Today I fly home, and I just want to cry.
It’s the return leg of my Denver to Chile, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and Amsterdam trip. Not only have I just about flown around the world, but this trip surely is one of the most emotional experiences of my life. Chile was in most respects just like any business trip. I was there for the FIDAE air show to show off our system. The next leg though, Chile to Poland, was different. The moment I took off the air around me changed. I was off to Ukraine to deploy the Vita Rescue System. I was entering a war zone.
I spent the entire plane ride to Poland not thinking too much about it. We had, of course, planned as best as we could, and I was meeting my colleague, Scott Slack, in Warsaw, so I was at least not going alone. But there were still so many questions – so many unknowns.
I met Scott at the Airport where we were met with our first roadblock not ten minutes later. An international driver’s license was required to rent a car in Poland and neither of us had one. We eventually found a way. It would become a theme.
Simply put, this trip was not meant to happen. Not only did we almost not make it out of the airport, but we also almost did not get system cleared by customs and got turned away the first time we tried to cross the border into Ukraine.
We, thankfully, did get across (on the second try at a different crossing some 40 miles away). As we crossed the border, our trip was summed up by two simple words spoken by an Ukrainian border guard:
At the time all Scott and I could do was laugh – what else could we do? We were going into a war zone and neither of us had to say it. This was maybe the most serious moment of our lives.
Caleb Carr (CEO, Vita Inclinata) at the Ukraine Media Center.
Our first stop was Lviv. We were due there to conduct a brief press conference and explain our mission. I didn’t think anyone would find us interesting but to my surprise we did have a good group of journalists present. As I prepped with Scott in an old brewery that had been converted into an emergency press center, we heard the roar of air raid sirens just minutes before I was scheduled to take the podium.
Our Ukrainian contact quickly escorted us to an ancient catacomb beneath a large church for safety. To my amazement, everyone just calmly entered the narrow brick chambers, grabbed a folding chair, and began working away on laptops. There was no crying or faces of fear; going to a bomb shelter was just a way of life now for the Ukrainian citizens. I was in awe.
After the all-clear I did the press conference and then jumped back into the car with Scott to make the long 8-hour drive to a Military base in southwest Ukraine. The drive was going fine until we were pulled over by two Ukrainian policemen. I don’t know if it was the American flag in the window, the litter basket strapped to the roof, or the polish plates, but clearly we were not locals.
As the officer walked up to the car, he noticed the camera sitting on Scott’s lap. When he demanded to see the camera, we tried to explain: “Scroll right you will see what we just did in Lviv.” What does he do? He scrolls left and sees the pictures and videos Scott took of border crossings and checkpoints.
Immediately, the Officer put his hands on his gun and began asking quite forcefully, “Russian? Russian?” We tried to explain but were soon taken one by one into the police car to be interrogated. After handing over our cellular information, having photos taken of our passports, drivers licenses, and all our papers they decided we were not a threat and let us go.
We again got through by the slimmest of margins.
That night, Scott and I had to share a small, sparse studio apartment just outside of the military base. We slept, me on a couch and Scott on a small bed, with the windows wide open, trying to get some fresh air in and keeping an open ear out for air raid sirens.
Training the Ukraine helicopter crew on use of the Vita Rescue System.
We arrived at the military base early the next morning ready for the training. Almost immediately it was clear that the crews were not happy. To us, they had a look of resilience and resolve overshadowed by exhaustion.
When the training began, I quickly learned the Ukrainian crew members had never conducted nor witnessed a MEDEVAC mission. No one spoke English either, especially any English related to helicopters, and our translator was late.
I was flustered. How could I explain the Vita Rescue System? When was the translator going to show up? I thought back to my search and rescue and fire training, what is the best way to learn?
With your hands.
I heard my old instructor saying, “People comprehend better if they can work directly with the training device.” So that is what I did. I hooked the system to the hoist on the helicopter and worked on the ground. Eventually, the translator did show up and I was able to complete the training – well, almost. We still needed to get airborne.
The crew fired up the enormous engines that powered the Soviet Era Mi-8 helicopter and began their preflight checks. Then, just as we got airborne, the crew chief received a message via the radio, after which he turned, told the translator something and then waited for the translator to tell me.
“We are going to have to make it quick because Russian jets are in Ukrainian airspace.”
He looked at me for a response, a clue as to whether I still wanted to continue, and I gave him a thumbs up. But honestly, I was scared. I thought about my family back home. The people that I had wronged. The things that I had yet to accomplish.
I had been in many situations when life was on the line, but I usually don’t get to think about it. I just go into the fire and come out the other side.
When we finally got the helicopter in position, I threw the basket out and trained the crew as best I could. When I finished explaining and demonstrating, I handed over the controls and watched as the biggest moment of my career happened. Not only had the crew members comprehended my training, but they also were able to hoist the basket quickly and safely down to the ground and up again. They did not need weeks of training to do it. It was a credit to the hard work and determination of the entire Vita team and a real-world demonstration of how our system can speed up training exponentially.
The Vita Rescue System in action under an Mi-8 helicopter.
When I was back on the ground, Scott and I were elated. We did it! We accomplished our mission. I had tears in my eyes, and I coined every one of the Ukrainian crew members. I also coined someone who wasn’t expecting it, Scott. Scott went to war with me (literally!) without any reservations or pre-requisites. The man dropped everything to make sure that the mission could be accomplished fully knowing that the outcome could be death. We give challenge coins to our staff when they show exemplary service to the Vita mission. It was a true honor to get to know Scott and to watch as he executed this mission with me.
This experience impacted both Scott and I to our core as Scott explains…….
I have been on a hundred business trips and film shoots in my life but this one was different.
From the moment I met Caleb in Warsaw the challenges began. It was not surprising. There is no road map or playbook for this kind of thing. We were two Americans, traveling to Europe on a few days’ notice, directly into a warzone. Luckily, we had an amazing team back home and a belief in the mission ahead of us.
There was an issue with our rental car before we even left the airport, there was an issue with the system getting stuck in customs, an issue with a curfew at the border, an issue with rental cars not being allowed in… and that was before we even stepped foot in Ukraine.
At each obstacle we found a way, and through that process I learned a lot about Caleb’s resourcefulness and determination. I learned to trust his instincts, and I think he learned to trust mine. The trust we forged would prove vital to our mission and our survival once we found a way to cross the border.
I also had a job to do. I was there to document and film our trip, the training, and the deployment of the Vita Rescue System. There were lenses to clean, cameras to set up, and microphones to turn on. I had a shot list, moments to capture, and a press conference to film. I needed to make sure we were where we were supposed to be, we were safe, and the Vita Rescue System was intact.
And yet – as focused on the job at hand as I was – there were moments, glimpses really, that changed me forever. Caleb already laid out the broad strokes of what happened; bombing raids, police encounters, check points, Russian jets cutting our training short… for us, these things were completely new – and often utterly terrifying – but we did not suffer them alone. We were there with people who experienced the horrors and indignity of living in a warzone every day. To be with these people – these brave Ukrainians – was the privilege of a lifetime.
There was a mother walking with her very young daughter, calmly and steadily, moments after a bombing raid and an entrepreneur who put his start-up on hold to do what he could for the war effort, which in his case meant overseeing the production of thousands of Molotov Cocktails as a last line of defense. There were countless others too. People doing the everyday tasks of living, collecting the garbage, taking care of children, running restaurants – under the most unordinary of circumstances. From them, I learned what courage looked like – that doing the job in front of you can sometimes be a radical act of defiance.
It was the Ukrainians that propelled us forward too. How could we not finish our mission? How could we not deliver The Vita Rescue System and ensure it was deployed? I was blessed to have been given a chance to help. And it was the honor of a lifetime to go through it with Caleb. He is a leader I would follow into war without hesitation. No higher compliment can be given.
Vita was started because of a mission. Vita executed its mission in Ukraine and will continue to do so around the world whenever someone calls.