Toward the end of another long day, Mike, a Team Rubicon security adviser and retired Army Special Forces officer, listens to music with a teenager at an orphanage in Lviv. They sit together as if they’ve known each other for years. In Ukraine, myriad aspects of the human experience are on display. But through the trauma, fear, and grief threads a natural gravitation toward bonding with others: in the bomb shelters, in the food lines, in the streets, and in the homes. Everywhere. Mike asked that his last name not be used for security reasons.

They Want to Know the World Cares and That They Are Not Alone

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. 

Every day.

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.

Families sleep on pallets in a suburban school gymnasium in Lviv after fleeing to find safety. As I write, more than 14 million Ukrainians have left their homes. They move westward to relative safety, having left everything behind—including fathers and grandfathers and pets. Schools, churches, municipal buildings, and anything that can house people became shelters. Pallets piled with anything that can be used as blankets cover floors that, just weeks ago, were gathering places of dreams, love, hope, and, most importantly, peace. These millions of souls have been obscured by the numbers that represent them, abstracted by the magnitude of their plight. A family sleeping on a pallet in a gymnasium had a normal suburban life just a couple weeks prior to this image.

Families sleep on pallets in a suburban school gymnasium in Lviv after fleeing to find safety. As I write, more than 14 million Ukrainians have left their homes. They move westward to relative safety, having left everything behind—including fathers and grandmothers and pets. Schools, churches, municipal buildings, and anything that can house people became shelters. Pallets piled with anything that can be used as blankets cover floors that, just weeks ago, were gathering places of dreams, love, hope, and, most importantly, peace. These millions of souls have been obscured by the numbers that represent them, abstracted by the magnitude of their plight. A family sleeping on a pallet in a gymnasium had a normal suburban life just a couple of weeks prior to this image.

 


Dr. Elena Pal-Wal, a Ukrainian American pediatric physician with family in Kharkiv, listens to a young boy’s heart to check for health issues in Lviv. I embedded with a U.S.-based medical team, Team Rubicon, and we found ourselves at an orphanage for children with special needs. Some were there when the war started, and others streamed in from the east. None understood what had happened to their country or themselves. Like others who fled, they had no access to medical care or other basic necessities.

Elena Pal-Wal, a Ukrainian-American pediatric physician with family in Kharkiv, listens to a young boy’s heart to check for health issues in Lviv. I embedded with a U.S.-based medical team, Team Rubicon, and we found ourselves at an orphanage for children with special needs. Some were there when the war started, and others streamed in from the east. None understood what had happened to their country or themselves. Like others who fled, they had no access to medical care or other basic necessities.

 


Families gather in a basement bomb shelter near a school in Lviv, gripping hot beverages to try to stay warm. Life, in Ukraine, is divided between light and dark. Air raid sirens seem normal throughout the country. They jar children and their parents from sleep and send them scrambling to the nearest safe place. Night and day. Quiet comes in eerie bursts that don’t linger long enough for rest. The bomb shelters are old and dark, dank and depressing. Families wonder if they fled in vain—if there’s true shelter to be found.

Families gather in a basement bomb shelter near a school in Lviv, gripping hot beverages to try to stay warm. Life, in Ukraine, is divided between light and dark. Air raid sirens seem normal throughout the country. They jar children and their parents from sleep and send them scrambling to the nearest safe place. Night and day. Quiet comes in eerie bursts that don’t linger long enough for rest. The bomb shelters are old and dark, dank and depressing. Families wonder if they fled in vain—if there’s true shelter to be found.

 


Tom Bucek, sitting, a paramedic and Marine Corp veteran with Team Rubicon, instructs volunteers on how to apply a tourniquet at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Ukraine is not, and will not be, idle. People across the country seek out ways to help with the defense. They have come together with a singular focus. From farmers creating local defense watches to college students learning how to administer combat medicine—when they should be out with their friends enjoying their youth—none take it lightly.

Tom Bucek, sitting, a paramedic and Marine Corps veteran with Team Rubicon, instructs volunteers on how to apply a tourniquet at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Ukraine is not, and will not be, idle. People across the country seek out ways to help with the defense. They have come together with a singular focus. From farmers creating local defense watches to college students learning how to administer combat medicine—when they should be out with their friends enjoying their youth—none take it lightly.

 


Toward the end of another long day, Mike, a Team Rubicon security adviser and retired Army Special Forces officer, listens to music with a teenager at an orphanage in Lviv. They sit together as if they’ve known each other for years. In Ukraine, myriad aspects of the human experience are on display. But through the trauma, fear, and grief threads a natural gravitation toward bonding with others: in the bomb shelters, in the food lines, in the streets, and in the homes. Everywhere. Mike asked that his last name not be used for security reasons.

Toward the end of another long day, Mike, a Team Rubicon security adviser and retired Army Special Forces officer, listens to music with a teenager at an orphanage in Lviv. They sit together as if they’ve known each other for years. In Ukraine, myriad aspects of the human experience are on display. But through the trauma, fear, and grief threads a natural gravitation toward bonding with others: in the bomb shelters, in the food lines, in the streets, and in the homes. Everywhere. Mike asked that his last name not be used for security reasons.

 

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Jamie Brown

Jamie Brown is a photographic storyteller, humanitarian, adventurer, and U.S. Army Gulf War veteran. He has spent his life traveling and chasing stories through hundreds of places in dozens of countries on six continents. Understanding cultures, people, values, and motivators, and helping bring stories to life drives him. After all, though we may only live in the moment briefly, the story lasts lifetimes.

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