An American in Donbas: I’ve spent 15 months on the front lines, training and assisting in medicine
Former combat medic and philanthropist David Plaster on Ukraine prior the Euromaidan and War: “I made this prediction that by the end of the year there would be another revolution”
AN AMERICAN IN KYIV?
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and, as always, we’re bringing you our feature interview followed by some new music from Ukraine. This week our guest is David Plaster, an inspiring American ex-combat medic turned philanthropist who has launched a number of projects in Ukraine, ranging from medical training for Ukrainian military, to free English language courses. To know why and how, I invite you to listen to our discussion.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: BOHDAN NAHAYLO SPEAKS TO DAVID PLASTER AND ASKS WHAT THE AMERICAN IS DOING IN KYIV
Nahaylo: I’m very happy to have David Plaster as my guest this week for Ukraine Calling. An American who is doing very good work here in Ukraine, in many spheres, and has been here for a few years. David, I can describe him, but he’ll tell us in his own words what he does, is a former US Army combat medic, now a philanthropist, who has set up various NGOs here. So, welcome to the programme!
Nahaylo: David, the traditional question is, what brought you to Ukraine and when did you arrive here?
Plaster: Well, I’ve known about Ukraine for many years. I had many friends during my time in the military who were Ukrainian. And I was invited in 2012. It seemed logical, when I finally finished the military, that I could make my own decisions of where I could go and for how long, so I came to Ukraine.
Nahaylo: Were you in some difficult places? Some hot spots? If it’s not a secret.
Plaster: The Middle East.
Nahaylo: The Middle East. OK.
Plaster: A lot of beach, but not a lot of water.
Nahaylo: So, you arrived here in 2012?
Nahaylo: Different sort of scene then: this was before the Maidan [Euromaidan protest 2013-2014] – the Yanukovych era.
Plaster: Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in politics, I was more interested in football.
Nahaylo: An American interested in football?
Plaster: I played some professionally for about 6 years during my time in the military
Nahaylo: Interesting, what position?
Plaster: I played center-forward, striker.
Nahaylo: Very interesting. So, you arrive here in 2012. Why then?
Plaster: Like I said, I was invited. I have a lot of friends who were from the military who have given me several invitations, say six or seven years before that. And I finally took them up on it.
Nahaylo: Did you feel that you were being treated suspiciously? US military in the Yanukovych time? [Then President Victor Yanukovych held pro-Russian views.] Did you feel that someone was interested in your presence here?
Plaster: Well, I wasn’t wearing a uniform when I was on the Khreshchatyk [Kyiv’s main street] if you’re asking. I just came here as a civilian. I already had a beard. Nobody really asked any questions, honestly. They just saw that I was an American. I quickly went through security, I guess because I had dollars.
Nahaylo: Those were important then, and still are. So, let’s jump ahead to 2013. Things are happening out on the streets. Were you affected by the Maidan?
Plaster: Well, at the end of November 2013 I was drinking beer with some friends when things started going down. So, yes, young students running for their lives, being terrorised by the people who were supposed to be civil servants protecting them, disturbed me very much.
Nahaylo: Did you get involved yourself?
Nahaylo: So, you were on the Maidan? You were helping the medics?
Plaster: I lived on the Maidan the whole time, nearly. From the beginning till the end, through all of it.
Nahaylo: In one of the sotnias (units)? Or as an individual?
Plaster: As an individual. Because of my past, and what I saw for the future of Ukraine I felt it was best that I didn’t involve myself very officially or directly. To briefly take a step back, in 2012-2013, New Year’s, after I had travelled the entire country, and saw every region of Ukraine, and my friends told me that they were jealous, that even they hadn’t seen as much of Ukraine as I had, I saw something very disturbing. Two parts of the country being pitted against each other. And I made this prediction that by the end of the year there would be another revolution. But it wouldn’t be Orange. It wouldn’t be Blue. [The colours of the 2004 revolution.] It wouldn’t be yellow. It would be blood red.
And that it would lead to war. Because it was just a brewing tension. It was something I felt from my military experience. So, when this came in November, I wasn’t surprised that things were happening, that the government would do that. It was not surprising to me at all. But I decided, after I saw the horrific beatings at the end of November 2013, when I was at St. Michael’s Cathedral here in Kyiv, I made a promise: That if I’m going to be here, this is my new home, this is where I live, that I’m going to be here till the end of the revolution. And to help in the war to come, if necessary.
Nahaylo: Very admirable. And, of course, that Revolution of Dignity went on for quite a few months, and had a bloody ending. Though, perhaps, not an ending, but shall we say, an interval. Followed by supposed victory. At least a clearing of the air. Opening of opportunities. What were your feelings on the Maidan on the days of the largest number of killings. Did you think that it was all over? That they’re just going to crush us militarily?
Plaster: From the beginning I told people that if they think this is going to be a peaceful revolution – back in the end of December when there were lots of happy sing songs, and every hour singing the hymn of Ukraine, when the clock towers still worked on the Maidan, before the building was burnt – I told people that they’re crazy if they think this is going to end in a peaceful way, and that there’s going to be a peaceful transition of power. There’s never been a peaceful transition of power from a tyrannical, dictatorship government, which was the Yanukovych style of government, that I understand in the history of mankind. At least not in Ukrainian history. I felt that it was very necessary to seek peace, but prepare for war. And you’re in a valley.
You’re surrounded by tall buildings, all of them sniper perches. You could be assaulted from underground, from the Metro [Subway] station, very easily. You could be surrounded by all sides and blocked in and starved to death through the winter. And I told people, if you can just make it through the New Year’s holidays, through Christmas, through old New Year, then it will get much worse. Because then they understand that you’re serious. And you’re not going home. You’re not just going to go home to your family because it’s another holiday. And they did. And it got much worse.
Nahaylo: But was there a moment when you felt, ‘it’s over, we lost?’
Plaster: I held out hope.
Nahaylo: So, let’s move forward. You stayed. You’re wiser. I don’t know if you’re bitter or optimistic after that experience. What were you thinking then, in terms of applying your skills, knowledge, experience after the Maidan? How did you end up in the activities that you’re about to describe to us?
Plaster: Well, like I said, it was just that moment at the end of November 2013 that I decided to do that. And I actually adopted the pseudonym Mykhailo [Michael], named after the church, and the Archangel. Just because it was better not to be David Plaster on the Maidan. Because, well, who would I be if I was just an American running around on the Maidan, living there? I would be Russian propaganda potential.
Nahaylo: But St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, that was also a make-shift hospital, was it not?
Plaster: Yes. I took some of my money, my savings, and bought medical supplies, and just quietly gave them to people I felt were going to need them. And tried to re-stock, in advance, medical supplies. Not just trauma supplies, cold and flu medicine, hot tea, McDonald’s breakfast for the guys managing the checkpoint. And a pack of cigarettes. That’s sometimes the best medicine.
Nahaylo: When I met you a few years ago, I had the impression that you, as a young man here, that you were still looking for your way, looking for your path. You were still searching for a niche, where to express yourself best. And you seem to have come a long way in those last few years. Tell us how it started? What were your first aims? To work in the medical rehabilitation, psycho-medical rehabilitation spheres? You’re also at the moment teaching English, and running various other NGOs. How did you start? What was your roadmap, if there was one?
Plaster: The work kicked off. I went down immediately after Maidan to Crimea. And two days before the referendum I was let through the blockpost [checkpoint] with packages of supposed American cigarettes and whiskey. Simply, if you take packets of American cigarettes and put Ukrainian Marlborough Reds in there, it looks a lot like American cigarettes. I was able to bribe my way across the border, because Ukraine, and Crimea, it was just black suited people managing the gates.
So, they let me through. Just acted like a confused foreigner who didn’t understand the language. What I saw was disturbing. It wasn’t democracy. There were buses of people with Russian plates being sent there, as best I could tell, being given passports and told to go vote the next day, in two days. To vote for, as you could see on the billboards there were two maps of Crimea. One with the Russian flag. And one with barbed wire and Nazi flags. So, when you cut off communications and radio and TV, and declare that Kyiv has fallen to the fascists, it’s a logical choice that they’re going to pick Russia, right? So, it was brainwashing at it’s finest.
Then I went back, and the war kicked off the next month in Slavians’k. And I offered medical support, aid, and my knowledge and expertise training tactical combat casualty care in the US Army to the Ukrainians.
Nahaylo: And what were your first impressions? Were the Ukrainians prepared for a conflict? Or was the army in a very bad way? I’m not talking simply about weapons and morale, but dealing with casualties.
Plaster: Well, morale was high, of course. Right off the Maidan people were very patriotic. And there was lots and lots of support. Sometimes too much support. Some commanders would say tongue in cheek that they had too much. That they didn’t have enough of this, but they had more than enough food, or something. And in some places they had no food. It was just very disorganized. But the heart, and I’ve said this in previous interviews, that the heart of the Ukrainian war fighter was strong.
And I still believe this today. Equipment wasn’t there. Training, it was like us, like we [Americans] were before we went into Iraq. Before we went into Afghanistan our training in medicine was non-existent at all. It was just a medical pouch, that had one bandage in it, that was ours. And the training was to apply pressure and elevate. But often times the soldier would put a pack of cigarettes there, and that was his first aid pouch. Very similar to Ukraine. But I saw a lot of the ways we road-mapped America, and I basically copy-pasted it. I said if we could have a NATO standard, if we really want to be a NATO standard military, then take the NATO standard for medicine. Copy it, and paste it into Ukraine. And work. And the Allies will support you.
Nahaylo: Were you on your own out there? Or did you have others that were professionals in that sphere that could form a team with you?
Plaster: There were people around in different places, different organizations that did a lot at the beginning. I saw a lot of old standards being taught, that people didn’t know it wasn’t the current standard, that they just maybe found on the internet. Or maybe some diaspora sent, that had some military affiliation, old training manuals from the army. So that helped them start. Again, I was not wanting to get 100% involved because of the potential of what it could risk for the Ukrainian sovereignty, if I was discovered. The propaganda would be, ‘oh, there’s an American.’
Plaster: Instigator, or something. And I was just there as a peaceful agent trying to advise.
Nahaylo: Because time is short; let’s jump ahead. Your activities in that sphere now, what are you doing?
Plaster: Well to sum it up, I could say I’ve spent more than 15 months on the front lines, training and assisting in medicine. I’ve trained more than, to this date, more than 7,000 Ukrainian service members have been trained by me. And several times throughout the years, other trainers who have assisted me in that, to NATO standards of TC3. Currently I consult the National Guard in helping to standardize military medicine, along with a couple other groups to consult and to standardize military training. There’s a lot of people who do it really great with implementing it at the school house level, and I work more on the implementation at the unit level. And been doing that quite aggressively for the last year.
Nahaylo: When you say ‘I’ve been doing that’, you’ve created an NGO to do that?
Plaster: More of as an individual consultant – so official work, officially paying taxes in Ukraine, doing that to not just do something and then it quickly being forgotten about, but trying to make lasting progress. The idea is – Ukrainians training themselves in Ukrainian, in a NATO standard of medicine tactical combat casualty care, or TC3. And it’s been very awakening for me to see the stops.
We’re on our fifth year of war, and we don’t have a standard, literally it was delivered in Ukrainian, and we said do this and you will help save a large amount of lives. And even last year in Avdiivka, in February, I saw a dead soldier that died of venous bleeds, meaning he died of non-threatening wounds, if someone had applied a pressure dressing, not even a tourniquet, the soldier would be alive today it’s my belief, simply because of lack of training.
Nahaylo: But are we in a better position, in terms of the Ukrainian armed forces? Better training, better prepared?
Plaster: Yes, I would say so. I’d say the National Guard is much more ahead of the Ukrainian general army. They’re smaller, but at the same time, they’re better trained, especially the special operations soldiers that I work more with.
Nahaylo: Well David thank you for your very important contribution in this area that’s often overlooked. But let’s now go to, more broadly, to your other activities. On your business card I see there’s an organization, an NGO, that you’re the president of, it’s called Anomaly. And it deals with things ranging from education, to orphans, to ecology. Tell us a little bit more about what this involves and what was the thinking behind it.
Plaster: The name, or the…?
Plaster: OK, well the name actually just comes from, I like to play on words and I love –
Plaster: Puns yes. The word anomaly –
Nahaylo: We have a lot of puns and “pany” (Ukrainian fore bosses) in Ukraine too.
Plaster: Yes, –, maybe even “ponos” (Ukrainian for diarrhea) also but, but yes, anyway…So Anomaly, in Ukrainian and Russian, it’s very similar: аномалія. So it’s non-standard thinking. It’s non-orthodox ways of approaching things.
Nahaylo: Thinking outside the box.
Plaster: Non-conventional social warfare you could say. It’s like the special forces in the United States Army say: ‘to liberate the oppressed’. So maybe it’s a way socially, for social liberation from oppression. And the way I look at it is, education is one of the greatest, most uplifting things that can really help people. So we’ve helped to date more than 20 thousand-plus students in English, who maybe had some base of English, maybe had nothing from the Soviet Union or studied German in the Soviet Union, who are veterans and civilians, study English, for them for free.
Nahaylo: That’s amazing. So how do you get your funding? OK free, but your savings must have run out a long time ago.
Plaster: I invest my pension, basically. I live basically on a Ukrainian standard salary myself, and then I basically take the pension from the military, and I give that to the cause. So I’m self-funded. Somebody bought me a cup of coffee, so just to declare everything this year, somebody bought me a cup of coffee so on my next tax statement you will see a cup of coffee declared from Aroma Kava that I did not buy myself, and I want to be honest here. I don’t want to look like there’s some bribes or…
Nahaylo: But surely you must have tapped into some grants or even got some government money to finance some of your projects.
Plaster: I haven’t needed it. The cost of one student for an entire year for three semesters, it’s like one and a half levels by the European common framework, the cost of one student to learn is five dollars. So…
Nahaylo: So people listening out there, particularly in the diaspora could really help here.
Plaster: For the price of your Starbucks cup of coffee, depending on what you like, you could potentially fund one or two veterans or single mothers in Ukraine to study English for an entire year, for the price of one Starbucks coffee.
Nahaylo: Amazing. OK, so Anomaly, Aномалія. This has now existed how long?
Plaster: It’s around our third year. But the idea, officially licensed it –
Nahaylo: But is this a one person operation, or do you have supporters? Do you have staff, do you have colleagues?
Plaster: I have a team of very loyal, very, very hardworking volunteers. Volunteers from all over the world, so some from the Ukrainian diaspora, some who have Ukrainian roots or, and just a lot of Ukrainians that just really want to make their country a better place. Maidan was just the start of the revolution. Maidan was a wakeup for many people. But it’s not the end of the revolution when it ended; no, not at all. When Yanukovych fled to Russia, that was not the end of the revolution, that was only the beginning.
Nahaylo: Okay, you’ve partly answered my next question. Where are we at – we’ve made progress, obviously, but some would say the glass is half empty, some would say the glass is half full – how do you assess the situation in brief as a philanthropist, a person sort of looking from the ground upwards?
Plaster: Well, there is a common phrase in Ukrainian and I’ll say it and translate: vse bude dobre – everything will be good – but oftentimes you can look at someone and they will say it and you see in their eyes ale ne znayu yak I koly – but I don’t know how and I don’t know when. So, we believe that when we all work together for a common goal to make things better, put your money where your mouth is, put your time, your resources, whatever you have towards that goal, only when you work together for that result, it can only be better.
And every one of our projects I’ve made, I’ve specifically designed that a Ukrainian on an average Ukrainian salary can afford to fund a small project and we can help them to do that, and that’s the real anomaly because anyone can come in here with money and do something, but not many people can really do something that’s reachable for the Ukrainian people. If you look at my business card you will see a bunch of hands there. Those are the hands of Maidan that really wanted a better future, a bunch of old pensioners who never really thought that they would see a better future for Ukraine, but they wanted it for their family, they wanted it so that their grandchildren, their great grandchildren can really grow up in a place that they could be proud of, and then, and only then, vse bude dobre, Alle me ne chekaiemo shcho bude dobre – we don’t wait for good to happen
Nahaylo: Alright, I get the impression that you’re still full of zeal and idealism and that has tempered the realism and whatever disappointments, and frustrating things you must have encountered.
Plaster: Yes, I’ve been disappointed, but honestly, if I listen to the critics, I’d listen to people say, “You’re not Ukrainian, maybe you had some relatives that are Ukrainian but you don’t understand.” It’s the same people that told me that when I predicted the revolution and the war, and I don’t need that. I can do it by myself, I am going to do this, and my team, they’re going to do this, whether people criticize us or not, and we’ve been doing this. So all I have to say is “You want to join, us or not?”
Nahaylo: So, David Plaster, you seem to have found a place in your time, so Ukraine, for you, has become your mission field, as it were. Any final parting thoughts – which I always ask my guests to share — what would you like to say to our audience listening out there based on your projections and looking forward?
Plaster: Ukraine has a bright future, but only if people… Anybody can say Slava Ukraini – anybody can say glory to Ukraine – but few people are willing to do something that will truly bring glory to Ukraine. So that’s a question I ask for your audience, many diaspora people: stop and think to yourself. What are you doing to make your world a better place, what are you doing to make Ukraine a better place?
Nahaylo: Thank you very much, David, on that philosophical and very inspiring, patriotic note. It’s been a great pleasure to listen to you. Certainly you’ve inspired me, because we live in fairly cynical times when people are willing to dump on Ukraine and the world generally, and it’s very heartening to meet an individual that has rolled up his sleeves and put his heart into practice, and not just simply carried his heart on his sleeve as an embroidered token. So thank you very much for coming to us.
Plaster: Thank you.
This week’s song is called Рано which means morning. It was recently premiered in Kyiv by the folk-rock collective The Doox, which is a play on the Ukrainian word spirit. If you like their sound you can hear more from their new album which they’ve posted for free listening on-line. We’ll post a link to it on our website: Enjoy!
Join us again next week when we’ll bring you a topical in-depth interview and some music. So tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, and and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support by Andrew Kobaliia