June 08, 2022 4 Comments
The shells keep falling. The damage hasn’t stopped.
Even as other news closer to home has taken over the lead headlines in the United States, a war still rages in Ukraine.
Eric Hille won’t forget. The California firefighter launched Project Joint Guardian, an international effort that has collected equipment and sent a team of firefighters into Ukraine to supply, train and work alongside first responders as Russia’s war on its neighbor has the country fighting for survival.
“What was surprising to me was how many civilian targets were destroyed,” he said. “Everything from commercial businesses to single homes completely destroyed. It was very humbling to see what we saw.”
Hille led the first team of 11 firefighters into Ukraine this spring, thanks to the donations of funds and equipment from individuals and organizations around the world. Fire Dept. Coffee customers played an important role because every donation to our foundation in April was directed to benefit Project Joint Guardian.
The first group of firefighters are back home now after two weeks on the ground in Ukraine. The second group will leave for Ukraine on July 2. If there were doubts about the importance and value of the effort, they have been dispelled.
“The mission was a much bigger success than what we thought it was going to be,” Hille said recently. “We didn’t know the mission would have the impact that it did.”
Before the 11 firefighters returned home, they were summoned to the capital, Kyiv, where they were showered with praise and thanks from Ukraine’s secretary of the interior, members of parliament and top Ukrainian firefighting officials.
“Overwhelming,” Hille said. “We’re just firefighters. We’re there to help our brothers and sisters out. We were grateful and humbled by it.”
The team that Hille has built has been critical in moving the mission forward. Isaac Siegel, a captain with the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department, is the chief operating officer of Project Joint Guardian. He plans, coordinates, communicates and brings it all together.
“He has been the logistical miracle of this mission,” Hille said. “What he has done is phenomenal.”
Among the group who traveled to Ukraine, two firefighters brought indispensable local connections.
Oleg Klepach grew up in Lviv, Ukraine, before moving to California and ultimately becoming a firefighter there. Prior to the war, he spent time in Ukraine training firefighters. He was a natural fit for Project Joint Guardian.
His connections at every level, from the firefighting community to the government, opened doors for the team and made their operations and travel to the country proceed more smoothly.
“We nicknamed him ‘The Godfather,’” Hille said. “Everyone knew him everywhere we went.”
Another team member with Ukrainian roots was David Zalutskiy. The Contra Costa, California, firefighter was born in Ukraine. His brother owns a business north of Kyiv and jumped in eagerly to help the mission. He helped store and transport supplies. He even provided vehicles to help the team move throughout the country.
“If it wasn’t for meeting David, we wouldn’t have had that resource,” Hille said.
More than 80,000 buildings have been destroyed in Ukraine since the start of the war. The human death toll is staggering and, Hille said, by the time his team left the country that toll included 38 Ukrainian firefighters.
Fire stations and first responders have been targeted specifically by Russian forces. One fire station in Hostamel had been taken over by the Russians, Hille said. Ukraine ultimately regained control of the area, but before the Russians left, they booby-trapped the station, causing severe damage.
The Project Joint Guardian team spent a day helping clean up the damage and cooking a meal for the local firefighters.
Most of the volunteers’ time in the country was spent in search-and-recovery missions. Shortly after arriving, they were assigned to search the rubble of individual houses in Hostamel. On Easter Sunday, the team’s efforts delivered closure to two families.
In one case, they were able to recover the homeowner’s remains. In another, the home was so damaged and charred that all that could be identified were a watch and part of a necklace that the homeowner wore every day.
Still, it was enough to give closure to the family, a small but priceless gift.
In Kharkiv, an area that remains under constant shelling, the team provided medical training to more than 100 Ukrainian firefighters who, until that point, had received little or no such instruction in their careers.
“Ukraine firefighters don’t get medical training. They are strictly firefighters,” Hille said. “They’re now showing up to fight fires but having multiple wounded civilians.”
Two days after he returned home from Ukraine, Hille received a message from a fire chief in Ukraine. It showed those same firefighters putting what they learned to use during yet another emergency.
“It was amazing,” Hille said. “The training we provided was being used to help save lives.”
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