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US veterans come to Kyiv to support Ukrainians with music and friendship

by Daria Shulzhenko December 31, 2023 2:38 PM 5 min read
U.S. citizens Ron Wallace (R) and Michael Edison pose for a photograph in a Kyiv cafe holding one of the T-shirts they made for Ukrainian soldiers on Dec. 6, 2023. The two traveled from Wyoming and Alaska to the Ukrainian capital amid the full-scale invasion to support Ukraine and its people. (Daria Shulzhenko for the Kyiv Independent)
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Every head turns in a downtown café in Kyiv when U.S. citizens Ron Wallace and Michael Edison enter.

Edison, 61, is wearing a cowboy hat and a vyshyvanka – a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt – while 62-year-old Wallace is dressed in a kilt, part of his bagpiper uniform. He’s also carrying a suitcase with his set of bagpipes inside.

Their attire suggests the two are not tourists. They traveled all the way from Wyoming and Alaska respectively to the Ukrainian capital amid the full-scale invasion to support Ukraine and its people.

"We stand by Ukraine… Cowboys and Cossacks, we ride together," Edison told the Kyiv Independent on Dec. 6 in Kyiv.

Their week in war-torn Ukraine has been a mission of goodwill for Edison, a former cavalry command from Wyoming, and his friend, Wallace, a former musician in the U.S. military living in Alaska.

They came to Kyiv in early December as self-funded volunteers, to spend time performing music and entertaining Ukrainian children in schools and kindergartens, and performing for Ukrainian soldiers in hospitals and on the streets.

"Our mission is twofold," Edison says. "The first part is to come to Ukraine with hope and prayers for Ukraine, and to show our support for the people."

"The second part of that mission is to go back (to the United States) to dispel some myths and propaganda about the situation and circumstances in Ukraine."

Their visit comes as U.S. funding for Ukraine is running out, and further aid is being held up in the U.S. Congress by Republican opposition.

So "putting a face to the Americans who are in full support of Ukraine" was another of the reasons behind their trip, the two say.  

U.S. citizens Ron Wallace (R) and Michael Edison (L) pose for a photograph with Ukrainian soldiers in Kyiv on Dec. 6, 2023. (Ron Wallace)

"People from Wyoming and Alaska support Ukraine, and we want people to feel and know that we're here," Edison says. "We're not afraid, like Ukrainians – the brave women, men, and children."

'The spirit of Ukraine'

When the two friends of 30 years arrived at Kyiv’s central train station in early December, they were met by an atmosphere of "sadness and melancholy," they say.

Though both Wallace and Edison have traveled a lot and been to many countries during their lives, Ukraine was a new experience for the two "adventurers," as they call themselves. They prepared for months ahead of their trip to the country.

They say they have seen many scars of Russia’s war in Kyiv, a city hundreds of kilometers from the front line, but have also noticed the "unbelievable" spirit of the Ukrainian people.

Edison recalls the time they went to see wounded Ukrainian soldiers at one of Kyiv's hospitals. A badly injured man who refused to have his picture taken seized their attention.

"He was missing part of his leg. He was missing an arm. But he said he was going to get prosthetics, and he was going to go back out (to fight)," Edison says.

"He made me want to cry," adds Wallace. "This could be any one of them. This is the spirit of Ukraine."

When hearing him play the Ukrainian national anthem on the bagpipes, soldiers would stand up "no matter how much pain they were in." Still, Wallace says performing for them was also much harder for him than he had expected.

"I've been doing this for a lot of years, and I've played at a lot of funerals, at a lot of really sad occasions and happy ones," Wallace says.

"So I thought, I've got this, no problem, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw."  

Heavily wounded soldiers, with "limbs missing and blood and fluids oozing through the bandages," who were happy to see them – that’s what struck the two. However, Wallace says it also made him feel helpless "because I can’t do enough."

While in Kyiv, they also attended the funeral of a Ukrainian war hero – one of the defenders of Mariupol, a city besieged by Russia and bravely defended by a small force of Ukrainians for three months, until they were finally ordered to surrender in May 2022.

"I played at the funeral of a war hero," Wallace says.

"He was killed and tortured in Mariupol," he goes on, adding that a soldier’s widow had invited him to perform for children whose fathers had been killed in the war.

"It just rips your heart," Wallace says. "There was a little girl, and I think her father had recently been killed. She had a face of sadness, and she went through the motions, trying to play, but it was hard."

He also recalls a little boy following them around, jumping into his arms, and holding him tight: "I know he misses his father."

The Kyiv Independent spoke with Edison and Wallace on one of their final days in Kyiv. Both seemed sad to be leaving, but their mission to help Ukraine did not end with the trip: They also want to spread the word about Ukraine and debunk Russian propaganda about the situation here.

Upon returning to the United States, Edison planned to talk about the war in Ukraine to local media in Wyoming to "dispel the myths" that Ukraine’s defenders are Nazis, as well as counter other falsehoods about Ukraine, put about by Kremlin propagandists.

The two want to "bring the facts of the situation in Ukraine as much as we can to our homes," Wallace says.

"We've got to counter this propaganda, the lies, (the false) perceptions. It's a tough job," he says.

On their next trip to Ukraine, the two say they want to go to the front-line area to support the soldiers who are fighting the Russian invaders.

"I want to see the men in the trenches. And I want to give them the packages that the kids at school put together for them, with food, letters, and candies," Wallace says.

"And I want to play the music for them. Shake their hands. Look in their eyes."

"Real support comes from the heart. That's what we bring," says Edison.

What made Ukrainians feel hopeful in 2023
Ukraine had high hopes for 2023. Many dreamed the war would end with Ukraine’s victory and that they would finally be able to visit liberated Crimea after nine years of Russian occupation. But Russia’s brutal attacks against civilian infrastructure continued, and with them, the death toll has cont…
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