N.M. FF/EMT recalls sobering experience serving on Ukrainian front lines

The Santa Fe Fire Department's Rollin Tylerr Jones spent four weeks providing aid and working at trauma stabilization points


Phill Casaus
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — With Russian shells turning multi-story buildings into tall and tenuous maracas, Chris Hammond couldn't help asking the critical question that can come to a man at the moment of truth.

"Why do I want to be in places like this?" Hammond recounted. "A couple of times, the Russians are a block away, just on the other side of the building. Why? Why do I do this?"

Photo/Santa Fe Fire Department

The answer, for Hammond and fellow Santa Feans Rollin Tylerr Jones and Stefan Wachs, didn't always come easily during four mostly harrowing weeks as they provided humanitarian aid in Ukraine, the world's biggest and bloodiest hot spot.

But in the days after their return to New Mexico, unpacking their bags and emotions, a clarity — an appreciation for the experience and the things they have at home — is beginning to emerge.

"It heightens your sense of appreciation," said Wachs. "And it reminds you that there are issues and problems that seem mundane or irrelevant. It's an eye-opener in that sense."

Jones, Hammond and Wachs — in order: a Santa Fe firefighter/emergency medical technician/nurse; Los Alamos emergency room doctor; freelance photographer and studio manager — volunteered to travel to Ukraine under the umbrella of the Humanitarian Aid and Rescue Project, a nonprofit that works in conflict or disaster areas and helps provide everything from extractions to battlefield medical aid.

Jones and Hammond had been in other hot spots with HARP, including Iraq as a war against ISIS raged. Wachs was a last-minute addition to the pair — talking about the situation at dinner one night, on a flight to Europe not long after.

Regardless of their backgrounds or experiences, the work in and near Kyiv was sobering, the three men said.

War zones, like thumbprints, are unique. And in Ukraine, where there's a wariness about accepting help from Americans and worries about even the most basic tools — Jones said the Russians can use cellphone signals and even Facebook posts as a way to identify and zero in on potential targets — the situation on the ground was ever-changing.

After a frustrating and relatively uneventful start to the trip, they spent the last half in the cities of Irpin and Bucha, two of the ugliest and most heartbreaking battlefields in the war.

Hammond, 40, the emergency room doctor, said the trio spent much of their time building "trauma stabilization points" with Ukrainian doctors and medical personnel — sometimes offering tips on how U.S. medical experts treat trauma. Just as often, he said, Ukrainians offered valuable insights into their own skills.

"It sorta became a hybrid of how they treat [patients] and how we treat," he said.

On that front and others, the Americans said they learned plenty.

The Ukrainians' courage, they said, was breathtaking. They found coffee shop owners and psychologists who gave up safety to volunteer for the front lines. They worked with doctors who left safer hospitals to help treat wounded soldiers on or at the front lines — like the others, eating bad food and sleeping on thin mattresses.

In essence, Wachs, Jones and Hammond saw scenes they'll always want to remember — and things they'll spend the remainder of their lifetimes wishing they could forget.

For Jones, a 2019 recipient of The New Mexican's 10 Who Made a Difference award for volunteering his service to the community, the crucible came when someone shoved an assault rifle into his hands as a firefight closed in from three sides.

"I remember running to this guy, and I was like, 'Hey, man, we've gotta evacuate.' And the Ukrainian guy, he said, 'Well, there's no evacuating.' Like, we're, you know, we're gonna fight them and ... either we're gonna die or they're gonna die."

Hammond's memories are seared by a 2 a.m. missile attack, rattling the structure meant to protect him and others — wondering if the next shell is the one that lands too close.

"Now, I'm scared," Hammond said, recalling the scene. "I don't have a death wish."

Wachs, the freelance photographer who had never before worked in a zone of conflict, said he had no idea how he'd deal with the uncertainty. He said the slow move into the country — first into the western half of Ukraine, where fighting is less intense, then into the heavily contested areas near Kyiv — gave him the opportunity to adjust.

"When we were in the city center [of Kyiv], you could hear the bombing; after that, a mile or two off the front lines," he said. "At times, you get almost used to constant bombing or shelling. But there's always this tension. And it becomes part of every day."

Like another Santa Fean, real estate broker Keith Crow, who helped drive fleeing Ukrainians to safety over the Polish border in a rental car in the war's early weeks, Wachs, Hammond and Jones said they were humbled by the experience — noting the gifts of safety, family and peace many Americans take for granted but are cherished in a nation where they've been stripped from existence.

"It's almost like the prominent voice [in the U.S.] is, what's wrong with everything?" Hammond said.

On the other hand, the goodness of people — and their community spirit — has made a difference. Becca Jones of Los Alamos raised money to help repair an ambulance being used in Ukraine and also bought another outright for use by rescue workers. Many other people donated money not just for the efforts of the three New Mexicans in the country but to relief organizations that are helping the displaced and the wounded.

"A lot of people here in the U.S. — in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Santa Fe — put a lot of work into helping a lot of people over there," Rollin Tylerr Jones said.

But Jones, now back to work at the Santa Fe Fire Department, acknowledged he's still not completely sure what to make of his world — or anyone's world. Being that close to war, he said, is profound.

"Oh, yeah, it's super weird," he said. "It's kind of hard to tell people your priorities have changed and you know ... you gain a huge appreciation for how good we have it here. I mean, I feel super blessed and grateful. But you also feel like there's an obligation that comes with it."

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(c)2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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