Darren White is back from Ukraine now, in the comfort of his Albuquerque home, watching the nightly news in English and feeling a little guilty.
Last month, he was in Kharkiv, watching churchgoers file into Orthodox Easter Sunday Mass as air raid sirens wailed.
Out in the countryside, he saw the carcass of a Ukrainian military vehicle presumed to have hit a land mine only to flip over and land on another one. The occupants likely didn’t survive, White said.
“The biggest thing I saw was how the people were all unified in their willingness to keep Ukraine free,” White said in a recent Journal interview after his 10 days in Ukraine. The national colors of blue and yellow “were everywhere,” he said.
“They are unified like we were for 9/11. They didn’t ask for this and it’s unfair this is happening to them.”
The former Bernalillo County sheriff, Albuquerque public safety chief and most recently CEO of a medical marijuana company has a new mission: to help make Ukraine less dangerous while it repels a Russian invasion.
In early April, White and his 40-year-old son, Eric White, joined a team of six volunteers hoping to help the humanitarian effort to remove unexploded munitions lying in wait for Ukrainian farmers and civilians.
It was the annual crop-sowing season for Ukrainian farmers, who had made the country a global supplier of grains and vegetable oil. But this year many farmers were either not planting, or planting at their own risk. And some were losing their lives or limbs doing so.
“We’re trying to put together an infrastructure where we can have teams go into the fields and de-mine them,” said White, who partnered with a de-mining operation headed by Ryan Hendrickson, who retired Green Beret special forces. Hendrickson started the nonprofit Tip of the Spear Landmine Removal organization, which is based in Florida.
“We wanted to get a better understanding of what it would require to fund the project, with the ultimate goal of starting a training facility for Ukrainian citizens to learn how to de-mine safely,” White said.
Invading Russian forces have left more than a quarter of the country’s territory contaminated with land mines and booby traps, according to the U.S. State Department.
“While we were there, we were told of two farmers that hit land mines. The minute they take that tractor off that hard surface and go into the field, they risk striking a variety of different mines.”
Part of White’s goal was to observe agricultural de-mining up close. He joined other team members in donning a ballistic vest and a Kevlar helmet, but didn’t carry a weapon.
Hendrickson and the other de-miners brought in donated metal detectors while the Ukrainian government coordinated the work and decided where to send the team.
“It’s a very slow, very tedious process and it’s only complicated more because it’s a war zone,” said White. Because of that, the United States or other governments aren’t going to send civilians into Ukraine to de-mine, White said.
“It’s just too unsafe, but the work still has to be done,” he said. Hendrickson’s group, along with other de-mining groups in the country, are considered to be conducting “emergency services work.”
White said he and his son, who lives in Pennsylvania, paid for their trip themselves.
But after recovering 25 to 30 mines in the mud and rain, the group had a setback. One of its 4×4 vehicles dubbed the “Green Monster” broke an axle hitting a huge pothole on the road to Kharkiv, where they had set up a homebase. The team couldn’t wait for parts to fix it, so they left the vehicle for the next volunteers to use.
After witnessing the challenge of de-ming such a huge area one team at a time, White and his son returned to the U.S. to get financial support to help ramp up the project while raising awareness of the need.
“Ukraine’s de-mining needs are increasing every day,” said Michael Tiree, representative of the U.S. State Department, last December.
The Ukrainian government had about 200 de-mining teams at the time, with the plan to expand to 400 teams this year.
“As the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberate more areas, we are seeing even heavier contamination, and there are not enough teams to adequately cover all high priority areas,” Tiree told the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
White and the team are approaching nonprofit organizations to help fund the project and at least one has shown some interest.
‘Not enough resources’
Given that White’s son, Eric, operates a company that has done de-mining work in Iraq for nearly 10 years, father and son set their sights on Ukraine earlier this year.
White said he learned about Tip of the Spear through the Rev. Chris Zuggar, a priest of the Byzantine Catholic Church’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Albuquerque. Zuggar led White to Hendrickson.
“The Russians use 15 different kinds of mines,” Zuggar told the Journal. So when farmers and other residents return to their villages , they receive charts “so they can see the different kinds of (land mines) to look for,” he said. “God forbid the Russians would use just one kind of mine that everybody would be able to figure out right away.”
Over the past year, Zuggar and the parish have been raising money to send to a Ukrainian church diocese. The money helps Ukrainians endure the war, whether it means paying their rent or providing psychological counseling.
For those who want to help, whether through de-mining or contributing money, Zuggar says: “God bless ’em, because there’s not enough resources. That’s why we do what we do. I mean it was a poor country to begin with, and then to fight a 21st century war … and a war that’s so unnecessary? That’s the worst part of it.”
Scars of warfare
White said that on their way to their de-mining destination about 30 miles from the Russian border, the de-mining team saw tiny villages scarred by warfare. White, who served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, recalled the team working under an overcast sky when they heard Russians firing in the distance.
“I guess that’s not thunder,” White said at the time. The team wasn’t fazed, and continued the work.
White said he was struck by some Ukrainian people striving for normalcy.
“I mean literally 200 yards away from where they were pulling those land mines out of the ground there was a man tilling his dirt to start seeding,” White said.
An older Ukrainian farmer sat outside a house, next to a wall riddled with bullet holes. Down the road, White saw an elderly woman on her porch while artillery fire rang out in the distance.
“It puts it in perspective,” said White, who plans to return to Ukraine. “You say to yourself, ‘It’s just not fair they’re having to go through this.’ And if you have a way to help, then why wouldn’t you?”
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