This is a story I wanted to tell to the entire world, but couldn’t put into words until now.
In the first weeks of the war, when my nonprofit's operations ground to a halt, I volunteered with the Ukrainian Air Force, helping with media communications. The pilots and their commanders had a crucial message to share ‒ Ukraine's capacity to fight back against the Russian invaders depended on the ability to fend them off in the air. Air cover was essential to protect our civilians and troops, and without Western aid, Ukraine had no hope.
As our volunteer team worked to field media requests and put out statements, we struggled with the fact that neither the commander of the Air Force nor their official spokesperson could speak English well. It felt ironic ‒ for almost two years, my nonprofit had been working to make English fluency the norm in Ukraine and facing near-universal indifference from those with the power to help. They felt there were bigger problems and English wasn’t important ‒ until it was.
The other volunteers and I asked for English-speaking pilots to interview. The answer was bleak: We don't have many English-speaking pilots, and most of them are already dead.
Then, one day, the message popped up in our encrypted chat thread: We've found you someone; he's perfect. His name was Andrii and he went by the call sign Juice. He had trained in California as part of a partnership between the Ukrainian Air Force and the US National Guard. He was smart, passionate, and empathetic. He was a force of nature.
I’d never met a hero before, but from my first call with Andrii, it was clear that he wasn’t like you and me. It sounds trite, but it’s true. We generally communicated in group calls and chats, where it was all business. One day, Andrii called me directly to walk me through some fighter jet terminology. He taught me about the differences between MiG29s and F-16s, between “fire-and-forget” missiles with radar systems and semi-active missiles. He made it all sound very clear and simple.
We went off script a bit and he told me about playing a military computer game as a teenager. In the game, Russia invaded Georgia and then took Crimea, and he thought, “This will actually happen”, and with his mom’s help tried to sound the alarm. Of course, no one took him seriously. Andrii studied to become a fighter pilot. He rose through the ranks. He kept trying to urge the military into action to fight corruption and inefficiencies left over from Soviet times, to prepare for the all-out war that he felt sure would come. At one time, he opted out, resigning in protest. But when Russia invaded, he immediately returned to fight.
You may have heard of Andrii by another name: the Ghost of Kyiv. He was the man behind the myth. His greatest impact was not in the skies (though he achieved so much there), but on the informational battlefield. The interviews and TV spots our team arranged, and Andrii’s later visit to Washington DC, played an important role in helping Ukraine secure essential air defense.
Starting in March 2022, we pleaded together for NASAMs, Patriots, fighter jets. We were told it was impossible. But we told our story again and again, and made the impossible possible. As time went on, the air force media team found more experienced and professional support. My nonprofit reopened, and I shifted off the volunteer project. I’d still read Andrii’s messages in the group chat ‒ incisive, funny, frustrated, irreverent. I smiled when he popped up in the news. I thought of Andrii every time one of our “impossible” requests was granted ‒ alas, always too slowly, always too many months after it was needed, but still, every time a small victory. NASAMs, Patriots, fighter jets.
On the morning of August 26, 2023, I was getting ready for the day. My husband was checking his phone next to me. He gasped. I said, “Tell me.” He said, “That pilot you worked with, wasn’t his name Juice?” I think you understand the rest. Andrii died a stupid and needless death while waiting for his opportunity to fly an F-16. He was slated to be one of the first pilots to start training on the planes.
I know my story of loss is almost banal in an ocean of such stories. But this story is about more than loss. Because the most incredible thing about Andrii is that he clearly saw the imperfections and challenges in the Ukrainian military before the full-scale invasion. He knew that it was flawed and he gave his life for it anyway.
I sometimes wonder if Andrii would still be alive if the air force command was more responsive to his reform efforts or if a professional, English-speaking communications department existed before the war. And if that wouldn’t have made the difference, what would have?
But it’s easy to get lost in counterfactuals. Andrii did not. He was faced with an imperfect situation, and he made the brave choices, though he knew he would likely die.
Doing good is often imperfect. No matter where we live or what problems we are passionate about solving, we are faced with systemic injustice, broken political structures, corporate bureaucracies, infighting, and incompetence.
For me personally, my battlefield is the nonprofit sector. Before I started a nonprofit, I imagined this sector to be a warm and fuzzy place of do-gooders united by a desire to help others, But, much like Ukraine's Air Force, the nonprofit world can be bureaucratic, nonsensical and extremely challenging to navigate. It can be so tempting to just throw up our hands and say, Fine! Forget it! We'll just stop trying.
But Andrii saw the flaws and did it anyway, because he knew it had to be done. And every day, his memory inspires me to do the same.