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East Hampton Couple on ‘Convoy of Hope’ to Ukraine

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 12:04
On a 2,000-mile journey from Normandy, France, above, where they visited Utah Beach, Dr. George Dempsey and Lauren Dempsey traveled with a group of volunteers through Germany, Austria, and Slovakia to Bucha, Ukraine.
Lauren Dempsey

When the news broke of “the geopolitical event of the century,” an East Hampton doctor, George Dempsey, and his wife, Lauren Dempsey, felt compelled to help. It was February 2022, and Russia had recently escalated its war in Ukraine by launching a full invasion.

A few weeks ago, the Dempseys returned from their second humanitarian trip to Ukraine. This time, the mission was to deliver 50 ambulances to the Ukrainian frontlines, where the ambulances are now being used in the war effort.

Dr. George Dempsey and Lauren Dempsey helped deliver 50 ambulances to Ukraine on a recent humanitarian trip.

Dr. Dempsey is on the board of the nonprofit Ukraine Focus, which oversaw the ambulance convoy. Members of the East Hampton community helped fund an ambulance, via donations at Dr. Dempsey’s office, where the walls are lined with photographs from his first trip to Ukraine. 

“This is a real thing,” Dr. Dempsey said, “This isn’t Iraq. This isn’t Afghanistan. This is even bigger than Vietnam. This is a true invasion of a free, independent country by another country. When was the last time that happened? World War II. This is that level of significance. This is way more important than anything else going on.”

On their 2,000-mile journey, which began in Normandy, France, the East Hampton couple traveled with a group of volunteers from northern France, through Germany, Austria, and Slovakia, before arriving at their destination, Bucha, Ukraine.

During their time in Normandy, the Dempseys attended the D-Day event at the American Cemetery, where Presidents Biden and Macron commemorated a different “group of allies” who worked together to repel an invader, Nazi Germany. The doctor drew symbolic comparisons with the current situation in Ukraine.

Along the way, the volunteers collected signatures on a Ukrainian flag. The mayor of Albany, Kathy Sheehan, was among the volunteers. At the outset of the war, Albany formed a sister city relationship with Bucha to jump-start the rebuilding process in the Ukrainian town.

When they arrived at the Ukrainian border, the Territorial Defense Forces — Ukraine’s reserve force — took control of the ambulances, driving the convoy the rest of the way to central Ukraine. The soldier who drove the Dempseys’ ambulance was a man in his 40s with two children in high school.

On the trip from the border to Bucha, Ms. Dempsey enjoyed communicating with the soldiers, despite the language barrier. “I like the communication, I like to get to know them and to feel like I’m doing something for their country,” she said, later mentioning the warm welcome from many Ukrainians.

When the Convoy of Hope, as the volunteers called it, arrived in Bucha, the Dempseys attended the groundbreaking of a new hospital. As local and national Ukrainian leaders broke ground, blue and yellow confetti — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — shot through the air.

Dr. Dempsey mentioned that the war in Ukraine represents the first time in history that a nation has chosen to avoid sending its youngest citizens to the frontline. “They’re trying to keep the young people out of the war,” he said, adding that the average age of a Ukrainian soldier is around 43.

Young people in Ukraine live largely normal lives, with the frequent air raid sirens often the only reminder of the nearby war zone, which is still active. “This is a different army. And the way the country’s dealing with [the war] is they’re trying to protect their young people, which I don’t think has ever been done before,” Dr. Dempsey said.

Bucha is a suburb northwest of Kyiv, adjacent to two other cities, Irpin and Hostomel. These northwest suburbs were a hotspot in the initial stages of the invasion, when Russia launched an offensive from Belarus toward Kyiv.

An airfield located in Hostomel was a crucial Russian objective early in the 2022 escalation, when Russian airborne forces, known as the V.D.V., attempted to secure the airfield via helicopter landings, as shown in a video uploaded by The New York Times on Feb. 24, 2022. Several helicopters were shot down, and the troops that managed to land were forced to retreat over a month later.

Bucha was the site of an alleged massacre early in the war. “When a defeated and demoralized Russian Army finally retreated, it left behind a grim tableau: bodies of dead civilians strewn on streets, in basements or in backyards, many with gunshot wounds to their heads, some with their hands tied behind their backs,” The New York Times reported on April 11, 2022.

“This is where all the war crimes occurred when the Russians came in,” Dr. Dempsey said. “The mayor, when it happened, they were trying to find him and kill him. People were hiding him in their homes. They were risking their lives by hiding him.”

Dr. Dempsey added that the Ukrainians have taken to rebuilding in areas no longer part of the active frontline. He noted, “They’re not holding back and waiting to get invaded again. They’re thinking of moving forward.” In central Ukraine, houses and apartments are being built constantly. Construction vehicles and cranes can be found throughout the streets of the Kyiv metropolitan area.

The rebuilding effort is aided by the relocation of displaced western Ukrainians, who are leaving current and former frontline cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol to seek refuge in central Ukraine. Dr. Dempsey views the new construction projects as a symbol of the Ukrainian people’s hope and optimism.

On their first trip to Ukraine, in December 2022, the Dempseys were in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine where a protracted battle would escalate several months after they left. Russia declared victory in the city in May 2023, but fighting continued in nearby areas in the following months, according to New York Times reporting.

“My very strong feeling is that, including with Gaza, we criticize the Germans for looking the other way. We’re doing the same thing, except the only difference is we have even more information. We have it right in our face,” Dr. Dempsey added.

To Dr. Dempsey, Germany set a clear precedent for the war in Ukraine when it invaded its European neighbors 85 years ago. Dr. Dempsey’s humanitarian efforts in Ukraine are inspired by that shadow in European history and his own family’s connection to that history.

“My mother was French. She was in World War II. You have a different view when you had a parent in a war. Even though they don’t talk about it much, their values, their way of looking at the world, you just get it. So, I got it. . . . This is one of those things you’ve got to do something about. You don’t sit there and let it happen, like we let it happen in Germany,” he said.

Dr. Dempsey also talked about what people can do from afar, specifically mentioning letter writing to children in Ukraine. The children appreciate the support, he said. “I think as a country, we’ve shown it before, we’re capable of doing something about it when we all get together.”

Each of the 50 ambulances in the convoy saves an estimated 200 lives per month.

As a medical practitioner, Dr. Dempsey appreciates the opportunity to be involved in the advancement of health care. In Ukraine, health care workers are more receptive to trying new techniques. He discussed his frustrations with “red tape” in the American health care system. “To me, it’s liberating to create something better, a better health care system,” Dr. Dempsey said.

One company has donated 3-D printers to craft orthotics for amputees. Ordinarily, an orthotic device takes weeks to craft and shape. With the aid of 3-D printers, the process can be completed in a matter of hours.

Ukraine Focus tracks exactly where donated supplies are routed. The ambulance that Dr. Dempsey donated is now being used by the 104th Brigade, an infantry unit in the Territorial Defense Forces.

 

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