The Watcher: My First Month of Ukraine’s War for Self-Preservation
I’m a private person thrust in a spotlight I did not want
A year ago, I was a pacifist human rights attorney and law professor teaching writing and argumentation in the Middle East. I knew nothing about the military and knew no one who had ever seen combat. Today I’m the director of Safe Passage 4 Ukraine, an NGO which has evacuated dozens of injured military volunteers and helps them get counseling, and the co-founder of Protect A Volunteer, which links donors directly with foreigners and Ukrainians fighting on the front line.
I’ve been fortunate to have many students from Ukraine. I tend to get to know my students very well. My former boss tells people, “Rachel doesn’t have students. Rachel has disciples.” He is correct because I entered academia to be a teacher and a mentor, not to research. When Russia’s full-scale invasion started I knew and cared about a lot of people in Ukraine. People who just a few months ago were hugging me at graduation and now I was texting them asking how I could help them survive. I’m a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to be productive, to be efficient, to be useful. But I felt useless.
In 2020 I did humanitarian work in Lebanon after the Beirut blast and used my own airline miles to fly domestic workers back home to Kenya. I don’t have any combat skills, but I do have airline miles. I wanted to use them for someone who did have the right skills. I opened Reddit and posted that I had just enough miles for two volunteers to fly over. I offered them to veterans who could prove they had a deployment and an honorable discharge. I thought I would just get trolls.
I was wrong. I was immediately flooded with messages from veteran tankers, gunners, combat engineers, and medics all wanting to go to Ukraine. It was as though I had lit a beacon and all the veterans of the Army and Marines Corps had been summoned. Dozens piled on and offered the same deal: If I could find someone who was a real veteran and wanted to go, they would offer their miles too. I frantically collected the names, with messages flooding in so fast I could barely write them all down.
The first video call I had was with a Marine veteran. We were the same age, but had little in common. I…