Ukraine's Orphans Have No Home, says a US Veteran Rescuing Them

Ukraine's Orphans Have No Home, says a US Veteran Rescuing Them

First time trying to rescue a group of Ukrainian orphans, the shelling was so intense that even war-hardened vets had to give up.

It was necessary for them to be placed back in a shelter and to return 48 hours later. Three of their teachers were then killed," former Green Beret Jeremy Locke told VOA in an interview in Poland before he headed back into eastern and southern Ukraine to save more orphans.

Locke is the head of operations for Aerial Recovery, a group of former military vets. They're working with Ukraine's Defense Ministry and Salam, a charity that helps refugees, to move children from hot spots. So far, they've moved 478 kids, and they've still got another thousand to go.

As Locke, tall and bearded, tells me, the numbers may change as the war progresses. He leads a large team that walks without raising an eyebrow at the people at the hotel they are based out of in Warsaw, Poland. They are discrete, soft-spoken, and unassuming.

Locke, who last served as a Green Beret in northern Syria, speaks matter-of-factly about what his team has seen and done in Ukraine. However, his eyes are shadowy when he says, "I served in combat for five years, and it was no place for a kid. Nor for an adult."

He says the kids they rescue can be in multiple states of physical and emotional well-being when they arrive. "It depends on where they came from," he says.

It took us two attempts to reach one group of kids we rescued; they had been in a shelter or cellar for about a week. I was shelled on the first try. They were back in the shelter 48 hours later. ... Meanwhile, three of their teachers had been killed, so they're tired, hungry, and shocked."

You leave the kids and have to pick them up later, whereas it would be safer to load them on buses and trucks. As per his records, he says that they have a responsibility to ensure that the animals are not injured when they are moved.

"At least if they're in a bunker or whatever, and the shelling is happening over them, at least they'll be safe." Though they may not have much food and all that, we have to ensure that when we get them that we don't put them in harm's way. He says "that's what's really tough about this job.".

Air Recovery has teamed up with Salam and local Ukrainian and Polish authorities to make sure that the orphans being relocated are safe and won't become victims of human trafficking. There have been fears that the children were lost or taken by smuggling gangs. Unverified information suggests Ukrainian men may have kidnapped displaced children to assist them in fleeing the country. 18-60 year old men must live here in case they are drafted. There is one exception if you have three kids.

In the beginning, Locke says most non-governmental organizations had planned on sending kids to Poland, but they have now shifted their plans to have them sheltered in western Ukraine, with the effort being coordinated by the child services department of Lviv's local government. Some children are being moved to Poland with Ukrainian authorities working with NGOs to deal with all the lost children.

Locke estimates that most of the orphans he evacuated were between the ages of 13 and 14. Locke's team of nearly two dozen have medical support. "A lot of our guys used to work for Special Forces and were combat medics. And we have medical gear we have with us," he says.

“And then we come to our destination near Lviv, and a lot of people are sick with respiratory ailments. We brought out a child who was infected with HIV. Many of our patients suffer from diabetes. But sometimes we know what they need before we even get there. For example, we have insulin on hand."