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From 30,000 Feet

From 30,000 Feet

April 10, 2022 7:01 amComments are Disabled

I’m writing to you from a physical and metaphorical distance that finally is giving me the opportunity to think about what I’ve seen in the past week on the ground in Ukraine and on the border in Poland. I can already say with confidence that this has been one of the most impactful and eye-opening experiences of my life.

For one, I finally understand a facet of human history that I haven’t ever been able to before. I obviously was not on the front, but even spending a short amount of time with people so close to the ever present danger of bombardment, and being so intimately connected with the efforts of a terrorized populace as they try to fight back in any way they can, the unspoken, fuzzy backdrop of so much of our literature and history and cultural memory is finally materializing into something real in my mind.

I understand war now in a way I never have before.

I have now seen first hand how totalizing war is on every thought in your being, that even when you are far back from the front and resting, or taking a minute to enjoy coffee with friends in between supply missions, it’s always in the back of your head. I’ve seen dentists and lawyers and truck drivers and civil engineers and software programmers drop everything in their day to day lives and work together to become defenders of their people without a thought to their safety or livelihood. I’ve felt the rush of adrenaline that keeps you awake for days on end and sharpens your thinking and memory and response time. Faced with such calamity — even second hand — there’s a feeling of urgency that overrides literally everything else, that keeps you working as hard as you can to help your friends, without a thought to yourself, because you’re scared and you have a hardcoded instinct to do anything it takes to survive. And there’s also the ability to open your soul and share and empathize with the pain of others, to be able to see refugees and veterans as people like you who found themselves in extraordinary situations and emotionally support them and physically comfort them with all your being.

I recall that quote from Robert E. Lee who said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it,” and I’m ashamed to say there’s a part of me that has relished seeing thousands of people — including myself — operating at 110% of their capacity with a common noble mission, and admires the best parts of humanity that come to the fore when the stakes get so high.

It isn’t a coincidence that on my way to the airport I pulled up the Hamilton soundtrack, and I realized that Hamilton and his friends stealing cannons to use against the British in the American Revolution was exactly what my friends in Lviv were doing when they spent 3 days shopping for SUVs in Europe that they could buy and send to the front lines and raising money to purchase thermal imaging drones to better prepare for inbound enemy advances (WaPo has a story on this nationwide effort to procure drones today). This line in particular in Hamilton I never understood before my time in Ukraine:

You need all the help you can get, I have some friends:
Laurens, Mulligan, Marquis de Lafayette! Okay, what else?
We’ll need some spies on the inside
Some king’s men who might let some things slide
I’ll write to Congress and tell them we need supplies
You rally the guys, master the element of surprise

And now I realize I have now been a part of this very action on the ground. I realize that apart from the “official” movements of troops and political proclamations, wars are fought and won by volunteers working together for a common purpose, and require no official coordination whatsoever. That the American Revolution could have been won by the 18th century equivalent of WhatsApp groups coordinating the delivery of supplies and guns and ships to the front is something that simply never occurred to me, and seems almost obvious in retrospect. France didn’t just sign a piece of paper and send us a navy. Lafayette was Hamilton’s “Paris guy” who rallied the French court on behalf of his friends across the Atlantic and in service of deeper principle, just like so many Americans are doing right now for Ukrainians. Of course the Americans won the Revolutionary War, because their motivation to risk their safety and livelihood and wealth was far greater and more powerful than the most organized military in the world with little material or moral support from the population. This is why the Viet Cong won in Vietnam, and this is why the Taliban took back Afghanistan. And, of course, this is why Ukraine will win this war against Russia decisively.

But now, as I fly away at the rate of one mile every second, I’m realizing with regret that the farther I get from Ukraine, the less visceral the urgency of our mission becomes, and the less real the pain of the refugees at the Przemysl train station feels. I don’t want it to happen, but I feel it happening and I feel guilty about it.

I feel guilty that I am able to just get on a plane and escape with ease, knowing that so many of my Ukrainian brothers and sisters are trapped in a daily horror in which they have no choice but to fight back. And all that adrenaline only lasts so long, and eventually you have to get used to the tragedy of a new normal as you continue to watch your friends and family and countrymen die needless and brutal deaths. That’s a normal that so many of my Ukrainian friends old and new feel right now. The pain of this war will last for decades after the final bomb falls, and the media cycle will eventually fly away just like I am right now. That doesn’t seem right, but I know it will happen just like it has happened for every other human tragedy, and the victims and survivors will learn to persevere. If history tells us anything, the cauldron of this war will forge a new generation of strong, prosperous and visionary leaders who will change the course of humanity. But right now, Ukrainians don’t need praise, or sympathy.

Right now Ukrainians need help.

I listed a couple days ago what the urgent needs are, and I’ve started to work with some friends here to organize our efforts around two main missions: First, supplying Ukrainians trapped in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Donbas, and other hard hit areas with large and growing displaced persons. The needs here are centered on food, medicine, and sanitary needs. The second mission is helping Ukrainian refugees crossing the border get access to travel, shelter, and basic travel necessities. The typical refugee crossing the border has spent 1-2 days in travel already, and has several days left to go. Everything from neck pillows to power banks to rolling suitcases makes a huge difference.

There’s one more mission that we are engaging in, which is to procure critical defensive military aid and ship it to the front. We do not want to participate in the procurement of offensive weapons for obvious reasons, but boots, gloves, helmets, night vision goggles, bulletproof vests, and thermal drones are sorely needed to protect Ukrainian soldiers and civilian fighters and are all in short supply throughout Europe. So we will continue to pursue these opportunities when they come up.

Now, I’m sorry I haven’t updated you all in a couple days, but I’ve been real busy! We got a 4,000kg food shipment assembled in our Lviv warehouse for transit to Kharkiv, and we just paid for another 2,000kg of food, bringing the total amount of humanitarian aid we’ve bought with your donations to 6.75 metric tons in just one week, most of it going all the way to the front. We’re getting more efficient with every shipment. The first was taken over by a friend and had to be rerouted due to bad paperwork, the second I brought over personally, the third was 2x as large and we were able to hand off in no man’s land at a new border crossing. The fourth we were able to buy directly from a warehouse in Lviv, skipping border crossing altogether (although that doesn’t cover a lot of important foodstuffs that we can only get affordably in Poland, so we’ll need to keep doing cross-border shipments).

I’m also happy to report that as of yesterday, we have a new warehouse in Przemysl that we will use to receive shipments from all over the world of donations in kind, and we have our supply routes set up to get these into Ukraine and to the front lines where they’re needed. Our goal is to get the to point where we can organize 20-ton shipments on a weekly basis.

WE WILL NEED YOUR HELP FOR THIS, and please anticipate an email in the next 2-3 days outlining how we’re planning to structure receiving donations (my personal Venmo won’t cut it) and utilizing them, including donations in kind.

In the meantime, I want to thank you all for your donations and words of encouragement and support. Because of you, hundreds of homeless families in eastern Ukraine are eating full meals tonight, and many more thousands will with our future efforts. I am grateful and inspired by the collective spirit and action that has brought us this far, and if I wasn’t convinced before, I am now that the entire world is with Ukraine, even if not everyone can declare it aloud.

More soon from New York. Слава Україні.

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