Purchase of a complex of Bairaktars and armoured vehicles, collection of millions of donations for the needs of the Ukrainian army, change of attitude towards the veterans of the Russian-Ukrainian war and help to soldiers who return to civilian life – all these are the victories and merits of the robust volunteer and civil society movement of Ukraine.
By Liudmyla Tiahnyriadno
In this article, you’ll learn about three organizations – the fund of competent army support “Come Back Alive”, the NGO “Women’s Veteran Movement”, and “Veteran Hub”. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, they have been doing everything to save as many lives of our soldiers as possible and bring closer victory in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
In the early morning of February 24, Russian occupation troops began firing missiles all over Ukraine. This day marked the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the terrorist country on the territory of an independent nation. Most NGOs prepared for such a scenario in advance, but no one knew exactly how it would happen. In the first hours, Ukrainians did everything to evacuate their relatives, help colleagues and ensure their safety. They also joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine to defend the state from the Russian enemy.
We talked with Ruslana Velychko, a volunteer of the “Come back alive” fund of competent army support, Yulia Kirillova, a veteran of the 25th battalion “Kyivska Rus” and coordinator of the social department of the NGO “Women’s Veteran Movement” and Artem Denysov, the executive director of the “Veteran Hub”. In these conversations, we learned how the volunteer sector quickly establishes its work and increases the assistance to the army, what helps them make unprecedented decisions, and what volunteers do for the Ukrainian victory.
“Come Back Alive”, or how to buy a Bayraktar for a charity fund?
“Come Back Alive” is a fund of competent army support. Since 2014, it has aimed to make the Armed Forces of Ukraine more effective, save the lives of the military and systematically counteract the enemy. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, assistance to the army has increased significantly. They support the defenders of Ukraine, who changed their everyday life to join the line of defense. The Foundation purchases equipment that helps save the lives of the military, including thermal imaging optics, quadcopters, vehicles, protection and surveillance systems. The Foundation’s instructors train sappers, unmanned aerial vehicle operators, artillerymen and snipers. They also teach first aid and facilitate covert missions. Since 2014, the Foundation has raised more than UAH 3 billion for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and trained more than 10 thousand highly qualified military specialists.
Ruslana Velychko, a volunteer of the Foundation, says that with the beginning of the full-scale Russian aggression, “Come Back Alive” registered as a subject of foreign economic activity in the State Export Control Service. This way, they could receive permits for importing various goods: “Then the military approached us with a request to buy the Bayraktar complex. I called one person from Baykar, and we started cooperation”.
The main issue was going through all the bureaucratic procedures on the Ukrainian and Turkish sides. The Turks also had to obtain an export licence to sell the Bayraktars to the “Come Back Alive” Foundation.
“We did not immediately make the news about purchasing the Bayraktar complex public. A month needs to pass until after the goods arrive in Ukraine. We kept a pause until we finalized all the documents. At the same time, all volunteers need to understand that when they say something, write, or record a video, not only the Ukrainian side listens to them. So sometimes it is better to keep silent,” Ruslana explains.
“Come Back Alive” even signed a memorandum with Baykar – this is the second memorandum of the latter with Ukraine. The first was in 2021, signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“We work a lot. I, for example, never thought that I would be engaged in foreign economic activity and perform the function of a logistician, engage in contractual activities, and find sellers. It would have seemed even more far-fetched if I learned that I would work with military goods,” the volunteer says and proceeds to tell how the Foundation has been working since the beginning of the full-scale war.
On the trust of Ukrainians and the collection of over UAH 4 billion
“I am proud that we are the charitable organization that turned the arms market upside down in Ukraine and Europe. We triggered the market’s reform”.
“When the full-scale war started, everyone was scared. Then people donated a lot and sometimes gave their last. People have psychologically adapted to the war, which also affects donations. As for how much and who sends us the money, everyone can see the reports on the Foundation’s website, and we even make monthly reports.”
Reporting and control are something that “Come Back Alive” pays a lot of attention to. Ruslana shares with us her “hobby” – she “collects” all the criminal cases with volunteers that are undergoing right now.” In most cases, people get into big trouble because of a bit of stupidity. For example, they were honest people but fell for some schemes trying to import military goods easier or faster. Or they made deals, imported it as humanitarian aid, and then tried to resell some of the goods they brought. We do not do business like that. We work by the book of the law,” Ruslana Velychko emphasizes.
“We are the first organization to bring not just a UAV but an unmanned aviation complex,” she said. The Bairaktar UAV is a reconnaissance vehicle – “And the complex, which has a ground control station, a friend/ foe recognition system, with ammunition – the complete set is described on four sheets – is something the army can work with.”
Ruslana adds that the “Come Back Alive” Foundation focuses on supplies from Western partners and accordingly plans to assistance to the army: so that all complexes can cooperate with artillery. “So, for example, we look at the range of what our partners supply us and select drones accordingly. The Bayraktar TB2 drone costs 4 million dollars, and the total cost of the complex we bought is $16,502,450. A part of the complex worth 9 million dollars was gifted to us at no cost,” the volunteer explains.
“Come Back Alive” always helps the army “in bulk”. The fact is that, for example, preparing the paperwork for purchasing two or 800 thermal sights takes the same time. That is why the Foundation focuses on larger quantities. This way, they also get discounts: “To be honest, when I start a conversation with sellers, I immediately ask what the discount will be, – Ruslana says, – We, with “Come Back Alive” have turned the whole arms market upside down because now the charity organization can import what it needs without special exporters as intermediaries. And this means savings of up to 30%”.
Although there are many needs in the army now, like winter military uniforms or sleeping bags, “Come Back Alive” focuses on other priorities: UAVs, optics, radio communications, and vehicles. The Foundation has already delivered about 400 pickup trucks to the front.
“Everyone knows that the artillery is the god of war. Therefore, we need artillery, unmanned reconnaissance systems, and we need Bayraktars. To protect people, we need equipment that strikes far away and does reconnaissance,” Ruslana Velychko says and adds:
“I am proud that we are the charitable organization that has turned the arms market upside down not only in Ukraine but also in Europe. We triggered the market’s reform. We do not want to overpay for anything, and doing all the work ourselves is easier. Arms sellers started to come to us and offer their products for purchase”.
“Women’s Veteran Movement” or how to help women in the trenches and on the home front?
NGO “Women’s Veteran Movement” is a union of women veterans created to increase their opportunities for self-actualization in society. The organization acts to advocate for and protect the rights of women veterans and active servicewomen and promote equal rights and opportunities through lawmaking and advocacy of the professional and prestigious security sector.
Before the full-scale war, the NGO was engaged in advocacy for the rights of women veterans and servicewomen. Also, they worked with the rehabilitation of women veterans, their employment and retraining. They even organized an entrepreneurship school, many alums of which opened successful businesses. Now the organization is finalizing the development of the Unified Rehabilitation Standard. “This is a roadmap for veterans, for first- and second-level doctors. From what a veteran should do first when they come to a doctor’s office, what tests and screenings to take and which specialists to attend, etc. This project is already at the stage of completion,” explains Yulia Kirillova, a veteran of the 25th battalion “Kyivan Rus” and the coordinator of the social department of the “Women’s Veterans Movement”.
The Women’s Veterans Movement conducted advocacy campaigns for proper medical care for servicewomen and women veterans. Yulia Kirillova says: “Here we are talking that, for example, the field of military medicine was developed with only men in mind. Thus, in some hospitals, there was no gynaecologist at all. The same gaps were in the management of pregnancy of servicewomen, childbirth, etc. Even today, pregnant servicewomen give birth in civilian maternity hospitals, and civilian doctors tend to their pregnancies. However, any servicewoman on a contract is entitled to full medical insurance. Also, medical formularies do not provide many drugs that women need. We also had to take care of the faulty logistics, as there were no fitting military uniforms since they all were designed for men.”
“She was pregnant when she enlisted”
Yulia Kirillova says that the “Women’s Veterans Movement” team saw February 24 come in many different ways. She was in Washington at the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
“Around the 20th, we met with the girls in our office, planned what we would do, where we would meet, and how we would evacuate our relatives in case of war. Of course, we took our children out of Kyiv. Our Andriana “Arekhta” immediately enlisted and went with her brothers in arms to defend the Kyiv region. Katrusia “Strila” joined the Ukrainian Volunteer Army and returned to service. Olenka Lomachynska was pregnant then, but she also went to enlist and asked if there were bulletproof vests for pregnant women. Katya Pryimak and Yulia “Kuba” stayed in Kyiv and organized a volunteer rapid response headquarters,” the co-founder of the NGO proudly tells about her colleagues.
When the number of servicewomen tripled
Since the beginning of the full-scale war, the number of women in the army has tripled. Since 2014, this figure has increased several times, and after February 24, the growth has become even more evident. Yulia Kirillova says that although some react negatively to enlisted women, the majority perceive women as equals because, first, it is about respect.
“After all, they stayed, decided not to leave, and made an informed decision to defend their country. In my opinion, the attitude has changed. It is felt even in communication. If earlier we heard some people say, “she’s a burden” or “I don’t want ladies in my unit”, now everyone speaks of servicewomen with respect.”
The “Women’s Veterans Movement” also works with logistics: they have designed an anatomically correct cut for the female uniform. Yulia Kirillova explains: “A simple example: men and women have knees at different heights, and when we buy a uniform with knee pads, it is uncomfortable for women; these knee pads will be above the knee, and if you squat or fall, the pant leg rises, and the knee pad also pulls up. Currently, there’s only talk of the change of uniforms for women, but I know that organizations are ready to sew a trial batch for the Ministry of Defence to improve the logistics. We also designed sets of women’s underwear because there is still no women’s underwear in the Armed Forces uniform. As a public organization, we also sew sets of underwear for them. Businesses join us and also sew women’s uniforms. So far, we are sending these kits directly to the girls who are fighting.”
From advocacy to rapid response headquarters
The work of the NGO has changed dramatically in recent months. If earlier it was mainly engaged in advocacy and assistance to female veterans in psychological rehabilitation, since February 24, the organization has turned into a vast headquarters. There, military personnel, the civilian population, and people who left the occupation received help. “Women’s Veterans Movement” also delivered humanitarian aid.
“When the fighting was going on in the Kyiv region, our kitchen started working from the first days; we cooked lunches, delivered this food to basements, and fed people. The headquarters also helped female veterans who went back to service. We bought cars and tactical medical kits, delivered aid to civilian hospitals. We bought bulletproof vests, helmets, thermal imagers and drones for the military,” says veteran Yulia Kirillova.
Now the organization continues to work as a humanitarian headquarters: it assists affected civilians and helps IDPs and people living in the areas of hostilities. Medical crews are also working. Now they are in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. An evacuation team is working in the Donetsk region.
“We evacuate civilians, people with animals. We rescue abandoned and wounded animals. We help evacuated people with accommodation, take them to social protection centres and register them.
For example, when the fighting was ongoing in the Luhansk region, many people fled from Luhansk and Donetsk regions. People left en masse. At the same time, we rescued many animals and wounded animals too. We have agreements with veterinary clinics and shelters, taking them in and placing them in families. Now we can go to Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Chasiv Yar, Kostiantynivka, Selidove, Kurakhove. We are one of the few who evacuate people with animals. Many evacuation efforts do not include animals, so people are forced to abandon their pets. I cannot give you the exact number of animals we rescued to date, but, for example, today, we have evacuated 11. Soon we are going to fetch seven more,” – Yulia Kirillova says.
Tactical medicine and a “drone workshop.”
Now in Kyiv, the organization works in several areas: as a “drone workshop” where volunteers can do almost everything – assemble drones, upgrade them if necessary, and repair them; and medical, food and clothing warehouses. These goods are what people most often lack. The NGO collects requests for targeted aid, people leave them through a Google form, and then the NGO sends them the requested help. Since February 24, they have received more than 4 thousand applications, and although they couldn’t cover all the needs, according to Yulia Kirillova, they responded positively to 60-70% of applications.
“Also, we now hold training courses on the basics of tactical medicine, general tactics, and driving. The courses are free. Both women and men come to us. We help everyone. Civilian organizations also apply to us for these courses and buy them for their employees. Part of the course money is spent on purchasing consumables, the other part – on responding to applications for assistance.”
Since the organization now also helps civilians, the biggest challenge for the “Women’s Veterans Movement” is winter. Yulia Kirillova explains: “People need to be set up somewhere for the winter, and we need to keep these living quarters warm somehow. We understand that the number of applications for assistance from civilians will increase. That is why we are now launching a humanitarian logistics centre, which will cover targeted requests for aid and carry out humanitarian missions to different regions.”
The second challenge, like for many, is the beginning of the active phase of offensive actions by the Russian invaders. “Winter is their (Russians – ed.) element, – says Yulia Kirillova, – They mostly attack in winter. As the practice of previous years shows, winters are the worst in terms of intensification of hostilities. Here we will talk about the insulation of dugouts, positions, and re-equipping of the military. And about the increase in the number of wounded. We are preparing for all this and started preparing for winter in August. We received the first batch of stoves and heaters at the end of July. We seek the best offers to purchase thermal underwear, sleeping bags and mats. We are preparing to respond to more applications for help and increase the amount of humanitarian aid. We have already started buying winter tires for our medical crews and devices for heating infusion solutions.”
Now the organization has also started fundraising. They also plan to raise funds for other areas of work. They have already launched a sewing shop for women’s uniforms. The plans are to sew underwear, T-shirts, hats, balaclavas, and maybe even thermal underwear. At the same time, they are working on weaving camouflage nets and “kikimory”. The work is in full swing.
“Veteran Hub” is a space for veterans and NGOs working in veteran affairs. The hub team provides psychological and legal assistance to veterans and their families, helps them find new professions and employment and return to civilian life.
Helping here and now
With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Veteran Hub focused on three work areas. “It is clear that there was no question of employment at all in spring. After all, everyone was trying to protect themselves first of all, – says Artem Denysov, Executive Director of “Veteran Hub.” “And that is how we got an unofficial administrative work area. When, for example, people were still on the road, they called and asked where to come and where to stay. But now we are receiving requests from people who are looking for work. The psychological area of our work also had to change. If before the full-scale invasion, we specialized in long-term therapeutic work; some clients worked with us even for a year, and now we are talking about crisis interventions. If we talk about the extent of this psychological help, now we are working more closely with professional doctors. The demand for legal advice has never decreased, even this spring.”
Psychological support is still the main focus of the hub. How do we return veterans and other citizens of Ukraine to civilian life after the war? Artem Denysov is convinced that war experience has affected everyone: “Not everyone has and will have combat experience, but everyone has the experience of war. After all, our enemy does not care where to strike; they also strike at civilian infrastructure. You do not have to be a veteran or in the military to know what Russian aggression feels like. And these people will also need support. This does not mean that we will re-profile. It means that we as a society need to pay attention to this. And we need to do it now. If we wait for the end of the war, the victory and will only then start building something, we will lose very precious time.”
“I am convinced that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, our country has already become a country of veterans”.
Already in 2019, the “Veteran Hub” started working on the concept of the “Veteran’s Path” – a map of the needs of ATO/JFO veterans from the moment they decide to join the service until the end of their lives. Almost all servicemen, except for those who perish, will become veterans one way or another, so the organization believes that the process of this transition can be more organic if it starts in advance. After all, some of the processes that will take place in the future can be foreseen now. Currently, the organization is rethinking the concept of the “Veteran’s Path”, and although there will be no drastic changes, improvements related to the full-scale invasion will take place.
“I am convinced that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, our country has already become a country of veterans. Until now, we were talking about 460 thousand veterans, and now the number is much bigger. And one way or another, the whole country, all ministries and executive authorities will provide services for veterans,” says Artem Denysov. And then, he adds that the state should change the approach to veterans’ benefits because there will now be more people like that. However, the goal should not be to reduce the benefits. Instead, it is necessary to monetize the system and remove the barriers because even now, it is difficult for veterans who do not live in large cities to receive preferential services: “To minimize losses in this process, we must be prepared. We need to form a package of services from both the state and the non-governmental sector for veterans that will meet their needs. Foremost, these are medical services.”
Veterans will also need employment. Artem Denysov urges us to think about it in advance:
“The vast majority of veterans were hired workers, now many of them are employed in the Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies and defend our country. In the future, when they return, we must be prepared to interact properly with people with combat experience. That is why we at “Veteran Hub” continue working with employment centres to provide them with tools to establish communication better and respond to the real needs of such people. So that instead of offering them random vacancies, they take an individual approach.”
Another project of the “Veteran Hub” currently deals with HR practices. It aims at non-governmental institutions that employ veterans or active servicemen: “This project is transforming the work of HR departments to meet the needs of veterans in their workplaces. For example, let’s take working hours. Sometimes after returning, a veteran may have difficulties with planning and concentration. And if the management understands that a person does not just neglect their work, but due to the psycho-emotional state, they are effective not at 100%, but 60% during the workday, then such management will simply give the person some time off. Or they will change the approach to give a person a certain task, allocate some time for its completion, and let the person choose when to work on it.”
Now the biggest challenge for “Veteran Hub”, according to Artem Denysov, is the challenge of mutual understanding and building a unified policy of veteran affairs in the state. “The state will have its point of view, they are already forming the policies, and the public sector has a different stance. We work at different paces. For example, as a public organization, we can make changes much faster, unlike the state. We must realize that now every ministry is becoming the Ministry of Veterans. And every ministry will need to face the needs of veterans sooner or later”.