Just when I think things can’t get any more surreal in Ukraine, the next day one-ups the previous. We were allowed rare access to a drone-flying school where we hung out with soldiers of various platoons for a full day, some fresh from the front and returning there the next day. This realization put me in a solemn mood.
It was final exam day, and the students had all passed with flying colors and received diplomas at the end of the day.
We took part in some of the drone-flying games out in the field. It occurred to me I was a legitimate Russian military target now. Still, if past history predicted future actions, the Russians were more likely to bomb a restaurant, hospital, daycare center, or playground than a military target.
It was a beautiful spring-like day. I could hear roosters crowing, mixing in with gunfire from a practice range a few miles away. Whenever the joy of the day’s beauty hit me, I was reminded of destruction, misery, and war. I was up and down all day.
One field exercise included hitting a target, kamikaze style. There were no bombs on these, as that would eat up too many drones during practice. But the drones had been souped up, built from scratch, and could scream through the air at incredible speeds. In the first round, I was taken to the practice field in a brand-new fancy Audi car, unsuitable for the barely-there dirt path and bumpy and muddy terrain. On the second, it was a junker that the soldiers and I could barely fit into, and the trunk kept popping open every time we hit a bump. It was apparent these were civilian cars being used for military purposes. These guys need more trucks.
Whether in a car or on foot, we stuck to the same route each time. The instructor informed me that we wanted to be careful not to veer off the path in case there were any unexploded ordinances, as we were on land that Russians once occupied.
The instructor knows what he speaks. He is from the Donbas region, which Russia invaded with the assistance of separatists in 2014. He recounted that he was captured by the Russians when he was just 17 years old and a minor, so they let him go… in the middle of a minefield.
At the time, apparently, the Russian military at least pretended to care about war crimes and didn’t want to kill a minor, so they hoped a minefield would do the job for them, giving them deniable plausibility. He disappointed them and somehow made it across the field in one piece. Now they’ve created a mighty enemy. I was reminded that this “special military operation” of Putin’s has been happening for almost ten years. But it’s even older, as Russia has attempted to destroy the Ukrainian people, culture, and language for centuries.
Later that day, the instructor who relayed this information to me found out one of his peers, a fellow instructor at another school and a good friend, had his right hand blown off by an unexploded ordinance and needed blood. He sent me a photo of the poor kid (very young looking) in a hospital bed, smiling… it was the anesthesia talking. Maimed Ukrainians will be just part of the Russian legacy and a long-time reminder of the shame that we should never allow them and their supporters to forget.
Next, we were shown a demonstration of drone flying skills on the homemade indoor course. It demonstrated the precision with which these machines are flown and the skill of Ukrainian drone pilots.
Drones are an inexpensive and efficient way to save lives. Soldiers’ lives are saved by allowing the pilot to be further away from the action. But there are challenges, not the least that the primary maker of drones, DJI, a Chinese company, has stopped manufacturing and importation to Ukraine and severely restricted neighboring countries’ importations.
Officially, the same policy from DJI applies to Russia. However, unofficially, according to Ukrainians, DJI supports Russia. I believe this is true. Anastasia purchased a brand new DJI Steadicam, and she could not download the software and app to use it for more than the 24-hour trial period simply because she is Ukrainian. Thankfully, I was with her and could download it on my phone in order to use her new gear.
The Chinese government doesn’t seem to care about morality, the systematic and state-sponsored murder of innocent children, or right or wrong, but only about money and geopolitics. While some may argue the same applies to the United States of America, and while the US history of intervention isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t buy it here.
The “what about” and “both sides-isms” is just a way for weak-minded people unable to distinguish nuance and feel better about supporting what deep down they know is evil. Again, 1,000 plus Ukrainian children were killed versus zero Russian children. I could list dozens more facts like this but isn’t that all you really need to know. Arguments stop there. There is no justifying the unjustifiable.
And the Russian people are not totally innocent in these atrocities. One other journalist on location, a Ukrainian photojournalist, recounted an all too familiar story of a family torn apart by the war. His father lives in Moscow and believes Russia is correct in invading Ukraine. It’s common to write off this widespread belief that everyday Russians do not have accurate information on the war, BUT his son lives in Ukraine. He knows the facts of civilian carnage and the killing of innocent children and the elderly (presumably pensioners like the father).
He’s been told of the maiming, orphaning, and kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russia, and he CHOOSES to believe what Putin has to say. Indeed, some in the USA believe that we should “listen to what Putin has to say” (Rock Musician turned Country Artist Loon, Aaron Lewis of the 2000s band Staind, Tucker Carlson, formerly with FNC, a variety of right-wing politicians, and their ignorant and ill-informed followers).
Anastasia’s Ukrainian soldier boyfriend has a cousin who lives in Russia and believes Russia should kill Ukrainians until Ukraine “comes to its senses.” You can’t reason with people with such beliefs; you can only defeat them.
As the students received their diplomas, I noticed the cheerful atmosphere. It dawned on me that most of these men hadn’t even known each other 11 days prior (school is only 10 days long) and now were jocular and jovial with each other and me. They shared a bond of war, sadness, and now of drone school and joy.
I, however, had to struggle with my emotions, understanding that some of these men I’d grown to admire over the past few hours might not make it back in one piece.
But eventually, at the ad hoc barbeque celebration that evening, I let go of my somber mood. For a moment, I was in high school again, back home in Tennessee, hanging with my buddies by a bonfire. Indeed, many of these men could have passed for avid hunters down south with their beards, bowie knives, and humor… I felt completely at home though only a couple (former IT or businesspeople in civilian life) spoke any English.
As the evening wore on, it got windy, chilly, and cold. Someone loaned me a hoodie to keep me warm. They ensured my plate and my glass was filled, even though I was a visitor, not accounted for when they bought the provisions.
A couple had eyed me slightly suspiciously all day, probably because they were wary of having their image taken by a foreign journalist. That can be dangerous here, for them if captured, or their families live in occupied territory. I, of course, was very conscientious of this fact. Still, ALL warmed up to me that evening.
As they recounted stories from the battlefield, comrades and family members lost, with translations made for my sole benefit, I tried to keep it together. They were stoic and strong, So I must try. I felt a kinship with these men, along with a deep admiration. I said so in my toast, which Anastasia translated for me. But I couldn’t find the words in English, much less translate them to Ukrainian to fully express my feelings. Still can’t. War absolutely sucks, but witnessing Ukraine’s fight for freedom is THE noblest cause I have ever been a part of. I feel so blessed and humbled to have played even a small role.
PLEASE NOTE: Though I have permission to post photos, out of an abundance of caution, I’ve decided not to include faces or landmarks that might give away ANY sensitive information.