Photos and text by Jamie Brown
It’s a gray winter morning in eastern Poland. Ponds are still frozen over, and the yellow-amber glow of the sunrise reflects beautifully. Our convoy approaches the Ukrainian border loaded with medical supplies and provisions. We can see the blue metal roofs of the Ukrainian border control buildings ahead and wonder what waits on the other side. It’s the beginning of the third week of the war.
It takes several hours, but we eventually continue on our way through a countryside that looks exactly like the U.S. Midwest. On the road through the farmland, there are an ever-increasing number of makeshift checkpoints, mostly unmanned, but at the ready. Roughly two hours from the border lies Lviv, an epic European city. It’s a place that was almost mythical in my youth when it was nestled behind the Soviet Iron Curtain.
Yet here we are.
Defenses on the edges of the city are massively fortified, and it suddenly feels like the real thing. Yet, inside the city, it feels strangely normal again. The rollercoaster of surreal to normal and back would be the theme for the coming weeks.
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We set up mobile clinics in Lviv and Drohobych to the south. The goal is simple: Treat those impacted by war raging eastward. What we learn shifts my perspective on the impacts of conflict, though. As a veteran, I’ve always associated conflict with shooting. What I find is the unraveling of the social fabric and the redefining of normal. It’s not the physical trauma that we treat—it’s the psychological effects of displacement, the constant disruption of air raid sirens, of uncertainty, and of how they manifest physically in a stunned population. The forgotten subtle casualties of war will linger on in the collective consciousness for generations.
As the days pass, we bond with this place and its people. They seek answers and comfort as much as actual medical treatment. They want to know why and that the world cares and that they are not as alone as they feel. They want assurances that there will be something to go back to. They are grateful for us, and that gratitude makes us feel small and humbled.
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Through it all, we find inspiration. Shining through the darkness is a determination to not just survive but to win and to become better. They have come together with a singular focus, from farmers creating local defense watches to the college students we instruct on combat medicine. Communities open their doors to each other and embrace those in need. Even with the fear that the war’s arrival to Lviv is almost inevitable, they persevere. They become stronger every day. They steel their resolve every day. They find a way.
It’s a warm spring morning. The sun is out, and on the trees, tiny green buds defy the war around them. It’s been less than 36 hours since we woke to the first black plume screaming into the sky. A scar on the world from a Russian missile. And, although this is our scheduled time to leave, we feel like we are running away. It’s painful. We know we did meaningful work, but also, that it’s small in the grand scheme. We want to stay. We want to go east. We want to do more. We want to be Ukrainian.