‘How could I not go to Ukraine and help?’, says Cork-based father

Former US soldier Miceál O’Hurley went to report on the war and ended up on the frontline. He is going back, despite his love for his wife and children, to document what he sees, he tells Sarah Horgan
‘How could I not go to Ukraine and help?’, says Cork-based father

Miceál O’Hurley (second from right), who is a former United States special forces soldier decorated for valour, initially travelled to Ukraine to report on the atrocities but found himself braving the frontline to protect wounded civilians.

A YOUGHAL-BASED father of two is about to risk death on Ukraine’s frontlines.

Miceál O’Hurley, who is a former US special forces soldier decorated for valour, initially went there to report on the war, but ended up protecting wounded civilians.

The mediator and editor-in-chief of Diplomacy in Ireland: The European Diplomat said the purpose of his trip was also to liaise with local authorities to establish an appropriate method of distributing aid to citizens.

Despite the concerns of his Ukrainian wife about the trip, Miceál said he needed to do it.

He described the traumatic scenes he saw.

“It was a fluid situation,” Miceál told The Echo. “Sometimes, you wouldn’t intend to be on the frontline, but you ended up there anyway. It was like you had entered another world altogether. There were burned-out trucks and buildings and constant artillery shelling. Then, it would just stop and people would go out and do their shopping, before returning back to the misery.”

Travelling across Ukraine can be harrowing.

“If you’re travelling in a car and you suddenly hear air-raid sirens, you have to get out and jump into the nearest ditch,” Miceál said.

“When it’s over, you then get back into the car and travel some more. When artillery comes down, it doesn’t matter how good a soldier or skilled a paramedic you are, it all comes down to the luck of the draw. Anyone who tells you that they’re not afraid is lying. It’s what you do with the fear that counts.”

Coming to terms with Miceál’s decision to go was difficult for his family.

“My wife and I have a three- and a five-year-old. She didn’t want me to go. However, there are some things in this world that just need to be done.”

Miceál explained his decision to travel to Ukraine.

“My wife is Ukrainian and we know first-hand the horrors Russia have committed in the country since 2014,” Miceál said. “My sister-in-law still lives in an area very close to the contact line that comes under attack from missiles on a daily basis. The decision to travel there was more of a case of ‘how could I not go?’ than ‘should I go?’ The war broke out in 2014. It just expanded into Ukraine’s interior in 2022. 

"I had been invited to the Antalya diplomacy forum in Turkey. Russia and Ukraine held a meeting to try and get a ceasefire. It didn’t go anywhere. As soon as I came back from the diplomacy forum, I went to Ukraine. I felt there was a need for more insightful coverage of the human aspect of war, aside from the statistics of war and its politics.”

EXPERIENCE

Learning more about life on the frontline was important to Miceál.

“I needed to stick with the soldiers to see what their experience was. I also wanted to share that experience, so I could come back and speak from an informed perspective about what is actually needed. If I ended up on the frontline a lot, it wasn’t because I was heroic, it was because I needed to assess the situation.

“The only time I fought on the frontline was to protect civilians. Russian ground forces were advancing on us and the ground was littered with people who have been wounded and got immediate triage.

“At one stage, there were just two soldiers with 20 people on the ground who couldn’t help themselves. This was a place where people had been raped and executed. It was necessary to protect wounded civilians. Even the hospitals were being attacked and at a time when they should have been able to supply us, we were supplying them.”

Nonetheless, the Youghal local insists he is not the true hero.

“One of the stories that needs to told when this war is over is about the women,” Miceál said.

“So many of them are fierce defenders of their communities. One particular woman I met comes to mind. At the time, the Russians had been told they were going to be greeted as liberators. She brought them all cups of tea that they had no idea was laced with laxatives. The rest of us were just reacting, but hers was an act of heroism.”

Miceál says he is one of the lucky ones.

“It’s surreal to see what is happening, but I’m a visitor, which means I can come and go. Unlike some soldiers and indeed many civilians, I had body armour and a ballistic helmet to keep me well protected.

“I knew that I was going to get through it all and in three or four days’ time I would be able to take a shower again.”

He remains passionate about delivering as much aid to Ukraine as possible in the coming months.

“There was a responsibility to speak with local authorities to ensure that aid makes it to its intended destination and that charities are legitimate and capable of carrying out their missions.

“Whether it was Bosnia or World War I, there have always been people stealing aid and profiting from war and that’s something we have to always keep in mind.

“I can also remember seeing places littered with humanitarian aid, like cowboy hats and high heels. It was important to see what was actually needed and how we could get it there.”

He hopes that his account of what he saw will educate people about what is happening, particularly those questioning the levels of devastation in Ukraine.

“The posts on social media saying that this is somehow not real is demeaning and insulting to the people living through the hell of wondering whether their house or child’s school will be bombed.”

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