LTC Eli Ziv, USAR
I am an Orthopedic Surgeon and Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Medical Corps (Reserve). I first direct commissioned in 2013 and have since deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, Iraq in 2017, and Kuwait in 2020.
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, I was very moved by the amount of suffering and felt tremendous sympathy with the Ukrainian people. I also envisioned the volume of trauma to be far greater than what our doctors have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan and felt an overwhelming desire to help ease the suffering and improve the quality of care.
Although we have supported the people of Ukraine both politically and militarily, the president made it very clear that there will be no US troops in Ukraine. The US Army had already sent soldiers in my unit several emails with specific instructions. An Army Reserve soldier could not provide any direct assistance to the Ukrainian military, but there was a narrow exception for humanitarian missions.
Soon after, I learned of a small veteran-run humanitarian organization which was specifically looking for medical personnel with military experience. In fact, the nature of their mission was such that they only considered applicants with combat deployment experience. This was in contrast to some of the other humanitarian missions I had heard of that, while equally important, take care of patients who need reconstructive surgery days or weeks after surgery, what we often call cold trauma.
This group specifically focused on providing care close to the front lines and modeled itself after the Army’s Forward Surgical Teams, or FSTs (now FRSTs or FSRDs). Both my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were with Forward Surgical Teams, and my reserve unit is the 1980th Forward Surgical Detachment in Fresno, California.
On July 7, I began the grueling trip to Eastern Ukraine. Since there is no commercial plane travel due to the conflict, this trip required extensive surface travel. I first flew to Warsaw, (where one of my grandmothers was born) and then to Krakow, from which I proceeded to travel over 1,000 miles by car and train. After crossing the border on foot, we were driven to Lviv, Ukraine. Lviv has a special place in my heart, as this is where my other grandmother, Miriam, was born and where the rest of her family perished in the Holocaust. She left Lviv for Palestine in the 1930s when Lviv was still part of Poland. I had the opportunity to visit Lviv once before, 10 years earlier, on a trip to visit the four cities my grandparents are from.
From Lviv I took a 16-hour train ride, 620 miles (1,000 km) to Dnipro. While in Dnipro I paid a quick visit to the largest Chabad Center in the world, also known as the Menorah Center. This is a truly majestic 22-story building, and it gave me and my team a chance to have a quick gratis meal in the kosher restaurant there, the Hummus Bar. From there we drove four hours east to an undisclosed town about 11 miles from the front line with Russia in the Donbas region.
I spent the next 10 days living in primitive conditions on the upper floor of a small-town Soviet era hospital which had been augmented with several Ukrainian army surgeons who came from other parts of the country. Our team consisted of myself, two recently retired Army 18Ds (Special Forces Medics), and an interpreter. During my first afternoon there, I immediately went to the operating room, which held two trauma patients, one critical, who were both being operated on at the same time. The windows of the operating room were covered with sandbags.
Combining forces with the Ukrainian orthopedic surgeon who was there, I had the chance to treat many patients with both severe and minor injuries. Most of the injuries had been caused by Russian artillery impacting troop formations. In the US Army, we have not seen as many injuries of this nature since Vietnam. Not only was I able to provide care and knowledge, but I gained experience that will be very useful to our own Medical Corps, especially if we are ever in a “near peer” conflict, G-d forbid.
In terms of safety, in some ways this was a more dangerous mission than either of my deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq. Although we were about 10 miles from the front, we could sometimes hear outgoing and possibly incoming artillery fire. One night, from the roof of the hospital, we could see the arc of Russian illumination rounds. Several times a day we would check a live map application which tracked the movement of the front lines and real-time reports of shelling as if we were checking the weather.
After 10 days, which seemed all too short, I left the hospital and began my long journey home. I had to get back to my busy private practice. I have to say that this was an extremely rewarding experience, not just for the ability to help, but also to understand the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Seeing older people queue up for food and water each morning really makes you realize how comfortable our lives are back in the United States. The dedication of the Ukrainian surgeons and nurses, who after three months near the front could have been replaced by fresh personnel but chose not to leave, was really inspiring.
I had been warned in advance about the pervasive nature of anti-semitism in the region. Even before I headed to Ukraine, I got into a few disagreements about anti-semitism in Ukraine. Although it is true that there was significant collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust, and in some cases the Ukrainians of that time needed no encouragement, we must remember that it was 80 years ago. Does anti-semitism still exist there? Of course, but likely not to a greater extent than in Western Europe. Ukraine is the only country in the world, apart from Israel, that has a Jewish leader.
Even during my visit 10 years ago, I did not encounter significant anti-semitism. One example of Jewish pride from that long-ago visit was that even in a coffee shop in a small town in the east, far from the cities with sizable Jewish populations, I met a young woman in her twenties who worked behind the counter. She wore a big Magen David pendant around her neck and another Magen David tattooed on her forearm. In addition, my interpreter, a Ukrainian man in his thirties from Kherson, became quite distressed about the fact that I was not eating any of the meat that was provided in the hospital along with the rest of the team. Since this town had a small chicken coop, and I had explained to him a little bit about kosher shechita (slaughtering), he hatched a plan to purchase a local chicken for me to shecht (which I am not trained to do!). Fortunately, this did not come to pass, as I had brought some kosher MREs for my deployment.
Finally, if there is any doubt about whether the Jewish people should help the Ukrainians, I like to quote the great Natan Sharansky who was born in Donetsk, very close to where I was stationed, and had escaped from the Soviet Union. He had said to the Jerusalem Post that no matter what happened to our ancestors in the past, “We must do what is right and help the Ukrainian people.”
While in the hospital, it was gratifying to see boxes of medical supplies and care packages from countries all over the world, including Israel. I even saw a Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance close to the front as well. The hospital had a Starlink Internet dish on the roof which Elon Musk had donated. My organization provided supplies including surgical caps and headlights, and arranged for the purchase of an orthopedic surgical drill. Up to that point, the surgeons had been using cordless drills from the hardware store instead of medical grade drills.
In conclusion, the mission I recently completed in Ukraine was wholly gratifying, and I was able to treat many wounded Ukrainians, mostly soldiers. Not only did they benefit in some small way from my presence, but I will be forever changed by the experience. Perhaps it is even likely that one day, but hopefully not soon, a wounded American soldier will benefit from what I learned.
Originally published in the Chanukah 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.