military administration, whose steely stoicism defied the reality of the battlefield.
But it was in the eyes of the children that I felt the most profound change. They say the eyes of children are the gateway to their souls and what I saw brought me to tears.
My previous trips were greeted with smiles and hugs, my visit a welcome respite in what they undoubtedly may have misunderstood to be a short interruption in their childhood. This trip, a dark reality had set in for these children. Children who have seen things that no child should ever have to see. Children who have heard the sound of explosions and gunfire, and seen buildings destroyed by shelling. Children who used to love playing outside who now lift their eyes to the heavens, not in search of god, but of bombs. Children who are so utterly alone in the world, not knowing if they will ever see their parents again as they are off at the front — men fighting, women acting as medics and nurses — and seeing men, women and other children dead in the streets.
We visited one foster home in Perekhrestya and there I spoke with an 8-year-old orphaned girl with the most beautiful eyes. As we spoke, I tried desperately to lighten her mood, but I could not make her smile. I wistfully asked one of my security team what would happen if we took her back to America with us. They told me, without an official adoption, I would be arrested upon landing and charged with kidnapping. Imagine the irony, as millions of undocumented immigrants cross the U.S. border, I would be charged with kidnapping.
I was so shaken by my experience with these children that I called on a good friend, Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, director of the division of child & adolescent psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. I have worked with Jeremy on the Man O’ War Project, a program that has had great success in helping veterans transition from combat to civilian life through the use of equine-assisted therapy. I told him what I was experiencing and asked him how he would describe these children. His response was, “profoundly traumatized.”
Many of these lost children of Ukraine will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder including flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and depression. They may also experience difficulties with concentration, memory and academic performance. Children who have been displaced may also experience a sense of dislocation, loss of identity and difficulties in forming new relationships. No matter the outcome, this is a legacy of Russian aggression we cannot escape.
As this war goes into its second year, it is with the vision of these children seared in my mind that I believe we must redouble our resolve. But at home, isolationists in Washington increasingly push for disengagement, they see little common cause with the Ukrainians who are fighting to save their nation and preserve democracy and who are dying for the freedom we casually take for granted. Most have no personal touchstone to World War II, the Holocaust or even the Cold War, events that portend the implications of Ukraine’s fall.
The baby boomer and GenX leaders of America seem content to live out their years cloistered in a society built upon the work and sacrifices created by their parents and grandparents of our finest generation. Today, I fear we are one hotel room slip and fall away from America completely retreating inside itself.
Americans and Ukrainians share a common saying, “every cloud has a silver lining.” It is difficult to identify a “silver lining” in such a devastating war, but I believe the American people have been inspired by the resilience and strength of the Ukrainian resistance. It is a nation that has shown remarkable courage and solidarity in the face of adversity.
It is that inspiration we must draw on. It is that courage our leaders must find within themselves to reject isolationism and project America’s strength and ideals onto a world that desperately needs them.
Earle Mack is a former United States ambassador to Finland. He is a partner with the Mack Company, a real estate development and investment firm, and a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith partnership of business and religious leaders promoting freedom, democracy and human rights in countries around the world.
Read the full post from Earle I Mack on The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3901743-a-year-of-war-in-ukraine-has-created-a-haunted-generation/