Bob McDonald Visit Re-Cap To Ukraine For Its VA Best Practices

Monday morning I was up at 5:30 a.m. in my hotel room in the Hyatt Regency Kyiv in Ukraine.  I exercised in the hotel fitness center and cleaned up.  I met my host John Boestler, CEO of Combined Arms, at 8:30 a.m.  We were driven to the veterans hospital Lisova Polyana in the Obolonsky district of Kyiv, near the Puscha-Voditsa Park.  There, we met with the hospital director, Dr. Lyubov Zachek who introduced us to the program of medical care for veterans and the functions of the hospital.  Dr. Zachek is a neurologist so we talked a lot about mental health care of veterans as we toured the hospital.  As you can imagine the staff were ebullient but the facilities dated to Soviet times and needed renovation.  Ukraine is very much a developing market.

Team Photo at Ukraine VA

U.S. Military Veterans Help To Serve As Ambassadors

I had three American Veterans with me to help.  John Boestler is a Texas A&M grad, a Marine Corps Veteran, and CEO of Combined Arms, a non-profit organization whose mission is to unite the community to accelerate the impact of Veterans.  John won a Marshall Memorial Fellowship and Eisenhower Fellow, and worked with the German Marshall Fund to support our visit.  Also with us were two West Point graduates, both from the Class of 2000.  Dylan Tete is Founder and Executive Director of Bastion Community of Resilience in New Orleans and also a combat Veteran of Iraq.  I met him in New Orleans when I opened the new VA Medical Center there.  Jen or JT Blatty was a star female tennis player at West Point whose team won the Patriot League title during her last two years.  She served in the Corps of Engineers and was one of the first female leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan.  She is a photo journalist and chronicled our trip.  She also has created a wonderful exhibit of the men and women who have fought in Ukraine.

Visiting The Kyiv City Clinical Hospital for War Veterans

Following the hospital tour and visit, we were driven to the Kyiv City Clinical Hospital for War Veterans.  The Director and some of his staff met us and gave us a tour of the occupational and physical therapy area.  Again, I drew the same conclusions.  The head of physical therapy had a strategic alliance with a hospital in Milwaukee, and was up on the latest treatments, showing her initiative and leadership.  In contrast, there was only one exercise back for fifty patients with spinal cord injuries (i.e. the bike moves for you to keep your muscles in shape).

Bob With Head of Kyiv Hospital

Visiting the Ukrainian Ministry of Health

After lunch we went to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health on Hrushevskoho Street in Kyiv and met with the Minister of Health Dr. Ulana Suprun.  She explained the responsibilities and main facilities of the Ministry of Health.  I was very impressed by Dr. Suprun.  She was trained at Michigan State University, spoke fluent English, and had benchmarked Ukraine healthcare versus the balance of the world.  Ukraine has only about a hundred medical schools and they date to Soviet times and require upgrading.  The Ukraine has nationalized health care delivered by the Ministry of Health, so rather than create a redundant parallel system for veterans in VA, the delivery of veteran health care in Ukraine will still come through the Ministry of Health.

Meeting With Minister of Health

Unfortunately, the recent Presidential election in Ukraine, means that the Ministers I met, including Dr. Suprun, will be leaving their Ministerial roles and either moving back to Parliament or an NGO.  I imagine Dr. Suprun will move to a health care NGO as she is extremely committed to improving Ukrainian health care.

Visiting The Cabinet of Ministers

We were then driven to the Cabinet of Ministers of the Ukraine on Hrushevsky Street.  While there we met with the Minister of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine, Mrs. Iryna Friz and her team (all of whom were veterans except for Mrs. Friz).  We discussed in detail the function of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs.  I was very impressed by Minister Friz.  She and her team had benchmarked best practices worldwide, and got their Parliament (Ukraine has a unicameral Parliament called the Rada) to pass laws to implement best practices done in other countries.  Minister Friz is a member of Parliament and will return there once the new government takes power.

Bob With Minister of Ukraine VA

Visiting With The U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine

We were driven to the Hyatt Regency Kyiv, where we had drinks with U. S. Ambassador Bill Taylor, Charge d’Affairs.  Bill is a West Point graduate (1969) and a Vietnam veteran.  He wore his 82nd Airborne Division cufflinks since he saw in my biography that I had served in the 82nd.  The 82nd was his first assignment after graduation from West Point.  He then went to the 101st Airborne and then to Vietnam.  We had drinks with him on the eighth floor terrace outside on a beautiful evening overlooking the onion shaped gold domes of the Orthodox cathedrals.  Bill was interested in what we learned during our visit and his perspective on our experience was very helpful.

We discussed what President Putin may do next in the breakaway regions in the east, and in Crimea.  Bill saw the recent election as a positive sign as it demonstrated the unity of the society. Three months ago Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor and comedian with no political experience other than playing the role of president in a TV series, won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, with over 70% of the vote.  The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko conceded defeat before results started coming in.  According to official results 41-year-old Zelenskiy had won 73.4% of the vote, compared to Poroshenko’s 24.4%.  That kind of a landslide strengthens Ukraine’s hand versus Russia, which had invaded the Donbas region of Ukraine and annexed the Crimea.  I suggested that Russian President Putin’s advances in Ukraine united the people behind Zelenskiy in a way most politicians had been unable to achieve in an election in Ukraine.

After Bill departed we walked to dinner at a Georgian restaurant (a former province of the U. S. S. R.) called Sanatrelo Georgian restaurant where we reviewed the day’s activities and potential progress made.

Visiting The Ministry of Defense

Tuesday morning I was up again at 5:30 a.m. to exercise and clean up.  I met John, Dylan, and Jen in the lobby, and a car took us to the Ministry of Defense.  The Deputy Minister of Defense, Anatolii Petrenko met me upon my arrival.  There I was the honored guest to participate in the daily ceremony to commemorate the Ukrainian deaths in the Donbas region where the Ukrainians are fighting the Russia-inspired invasion.  This day we commemorated 24 deaths.  We went into a small building that had been constructed in front of the ministry that had the Ukrainian trident symbol in Tiffany stained glass in the ceiling and a large ornate book on a pedestal.  Each day the names of the dead are added to the book, each page being one day.  Outside there is a monument to the dead.  It is a bent sheet of thick armor with bullet holes for each size of ordinance the separatists use and a bell suspended on top.

Bob With Minister of Defense

It was important to the Deputy Minister that I, a former American Cabinet member, stand by his side to show solidarity as the names were read.  We then went outside by the armor sculpture and as each name was read, the bell was rung, and an honor guard fired a volley from three guns.  The Deputy Minister and I then put flowers on the base of the statue.  After we did, the general public, including friends or family of the dead put flowers on the base of the sculpture.  It was a very moving ceremony.  TV cameras were rolling, and I was on the news that day, showing solidarity with Ukraine.

Wreath Laying Ceremony

The Deputy Minister and I then went into the Ministry to a conference room.  It was a beautiful room with a large oil painting of a Cossack charge on one wall (the Cossacks are Ukrainian ancestors), and the flags of Ukrainian armed forces on the other.  The Deputy Minister, Anatolii, was a Lieutenant General before retirement and becoming the Deputy Minister.  He conducted the meeting in impeccable English and was very impressive.  He talked about a three-fold mission:

  1. deter aggression and prevent escalation (of the war in the east),
  2. reform the armed forces (the armed forces were corrupt and inept during Soviet times, and degraded under pro-Russian leadership, but now have built capability) with stronger civilian control, and
  3. integrate with Europe (EU politically and NATO).  The Ukraine spends greater than 2.7% of GDP on defense.  Over the past year 59 have died and 319 have become casualties.

Visiting The National Memorial Complex of Heroes

We then visited the National Memorial Complex of Heroes of Heavenly Hundred and the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity.  The Director of the Museum is a Ukrainian Fulbright Scholar, who had trained at The Smithsonian and was terrific.  The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 (also known as the Euromaidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity) took place in Ukraine in February 2014, when a series of violent events involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters in the capital, Kiev, culminated in the ousting of the elected Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, and the overthrow of the Ukrainian Government.

Successive Ukrainian governments in the 2000’s, including that of Yanukovych, sought a closer relationship with the European Union (EU).  One of the measures meant to achieve this was an association agreement with the European Union, which would have provided Ukraine with loans in return for liberalizing reforms.  This agreement would have complicated Ukraine’s trade relationship with Russia, its biggest trade partner at the time.  President Yanukovych intended to enter the agreement, but continued to waiver and delay.  This sparked a wave of protests called the “Euromaidan” movement.  Clashes between the protesters and the riot police became violent, and resulted in deaths of nearly 130 people, including 18 police officers.  As the tensions rose, the personal safety for the president became untenable; on February 22 he fled from Kiev to Russia.  The protesters proceeded to take control of the streets of Kiev.  On the same day, the parliament declared that Yanukovych was relieved of duty in a 328-to-0 vote.

Yanukovych said that this vote was illegal and possibly coerced, and asked Russian Federation for assistance.  Russia viewed the overthrow of Yanukovych as an illegal coup, and did not recognize the interim government that replaced him.  Widespread protests against the revolution occurred in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, where Yanukovych received particularly strong support in the 2010 presidential election.  These protests escalated into the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, War in Donbass, Russian military intervention, and the establishment of de facto independent states in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The interim government, led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, proceeded to sign the EU association agreement.  Petro Poroshenko became the president of Ukraine after a landslide victory in the unscheduled 2014 presidential elections.  The new government restored the 2004 amendments to the Ukrainian constitution that were controversially repealed as unconstitutional in 2010, and initiated a large-scale purge of civil servants who were associated with the overthrown regime.  Today, the war in the east is at a standstill (similar to World War I trench warfare) and Russia has failed to agree to a ceasefire or a prisoner exchange.

Ukraine would like its territory including the Crimea back.  Most believe it will come back as Ukraine strengthens its economy, becomes part of Europe and NATO, and the inhabitants of the breakaway regions get dissatisfied with the sluggishness of the Russian economy.

The museum is a work in progress.  And they have a plan for a large pedestrian walking area, a new large building (right now they are housed in a previous trade union building) and gardens.

Visiting The Veteran Hub

Our next destination was the Veteran Hub which is a community-based veteran one-stop shop that I tried to distribute around the U. S.  I called it a Community Veteran Engagement Board or “CVEB”.  The idea was we could not solve Veteran problems in the U.S. with a thousand mile screwdriver from Washington, D. C.  So instead we would create over 160 of these community-based organizations in major cities of the U.S.  The VA employees were part of these boards, but were not allowed to lead.  We wanted community leaders to lead.  The Ukraine followed this model and for now have only Kyiv for the Veteran Hub but hopefully more will follow.  Ivona Kostyna is the Director, and does a terrific job and is the daughter of Ukrainian diplomats and grew up in Africa.

Bob Speaking at Veteran Hub

We started by Ivona interviewing me in front of her employees where we talked about best practices.  We then went into a different room where about forty non-government organizations which support veterans were assembled.  We also did a question and answer period there.  We then hosted a dinner and reception, which was joined by the military attaches of each allied country.  I enjoyed meeting the U.S. Army attache, Dave, who is also a West Point graduate.

Imagine my surprise when I was at Veteran Hub, and one of the members who presented to me was Daria Mykhailova, a Student Fellow at the McDonald Conference for Leaders of Character three years ago!  She is not a veteran but got involved creating a television campaign to teach Ukrainians to put their hand over their heart as a gesture to thank Veterans for their service when they encounter a Veteran.  Daria got the idea from the U. S. since Americans verbally thank Veterans, but she created the gesture instead since she felt Ukrainians would not verbalize their thanks.  It was so much fun to see the impact of MCLC and to catch up with her.

Remembering a Fallen West Point Graduate and U.S. Veteran

During the day we discovered there was a West Point graduate killed on the front lines of the Donbas invasion.  A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the only American known to have fought alongside Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian separatists was killed in eastern Ukraine.  Mark Gregory Paslawsky, 55, died while fighting with the volunteer Donbas Battalion.  Paslawsky, who fought under the nom de guerre “Franko,” was killed during fighting in the town of Ilovaysk, near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Paslawsky was born in 1959 in New York and grew up in a tight-knit Ukrainian-American family in New Jersey.  He moved to Ukraine around two decades ago and informed his family earlier this year that he planned to volunteer for the Ukrainian Army, according to his brother.  He had made a significant amount of money in finance in New York City.  Despite his West Point training, he fought as a common soldier.  When I discovered this, I wrote an email to West Point suggesting we do a human interest article on him in West Point magazine.

Visit To UATV

Wednesday morning I slept in until 7:30 a.m.  I went to the fitness center to exercise.  After cleaning up I was picked up and taken to the UATV Studio on Kurenivs’ kyi Lane, where I was interviewed for a television program called Head to Head.  The interview was about a half hour with Tanya and we talked about military service, veterans, compared the U.S. VA with Ukraine, and briefly talked about P&G.

Bob McDonald at UATV

Time For Lunch and Reflection

After the program I was taken to Restaurant – Pizza Veterano, a pizza restaurant owned and run by Ukrainian Veterans, where I had lunch with Minister of Veterans Affairs Mrs. Iryna Friz.  The lunch was inspiring and depressing at the same time.  Iryna was inspiring.  She had combed the world for best practices for Veterans, had implemented a number of them, and had a clear path forward.  She has been very effective in her role in a short amount of time.  The depressing part was there wasn’t certainty that the new President and his party would continue this focus on caring for Veterans.  Because of the election she will be forced from office, but she was elected to serve in the Rada and will be on the Security Committee.  But as we heard on Tuesday, the Rada committee for VA was eliminated, and there is some thought the President may eliminate the new Ministry of VA.  This reminded me of politics in the U.S. where anything your predecessor did was bad and must be undone by the new party.  The U. S. Embassy had a staff member present, who I encouraged to talk to the Ambassador, and I would be happy to help.

In the late afternoon I walked over to St. Sophia Cathedral.  It is named after my granddaughter Sophia Grace Rowland (just kidding).  But I wanted to visit one of the Eastern (Russian) Orthodox churches to visit since my Mother was Eastern (Greek) Orthodox as a child.  Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv is an outstanding architectural monument of Kievan Rus’.  The cathedral is one of the city’s best known landmarks and the first heritage site in Ukraine to be inscribed on the World Heritage List along with the Kiev Cave Monastery complex.  Aside from its main building, the cathedral includes an ensemble of supporting structures such as a bell tower and the House of Metropolitan.

The cathedral’s name comes from the 6th-century Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (meaning Holy Wisdom, and dedicated to the Holy Wisdom rather than a specific saint named Sophia) (in present-day Istanbul).  The first foundations were laid in 1037 or 1011, but the cathedral took two decades to complete.  According to Dr. Nadia Nikitenko, a historian who has studied the cathedral for 30 years, the cathedral was founded in 1011, under the reign of Yaroslav’s father, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir the Great.

Closing Thoughts and a View of The Future

When I look back over my trip to try to help Ukraine, I conclude it was well worth the effort.  In summary Ukraine is making progress in getting the proper care for Veterans, but the future is uncertain.  Ukrainians have been in sustained warfare with Russian-backed forces since 2014 (February, 2014 the President flees to Moscow; March, 2014 Russia annexes the Crimea; about the same time Russia-supported terrorists start the war in Donbas region).  There is strong intent to care for Veterans, but now with the new President there is some question whether the new Ministry of Veterans Affairs will survive or in what form.   The President’s party has already dismantled the Rada or congressional VA Committee.

Unlike the U.S., Ukraine has national health care, so they will not need to set up a separate parallel system to care for Veterans.  That reduces the challenge but presents different challenges than in the U. S.  The most notable is training their doctors and medical staff about the military culture and Veteran injuries.  Similarly, they need to shore up their medical schools, which still suffer from Soviet era programs.  They have plans to align their VA with five of the best medical schools in Ukraine like Omar Bradley set up for the VA in the U.S.  This is critical in the U.S. to medical innovation (most medical innovation comes from doctors who do research for the VA in conjunction with medical schools).

I discussed how the history of the U. S. VA is always being underfunded and understaffed despite massive increases in budget (about 90% during President Obama’s eight years, and two more years of increase under President Trump).  Rada and Presidential support will be required and needs to be sustained.

The Veteran Hub in Kyiv is outstanding, a great portal for Veterans to achieve services.  It is funded by a non-government organization philanthropy.  So the challenge as with the U. S. CVEB’s is how to expand it to other cities and how to systematize those independent operations.  The Ukraine VA has a plan for five more Veteran Hubs.  I explained how we set up the 160 or so hubs in the U.S., how they are controlled by communities not the VA, and how we linked them to transfer best practices.

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