Kamikaze Drone School

Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWBPs

When things can’t get any more surreal in Ukraine, the next day one-ups the previous. Anastasia and I were allowed rare access to a drone-flying school where we hung out with soldiers of various platoons for a full day, some fresh from the front and returning there the next day. The realization that I was hanging with people who might soon die or be maimed for life put me in a solemn mood. Anastasia was the only female on the premises, but as in typical Ukrainian style, she was afforded the respect of most women in Ukraine.

It was not an overly charged macho atmosphere but a day of camaraderie, seriousness of mission, and eventual celebration because it was final exam day, and the students had all passed with flying colors and received diplomas at day’s end.

But before the ceremony of handing out diplomas, we took part in some drone-flying games in the field. It occurred to me we were a legitimate Russian military target now.

Still, if history predicted future actions, the Russians were more likely to bomb a restaurant, hospital, daycare center, or playground than a military target. Ironically, I may have been safer here than volunteering at a hospital.

It was a beautiful spring-like day. I could hear roosters crowing, mixing in with gunfire from a practice range a few miles away. Whenever the joy of the day’s beauty hit me, I was reminded of destruction, misery, and war. My emotions were up and down like this all day.

One field exercise included the drones flying from far away and rapidly hitting a target, kamikaze style. There were no bombs on these drones, which would eat up too many drones during practice. But the drones had been souped up, built from scratch, and could scream through the air at impressive speeds and with breathtaking dexterity. To ensure the drone’s survival, they slowed down just before impact into a net with an X marked for the target.

In the first round, I was taken to the practice field in a brand-new luxury Audi sports car, unsuitable and incongruous on the barely-there dirt path and bumpy and muddy terrain.

On the second, it was a junker that the soldiers and I could barely fit into, and the trunk kept popping open every time we hit a bump. It was apparent these were civilian cars being used for military purposes, and the soldiers were likely from various social strata. It was also apparent these guys needed more military-grade vehicles.

Whether in a car or on foot, we stuck to the same route each time. The instructor informed me that we wanted to be careful not to veer off the path in case there were any unexploded ordinances, as we were on land that Russians once occupied mere months earlier.

The instructor knows what he speaks. He is from the Donbas region, which Russia invaded with the assistance of Russian-backed separatists in 2014. He recounted that he was captured by the Russians when he was just 17 years old and a minor, so they let him go… in the middle of a minefield.

At the time, trying to hide the fact that Russia was driving the separatist effort in Crimea, the Russian-backed military at least pretended to care about war crimes and didn’t want to kill a minor. Too much unwanted international attention, I imagine (though that didn’t stop them from shooting down the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014).

So back then, when this boy of 17 was captured, they hoped a minefield would do their dirty job of killing a minor civilian for them, giving them deniable plausibility. That young boy, now an adult drone flying instructor, disappointed them and somehow made it across the field in one piece. Now, they’ve created a mighty and determined enemy.

It was an apt reminder that this “special military operation” of Putin’s has been happening for almost ten years. But it’s even older, as Russia has attempted to destroy the Ukrainian people, culture, and language for centuries, which is well documented in books and YOUTUBE lectures by author Timothy Snyder.

Later that day, the instructor who relayed this information to me found out one of his peers, a fellow instructor at another school and his good friend, had his right hand blown off by an unexploded ordinance and needed blood. He sent me a photo of the poor kid (very young-looking) in a hospital bed, smiling… it was likely the anesthesia talking.

Maimed Ukrainians are already commonplace and are on pace to have more amputees than in all of World War I (many who head back to the front to fight when possible, something unheard of in Western countries). This legacy of wounded Ukrainians, many of them young teens or adults in their 20s and 30s, will be part of the Russian legacy of shame that we should never allow them and their supporters (foreign and domestic like Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk) to forget.

Next, we were shown a demonstration of drone flying skills on the homemade indoor course. It demonstrated the precision with which these machines are flown and the skill of Ukrainian drone pilots. Some had no doubt honed their skills via video games as kids not long ago.

Drones are an inexpensive and efficient strategy to save soldiers’ lives by allowing the pilot to be further away from the action. But there are challenges, not the least that the primary maker of drones, DJI, a Chinese company, has stopped manufacturing and importation to Ukraine and severely restricted neighboring countries’ importations.

Officially, the same policy from DJI applies to Russia. However, unofficially, according to Ukrainians, DJI supports Russia. I believe this is true. Anastasia purchased a brand new DJI Steadicam (DJI also makes these), and she could not download the software and app to use it for more than the 24-hour trial period simply because she is in Ukraine. Thankfully, I was with her and could download it on my Americanized phone so she could use her new gear.

The Chinese government doesn’t seem to care about morality, the systematic and state-sponsored murder of innocent children, or right or wrong. They seem to only care about money and geopolitics and countering US “hegemony.” If freedom is hegemony, sign me up for a good dose.

While some may argue the same applies to the United States of America, and while the US history of intervention isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t buy the “what about-isms” in this case.

In my opinion, the “what about-isms” and “both sides-isms” are just a way for weak-minded people unable to distinguish nuance and feel better about supporting what they know is evil deep down. Again, almost 1,000 Ukrainian children have been killed versus zero Russian children.

I could list dozens more facts like this (20k-30K Ukrainian children kidnapped to Russia to be reeducated, millions displaced, etc.), but isn’t that one basic, simple fact of dead Ukrainian children all you need to know? Arguments should cease there. There is no justifying the unjustifiable, and almost 1,000 dead Ukrainian children (living in their own previously peaceful country) is unjustifiable.

If one can’t see the difference in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from Iraq, Afghanistan, Hamas, and the wars in Central and South America of the 70s and 80s, then one doesn’t wish to see it.

We don’t have a time machine to fix the past, but we can impact the present atrocities and thus fight for a more peaceful future. Bullies like Putin do not give peace. It can only be negotiated through strength. A brief look at the history of the last 100 years should be all the evidence one needs.

A vast majority of the Russian people are not innocent in these atrocities either. A reported 75% of them support this illegal and immoral war. Some say this is the result of relentless imperialistic propaganda by Russia. This is only partially true.

One other journalist on location, a Ukrainian photojournalist, recounted an all too familiar story of a family torn apart by the war. His father lives in Moscow and believes Russia is correct in invading Ukraine.

It’s common to write off this widespread belief that everyday Russians do not have accurate information on the war, BUT his son lives in Ukraine. He knows the facts of civilian carnage and the killing of innocent children and the elderly (presumably pensioners like him). He’s been told of Russia’s maiming, orphaning, and kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and he CHOOSES to believe what Putin has to say instead of his son.

Indeed, even some in the USA believe that we should “listen to what Putin has to say” (Rock Musician turned Country Music Artist Loon, Aaron Lewis of the 2000s nu-metal pop band Staind, Tucker Carlson, formerly with FNC, a variety of right-wing politicians, and their ignorant and ill-informed cowardly followers). See our HALL OF SHAME page.

Anastasia’s Ukrainian soldier boyfriend has a cousin who lives in Russia and believes Russia should kill Ukrainians until Ukraine “comes to its senses.”

You can’t possibly reason with people with such beliefs; you can only defeat them.

I noticed the cheerful atmosphere as the drone school students received their diplomas. It dawned on me that most of these men hadn’t even known each other 11 days prior (school is only ten days long) and now were jocular and jovial with each other… and me. They shared a bond of war, sadness, and now of drone school and joy.

I, however, had to struggle with my emotions, again understanding that some of these men I’d grown to admire over the past few hours might not make it back in one piece.

But eventually, at the ad hoc barbeque celebration that evening, I let go of my somber mood. For a moment, I was in high school again, back home in Tennessee, hanging with my buddies by a bonfire. Indeed, many of these men could have passed for avid hunters down south with their beards, bowie knives, and humor… I felt at home, though only a couple (former IT or businesspeople in civilian life) spoke English.

As the evening wore on, it got windy, chilly, and cold. Someone loaned me a hoodie to keep me warm. They ensured my plate had food and my glass was filled, even though I was a visitor, not accounted for when they bought the scarce provisions.

I had previously noticed a couple of student soldiers eying me slightly askew a few times that day, probably because they were wary of having their image taken by a foreign journalist. Could they trust me? I don’t blame them. Trust can be dangerous here, and for them, if captured or their families still live in occupied territory. I, of course, was very conscientious of this fact and respectful of their reluctance to be included on camera.

Still, ALL warmed up to me that evening, including these two stoic and previously standoffish soldiers.

As the soldiers recounted stories from the battlefield, comrades and family members lost, with translations made for my sole benefit, I tried to keep it together. They were stoic and strong, so I must try.

I felt a kinship with these men, along with a deep admiration. I said so in my toast, which Anastasia translated for me. But I couldn’t find the words in English, much less translate them to Ukrainian to fully express my feelings. I still can’t.

War absolutely sucks, but witnessing Ukraine’s fight for freedom is THE noblest cause I have ever been a part of. I feel so blessed and humbled to have played even a tiny role. Slava Ukraini! I pray for you in your darkest hour.