CEDAR PARK, Texas (KXAN) – Graham Dale’s original plan was to travel to Poland and help deal with the wave of refugees feeling across the border it shares with Ukraine .
But things don’t always go as planned.
Days after quitting his job at Cedar Park, the 44-year-old found himself traversing the plains of eastern Ukraine, with patriotic songs – the new soundtrack to a country now plagued to war – broadcast on the radio.
“The first thing that struck me was the number of checkpoints,” Dale said. “Literally every mile or two there will be a manned checkpoint and you have to hand your passport over to a guy with an AK-47.
Dale said he believed the Ukrainian soldiers were looking for Russian saboteurs. Once they realized he was there to help and was heading in the opposite direction of most people, they had a message for him.
“Soldiers turn around and say ‘good luck,’ and it’s one of those things where it’s like are you just saying that to be nice or do I need luck,” he said.
Graham is a Navy veteran who holds dual American and Irish citizenship.
Shortly after seeing the war footage on television in central Texas, he told his employer he was quitting — without two weeks’ notice.
“It’s a place I’ve been to on vacation before, I know people from here,” he said. “For me it’s an attack on all of Europe and I felt compelled with my current skills and so that I could help in any way I could.”
In addition to everything he learned while serving in Iraq with the Marines, Graham’s skills also include lessons learned from responding to more than a dozen natural disasters in the United States, including Hurricane Harvey. .
Once in Poland, Graham said he realized his help was most needed inside the war zone.
More recently, his journey took him to Dnipro, Ukraine, in the east of the country. There, the buildings still bear the scars of war, as do the people.
He met a team of other military veterans from the United States and Europe. Their goal is to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.
“We provide assistance, we make people’s lives more tolerable,” Graham said. “Especially with the food and medicine we get in places that really need it.”
These trips range from orphanages to hospitals, both within cities and in the countryside.
Graham said he would stay in Ukraine for as long as his services are needed and would like to transition from a volunteer position to a full-time job eventually.
“You realize you’re the boots on the ground, you’re that line in the sand,” Graham said. “There is no magic government button pushing and millions of resources are making themselves available. In general, it is civilian volunteers who intervene. (They) are the ones who help people the most during and after these kinds of disasters and wars.