Episode #22 of NAVIGATE continues our series covering on-the-ground experiences in the Ukraine war.
Firsthand experiences in Ukraine – part 2 transcript:
0:00:04 – 0:00:27
|Hello, my name is Frank Harrison. I’m the Regional Security Director of North America with World Travel Protection. Thank you for joining us as we present part two of our series on Ukraine and first-person experiences. In part two we are joined by Mary Kate MacEachern. Welcome to NAVIGATE, Kate. I’ll get you to introduce yourself who you are, your journey to Ukraine to join the Ukraine Foreign Legion to fight and how this changed once you got on the ground.|
0:00:27 – 0:00:40
|My name is Kate MacEachern, I am currently in back home in Valentine’s Cove, Nova Scotia. Two weeks ago, I just left Poland slash Ukraine where I spent the last two months.|
0:00:41 – 0:00:48
|So you were in the Ukraine for two months? What brought you to the Ukraine?|
0:00:49 – 0:01:14
|Oh, how would I explain that – the need to help, basically. You know, we all have that part of us that when something happens in the world or something happens even next door, you realize that you have a skill set or that you can help make a change. And this time, it just happened that it was halfway across the world.|
0:01:14 – 0:01:24
|So you have a history of taking on causes, smashing down doors, breaking ceilings, and making things happen. What did you intend to go to the Ukraine to do?|
0:01:25 – 0:02:14
|When the territorial defence, when it was opened, when it was announced, that was my original intent. At the time, I wasn’t seeing outside the primary arcs of a typical war. You need soldiers, you need people on the ground. And at the time, we were only a few days into the formal declaration of war. And in my opinion, Ukraine was barely holding on, they wouldn’t have made the announcement to open the territorial defence if they had enough troops, if they were stable enough, if they felt they could sustain for any amount of time. So originally, I packed up, geared up and got on a plane to fight.|
0:02:14 – 0:02:26
|So just so our listeners, you are a veteran in the KR forces you were in the armoured corps. You’re a trooper, you drove leopard tanks, so you’re going to run tanks.|
0:02:27 – 0:02:48
|If that’s the position that they needed to be filled, absolutely. Track is what I know. That was my skill set, mainly. Military, that was my skill set. And at the time, when I was headed over, there wasn’t a whole lot of of armour crewmen.|
0:02:49 – 0:02:58
|So you get it up, you land in Poland, you’re ready to go, what happens, what changed?|
0:02:59 – 0:04:30
|I got to Poland. And before I went through sort of the inner workings of the veteran world, I had chatted to a couple other vets that were already in country. And when I got to Poland, I had a conversation specifically with one of them. And he said, Kate, we need help. The help is desperately needed on people coming out of Ukraine, on people in Ukraine that are stuck that are, you know, in either partially occupied areas or areas that have been struck very drastically. If you want to go fight, none of us are going to stop you, we understand, we respect that. However, give it a chance. Stay on the support side, because as you know, for every soldier out in the field, it takes 10 to support them.|
So I ended up initially going to the main evac camp in Przemysl, Poland and that’s sort of where we became a team. And it was a complete game changer for me because I did realise that I’m a lot stronger in a support role that I am fighting because if I fall on the battlefield, that was it. It’s over, and I can’t help anybody at that point. If I stand on my feet, behind those guys, there is a whole lot more help that we can provide.
0:04:30 – 0:04:57
|So this is a game changer. You hit the ground, you’ve got an idea what you’re going to do. Now you’ve done a complete pivot, you’re realigned. Describe the organisation that you and this team formed because this was ad hoc. And you cemented it as a group into something really, really exciting and you were very effective. What was it you guys created?|
0:04:58 – 0:07:51
|Basically, in a nutshell, we created a support team. We started meeting people, international aid donors, you know, just random everyday people that were doing the same thing we were that were bringing in supplies to Poland destined for Ukraine. The reality is, we were stuck with the reality at that point that there is a lot of corruption in both countries. War creates corruption, it creates greed, it creates things that would not normally happen. I had, we had witnessed way too much aid coming in that wasn’t making it across the border.|
So we started making contact with Ukrainians with troops with everybody sort of on that side, a cross section of I think every demographic, and we started out with small items, you know, we managed to get a bag of mixed medical goods, and maybe a little bit of food. And we knew someone that desperately needed in Ukraine, and they couldn’t wait five or six more days. So we shot it through – one of our guys did the trip, he got it there and came back. And went ‘we need more’.
And, you know, the other side of it hit us at the same time. We reached out to different huge organisations that we thought – that were told are there to help. And they’ve got seemingly endless pockets from donations and everything else. And we reached out to them with the names of these places, whether it be a hospital, an orphanage, a camp, a village, or just a family that was in a hard down situation and asked like, can you help them? And either we were getting directly told, maybe in a week or so, you know, we’ll add it to our list. Or we were getting told, ‘No, that’s not who we supply to.’
So we basically stabilised ourselves without even meaning to, because that just it lit a fire under all of us that that’s not how Canadians do it. That’s not how we’re going to do this. We’re going to get what is coming into Poland, whatever we can get our hands on, and get the hell out to Ukraine, because that’s where it’s supposed to go.
0:07:41 – 0:07:49
|So the Canadians, you guys ended up developing a little bit of a moniker for your organisation. What did you guys call yourselves?|
0:07:50 – 0:08:47
|The Canada way. Because there’s, I’ll be honest, there’s been there’s been some situations, but I need a little bit of grace afforded to that statement because you’re you’re working, you’re volunteering, you’re living in an environment rife with corruption. You are working in an environment that is very, not what we’re used to in Canada, you’re working in a war zone. And with that, you have to sometimes bend the rules and make peace with that. So we’ve, we always say, you know, there’s the right way to do things. There’s the wrong way. And then there’s the Canada way. We figure it out. It’s adapt and overcome.|
0:08:47 – 0:09:02
|So you’re adapting, you’re overcoming. You’re doing active missions in the Ukraine. Can you describe how those missions started and what it evolved into?|
0:09:02 – 0:11:14
|At the beginning, it was very calm. It was a little mind bending, to be honest with you, because our first little while we were only doing live, we were doing safe areas, if you want to call them that, as safe as you can be in a war zone. You know, is was basically like delivering a vanload of groceries to anywhere in Canada. You drive in the van, there was no risk calculation that you had to sit down and figure out before you left, there was no real worry at all. It was simple. And as we evolved and had so many contacts in Ukraine coming to us, it became a lot more than that.|
We started going into, we’ll say the underbelly of areas. And with that, we started being exposed to the very dark underbelly of those areas, which really played into all of our basic soldier skills that you need to do risk calculations, you need to be constantly checking maps, you need to ensure that you’re safe at all times, because you’re going into an area that is targeted.
And the reality hits you, you are a supply chain. At the end of the day, we are providing aid and support to Ukrainians. That is one of the biggest things being targeted right now. A convoy of three, four vehicles, you’re a moving target. So it went from zero to 100. But, again, basic soldier skills, you figure it out, and you’re just constantly evolving and constantly making sure that everybody’s safe and doing it as effectively as possible.
0:11:15 – 0:11:22
|You’re pushing out, you’re bringing out food supplies, basic medical supplies, did that evolve into anything more than that?|
0:11:23 – 0:16:52
|Absolutely. My first week on the ground, our medical we use as an example because I’m an MFR in Canada – Medical First Responder. It started out as you know, what the medical supplies I was getting was sort of a mixed bag, if you want to put it that way. International aid that was coming in, there was boxes of you know, antibiotics mixed with eyedrops mixed with gastrointestinal meds mixed with whatever. And you know, I’d sort it all out. At the time, we were getting requests for simple things, you know, basic antibiotics, the same as anybody in the country in the world needs. Basic food supplies.|
And as we evolved, that 100% evolved, we started getting into more specialised medical, which became our mainstay. You know, the first time – I’m going to use this example, the first time I got a request for prep meds, I was floored because I couldn’t understand what prep was. Because at my job in Canada, we’re very aware of what prep drugs are post exposure, prophylaxis, antivirals, HIV exposure, you start antivirals for a couple days, you go through your rotation in case you have an accidental prick, or your glove breaks or anything like that. I couldn’t understand why I had this massive request for prep meds and for drugs that are very specialised. And I couldn’t understand why they were asking me for something that’s actually illegal in their country.
And that night, I sat down and I kind of had this I don’t know I thought to myself, like, what is happening? How did we go from, you know, doing basic, generic, you know, this community needs enough food to survive for three or four days until you can evac to now I have the specific order that’s for prep meds for prophylaxis for abortion pills. Why? I don’t understand what village needs these drugs? And why am I being asked for it? Why? You know, this is an entire country. Why am I one of a few Canadians that are doing our best here… why are we being asked for this and where is this going?
And that night, I had a very long conversation with my contact. And I just flat out asked the question: what what is going on here? Why why do you need this? This is a war zone like my brain wasn’t even registering. This is a war zone. This is primarily, you know, men fighting this and that. And she gets quiet on the phone for a minute and then she comes back and she said ‘Kate, do you have any idea what’s happening in these three areas?’ And of course, I’m not going to disclose them. But I said, ‘Yeah, they were hit. They were hit again. There was a break. The troops moved on, they got hit again’. And she said, ‘No, they’re continually getting hit. But you’re, you’re not understanding’. And I was like, explain to me that in plain English, what is going on? She said, ‘Kate. All over Ukraine. There is camps’. And I said, of course, there’s camps. It’s a war. We have camps everywhere, during any kind of wartime or area. She said, ‘No, these are. These are females’. And I said, Okay, she said, ‘Kate, we have situations coming out of women being raped hundreds of times, because they’ve been sacrificed on behalf of their family. We have young teenagers that are now pregnant. We have HIV going completely rampant in Ukraine right now. And a lot of it is stemming from the sexual assault from the rapes. We need your help, because we can’t ask anybody else. We can’t. All of these big organizations that keep coming in we mentioned that to them and they just, they can’t do anything because it’s it’s illegal in this country, or it’s frowned upon, or they don’t want to feel uncomfortable.’ And that moment, when I decided, when we decided to start backing these people, it completely changed everything for us.
0:16:52 – 0:17:14
|So you have your base of operations in Poland, you have your warehousing, you’ve now had a request to step into a space that is completely foreign to you. It’s exposing you to the hard reality of what’s going on in the war and what’s going on with Ukrainian. What did you do next?|
0:17:15 – 0:19:33
|I went outside. And honestly, I gutted up. I locked my lights out. And I started calling every organisation in the world that I could think of every far left, far right, neutral, I didn’t care who you were, if you stood for women’s rights, pro choice, if you stood for anything that even remotely aligned with this situation I was now apprised of, I was calling you, or emailing you or hammering you to contact me.|
Within four hours, I had the first delivery on its way from another country. And again, I’m not going to disclose specific areas or countries or people because I don’t want to implicate them in what we have done. And for the next couple of weeks, I was in parking lots, I was behind buildings. I was meeting people all over Poland to acquire both abortion drugs, prep meds, STI medication, basically anything I could to run into these places to try to facilitate any piece of recovery that we could for these people.
I mean, our guys stepped out in a way that was unbelievable. Every one of us – it was not even a discussion. We had, you know, a quick chat about the reality of what’s happening. And this wasn’t five or 10 women, this wasn’t 50 or 60 women. This is hundreds of women and little girls and the second those guys heard about what was going on, we all went okay, how do we make this happen? How do we stay off the radar enough to make this happen, but on the radar enough to make this happen? And that was the moment our balance beam began.
0:19:34 – 0:19:50
|So you take this this balance beam as you call it. But as a team, the Canadian Way, you became very effective at getting into the Ukraine. Describe what a day, just give me an idea of what a mission would look like into some of the areas you’d go into.|
0:19:50 – 0:23:38
|So we get a request. So a lot of these organisations, whether little guys, mid level, guys, big guys, charities, you know, NGOs, whatever. They all have some kind of a warehouse, some kind of a storage facility. Some of them they’re massive and grandeur. Some of them are just tiny and the back corner of a shed kind of deal.|
If a company has a full warehouse, they’re excelling. If an NGO or a charity has a full warehouse, you’re failing.
And the biggest thing with us, we have a 12 to 24 hour turnaround. When you contact us and you say I need XYZ, within 12 to 24 hours the vans are loaded, the guys are ready to go. We’re all basically locked and loaded, ready to cross the border. You have to calculate everything in. There is curfews in most areas. Of course, the curfews get tightened as areas get hit, they get loosened, you know you have to be very much thumb on the button to see how much travel time you have in order to get to these areas.
Some of them are four and five hours inside the border. There is no fuel in Ukraine right now. 10 liters is basically what you can get and for a big van that’s not going to take you far if you’ve got a ton of aid in the back of it. There is exceptions for the 40 litres. But again, 40 liters, you really have to make sure you’ve got your jerrycans, you’ve got your IFAC you’ve got enough medical gear that if you do get hit, you can save yourself and save you guys.
And obviously discretion, you’re not on your phone blasting locations all over the place, you’re not talking to five or six people in Poland and telling them exactly where you’re going. So that adds a layer of some kind of factor because you’re basically going in without anybody having top cover. So you need to make sure your poops in a group at all times.
You get to the border super early in the morning, five or six o’clock so that you can get through the lines. Because the longer you sit in those lines, the more time is eaten up for our curfews. You know, if you’ve got a seven o’clock curfew, and you don’t get through that border until two o’clock in the afternoon, you’re cutting it tight, because the second night falls, it seems like that’s when the missiles start. And I mean, what are you going to do, you’re in a convoy of three or four soft skin vehicles, you’re not. You’re not going to get out of there, unless you really lock yourself in.
You drop it off. Absolute discretion is used with all of our contacts. We never ever, ever, in 1000 years exploit them, which is something I’ve seen happen all too often. You don’t use them as a catalyst to fundraise or a catalyst of ‘Look at me’. You basically reassure them, you shake hands as best you can. You take whatever information they gave you, close the doors, and you leave. And you try to make it back to Poland in one piece.
0:23:39 – 0:24:01
|So within two months on the ground, running active missions into Ukraine and providing critical and essential support to needs. If you look back on this past two months, is there three pieces of advice you can give to a person who’s traveling, especially somebody that’s going into a high threat environment?|
0:24:02 – 0:26:29
|Yep, number one, manage expectations. To be blunt, you are not GI Joe. You are not going to save Ukraine by yourself. Number two, drop your ego. This is not about you, no part of this is about you. 100% of this is about Ukraine. Any personal feelings, morals and ethics, the whole nine yards that you have in your safe home country. Be prepared to have them bent a little bit, and to be okay with that bend. Number three, especially for our veterans. This is not, this is not a deployment in the military, we do not have top cover. You need to take care of yourself, because nobody is providing overwatch on you to make sure that you’re okay. You don’t have an HLTA in the middle that’s automatically afforded to you. You don’t have pre-deployment, you don’t have decompression. You are responsible 100% for yourself. And with that comes the responsibility to be sustainable.|
You need to understand that in any austere environment, every 12 to 14 days, you need to take a break. You need to take a couple days, shut your phone off, shut the world off way far into interior Poland, go to an air bed and breakfast and walk away from anything war related, anything stress related anything that’s pushing cortisol and adrenaline. After your second or third break, consider going home, you need to have that home connection. There is no fault in being human. Because if you don’t, you’re gonna thunder. And when you’re not on top of your game, it means you’re taking risks that are not positive calculations at all. One mistake can mean the difference between you staying alive and getting home to your family. Or even worse than that, an entire area or cross section of people that are also not going to make it because you made a mistake and you were tired and you weren’t thinking you know about all sides of it.
0:26:30 – 0:26:43
|That’s some interesting lessons. You’ve also had some interesting lessons around smart devices, mobile phones and technology do you want to share a little bit of your learnings there?|
0:26:44 – 0:28:55
|Absolutely. This war, you know, I hate to say it but this war is being fought online. It’s like the war of social media. I’m constantly seeing positions exposed, I’m seeing faces exposed, I’m seeing exploitation on all levels of human beings in Ukraine. I’m seeing guys online that are you know, posting to all different social media platforms with our Canadian or American or whatever SIM cards – not changing their phone number not flipping to a European SIM card that manages to stay under the radar. I’m seeing guys, you know doing this sort of hero shots on Instagram or on even Facebook, that even an untrained donkey could figure out exactly where they’re at. And then they’re wondering how they get hit.|
You know, Faraday bags are cheap. Block your signals, use your phone when absolutely necessary. Consider the risk factors and posting to social media. Your ego is not worth it. Once you get home and you’re safe and your team is safe, and whomever you’re working with is safe. Go ahead, fill your boots, post whatever you want to post. But we are in a war zone. This is not a video game. You don’t get a second chance. You know, a simple sweep over Ukraine, even as sort of a tech uneducated human being a simple sweep over Ukraine. And I can see where clusters and pockets are of North American cell phones. If I can see it, a lot of the so-called ‘bad guys’ can see it. You know we just need to be a little bit smarter with how we’re carrying ourselves in there.
0:28:56 – 0:29:05
|Kate, now that you’ve shared this incredible journey that you’ve had for the past two and a half months, are you going back?|
0:29:05 – 0:30:23
|Yes, I actually leave this week. I’m going to do another couple months. At the end of that couple months, I will reset again, reassess and see where we’re at at that point. I know my limits, mental health wise, physically, the whole nine yards, eight weeks is my line. At eight weeks, it’s time to go home and reset and reground myself. I’m in this for the long haul. With little bit of luck and a little bit of everything I’m going to become, we all are temporary residents of Poland, to give us the lateral movement to basically stay up till three years, this war is not going to end tomorrow. And even if it magically ended tomorrow. It doesn’t automatically rebuild entire cities or villages. It doesn’t fix anything that’s been done. This is going to be years and years of rebuild and re-stabilisation.|
0:30:24 – 0:31:26
|Kate, thank you for sharing that. I truly respect your dedication, your focus and mission. And I wish you nothing but the best as you’re going back and the influence that you’re going to have on people and the influence that you’ve already had. I just want to say safe travels and safe journeys and we’ll see you on the other side.|
Thank you for joining part two of our series on Ukraine. In this episode, we focus on the experiences and work of Mary Kate MacEachern and how a group of Canadians formed the Canadian Way to support Ukraine on the ground.
Looking for the best troll podcasts inspire your upcoming adventures while also helping you travel smarter. Listen to NAVIGATE the top travel podcast that enhances the way you explore the world on our worldtravelprotection.com website under our travel assist hub.
In each episode, our World Travel Protection hosts speak with the travel industry expert or experienced everyday traveller to bring you thought provoking travel insights, experiences and advice, helping empower you to travel the world confidently until next time, I am Frank Harrison.
The second part of our series shares the story of Kate MacEachern. Kate is a veteran and medical first responder who’s spent the last two months volunteering in Poland and Ukraine as part of a critical support team, The Canada Way.
Listen to this episode to hear about the courageous effort they’re putting in behind the scenes. Kate also shares with us her top lessons learned around fighting in a war that’s as much of an online, social media war as it is a physical one.
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