CEDAR PARK, Texas (KXAN) — Graham Dale’s original plan was to travel to Poland and help with the wave of refugees feeling over the border it shares with Ukraine.
But things don’t always go to plan.
Days after quitting his job in Cedar Park, the 44-year-old found himself driving through the plains of eastern Ukraine, with patriotic songs — the new soundtrack of a country now in the grips of war — playing on the radio.
“The first thing that struck me was the amount of checkpoints,” Dale said. “Literally every mile or two there will be a manned checkpoint and you’re having to hand over your passport to a guy with an AK-47.”
Dale said he believes the Ukrainian soldiers were checking for Russian saboteurs. Once they realized he was there to help, and heading in the opposite direction of most people, they had a message for him.
“The soldiers will 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 Marine veteran who has dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Ireland.
Not long after seeing the images of war on TV in Central Texas, he told his employer he was quitting – without two weeks’ notice.
“This is somewhere that I’ve been to on vacation before, I know people from here,” he said. “To me, this is an attack on all of Europe and I felt compelled with my current skillset and so forth that I could help in any way that I could.”
In addition to all he learned while serving in Iraq with the Marines, Graham’s skillset also includes lessons from responding to more than a dozen natural disasters in the U.S., including Hurricane Harvey.
Once making it to Poland, Graham said he realized his help was most needed inside the war zone.
Most recently his trip brought him to Dnipro, Ukraine, in the country’s east. There, buildings still show the scars of war, as do the people.
He’s met up with a team of other military veterans from both the U.S. and Europe. Their goal is to deliver humanitarian help to those in need.
“We’re providing assistance, we’re making people’s lives more tolerable,” Graham said. “Particularly with the food and medicines that we’re getting delivered to the places that really need them.”
Those trips have ranged from orphanages to hospitals, both inside the cities and out in the countryside.
Graham said he’ll stay in Ukraine as long as his services are needed, and would like to eventually go from a volunteer position to a full-time job.
“You realize that you are the boots on the ground, you are that line in the sand,” Graham said. “There is no magic government button that presses and millions of resources make themselves available. Generally speaking, it’s civilian volunteers stepping up to the plate. (They) are the ones that help most with the people during and after these kinds of disasters and wars.”