Boots on the Ground: Doing what he can, Michael Varhola walks into war-weary Ukraine to help others

Published 2:42 pm Wednesday, June 5, 2024

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There’s nothing simple about the war in Ukraine. It’s a conflict that garnered worldwide attention and its effects are reaching to some extent across most every point on the globe.

For one country it’s a battle for sovereignty and for the other a step in a quest to recreate an empire. But for the people on the ground, stuck among the sites and sounds of war, it’s simply desperate.

From the ground, Austin’s Michael Varhola has seen that first hand.

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“Nobody gets a pass on moral obligations,” Varhola said just days before he was set to leave Austin to deliver a very special activity book to the children of Ukraine. “Nobody gets a pass on those things you know you should be doing. Our country would be stronger if everybody would do their part.”

Varhola, who owns the tabletop gaming company Skirmisher Publishing and the nonprofit Gnosis Project, was on the ground for two weeks within the country of Ukraine delivering “Warning: Danger!” an activity book with the sole purpose of helping children recognize munitions left behind from the conflict. Specifically, landmines.

But it’s only the latest effort by Varhola, who has seen a humanitarian effort continue to evolve from the very start of the war.

Generally speaking, the Gnosis Project was created to help small, underfunded museums in other countries reach those who did not speak the native language by translating the museum’s placards.

It was outreach, but that mission changed to adapt to war-affected Ukraine.

“We stuck with the same mission of having a multilingual mission of supporting museums and historic sites,” Varhola said. “Part of the Gnosis mission was to sort of bear witness to history and do whatever I could to provide a record of Ukrainian cultural sites that were threatened. Just provide as much of a record of as many sites as I could.”

Being on the ground proved to be an eye-opening experience and Varhola and those he was working with quickly saw there were other needs. After meeting a refugee family in western Ukraine, Varhola saw a need for medical supplies and helped organize a delivery of $500 worth of medical supplies.

While in Lviv, he saw a very different need — one of warmth.

“One of our first missions was just to go out to the open air markets, get the best deals we could on coats and then just ride around with our Ukrainian contact and deliver them to families that he knew needed coats.”

That mission for coats expanded and before long, cars packed with winter coats and food were being driven out to a women’s shelter in Kharkiv. More requests came in from the Ukrainian Legion for more such missions, including to Zaporizhzhia, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and currently a divided city.

This latest effort, delivering the activity book, includes handing out the 500 hard copies of the book along with digital files on thumb drives that will be handed out to printing companies and directors of various institutions to further get the book out to children.

At the same time, they are delivering dual language blood type patches that accommodate both western and eastern blood type identifications.

All of this Varhola sees as a continuation of a mission taken up by NATO when Varhola himself was a soldier in the United States Army and in serving with NATO forces.

“One redeeming thing about my military service is we were helping hold the line against the Soviet Alliance,” Varhola said. “We were helping hold the line against Russia. People believed it then. People were generally afraid the Russians were going to come over the border.”

But war is never easy and those things, including humanitarian aid, are challenged further by its very nature. During some of his earliest work in Ukraine, while in Odessa, Varhola remembered the near constant blaring of air raid sirens going off. That was only part of it.

Getting the items to where they need to be has been a logistical challenge that’s been difficult to overcome. Other challenges have included ensuring the items get to where they need to be and the devastated infrastructure of the country itself.

“Just the wrecked infrastructure,” he said. “So many times we’re going to go around places where bridges are out. Challenges of an increasingly war-frought country is a lot of what we’re going to be dealing with over there.”

While time on the ground for this latest mission will be two weeks, he will have been in Europe for about three weeks total. In a note from the area, he and another crossed into Ukraine just after Easter.

From there Varhola will have visited villages north and east of Kharkiv before heading to Donbas and then back toward Odessa before wrapping the trip up. Kharkiv itself is just 30 miles from the border and so Varhola said he expected to hear and see the trappings of war from his standpoint. 

Even though he has done what he can for the effort, a job he sees growing narrow in scope each time he visits the country, Varhola suspects this will be his last visit to the country.

He’s not ruling out other trips, but at the same time Varhola feels that the decision will be made for him in some ways.

“I think it will probably be my last trip over there,” he confessed. “Unless I miss my guess, things will probably go one way or another. Maybe this will drag on another two years, five years, but I suspect anything I might want to do on a future mission is going to be overcome by future events.”

Whatever happens in Ukraine, Varhola looks forward to being home, even after a relatively short visit to the front compared to those fighting there and those living there.

It’s an experience that makes him even more welcoming of the trappings of home.

“It’s kind of funny because I like my life here. I have a nice house, I have lots of things I can do with my company, I’ve got a good family,” he said. “I would probably never leave my house if I didn’t have to. I’m always just glad to be home. Just so relieved so I can get back into a routine for a while.”

But, in the end, it’s about doing what he can do and continuing work began years before.

“Being part of that alliance was a sacred thing,” he said about being a part of NATO. “It was an important thing and it’s a thing that’s important to America. That’s still the forward edge of our defense. That’s still where we need to begin defending ourselves. To some extent, even though I’m not a soldier anymore, I’m still trying to be true to that alliance.”