Breaking: Unseen American Volunteers Work around the Clock to Rescue Ukrainian Civilians

The numbers at first were daunting.

When Eileen Pittman first logged into the Project Dynamo database in February to see how many people were asking for help escaping from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were maybe 100 people registered. Within a few hours it was nearly 1,000. Soon it was thousands.

"It just kept going up and up," said Pittman. "And we're like, 'Oh my gosh, how do we do this?'"

Pittman, a former elementary school teacher from Tampa, Fla., who now works in medical billing, had agreed to work with the civilian rescue organization as a volunteer case manager. It would be her job to connect with these people, to keep them calm, to make sure they had all the documents they needed to travel, and to give them instructions when it was time to go.

In the early days of the invasion, the work seemed to be endless, she said.

"We would be up all night," Pittman said of her work helping to organize Project Dynamo's early rescue operations in Ukraine. "We didn't stop for, I mean, I would say 72 hours straight. We just kept calling folks, on our time, throughout the night."

Eileen Pittman with Project Dynamo founder Bryan Stern.

In those first few days of the invasion, the volunteer work took priority over her actual job.

"I do medical billing," she said. "I don't think anyone is waiting at their mailbox to receive a bill from me, as opposed to the person who is literally a matter of hours of being potentially killed."

Project Dynamo, which organized last summer to rescue Americans and American allies from Afghanistan, is one of the dozens of American nongovernmental organizations now operating in Ukraine. Dynamo leaders traveled to Ukraine before the invasion to lay the groundwork for their operations. Over the last two months, the donor-funded nonprofit has completed more than 45 rescue missions and extracted more than 550 people from the country, its leaders say.

While most of the attention has gone to the guys on the ground who risk their lives to pull people out of the warzone, Stan Bunner, a military veteran and one of the founding Dynamo members, said volunteers like Pittman, average Americans without military experience who work in anonymity from their homes, are the "backbone of the operation."

These volunteers ensure that when Dynamo leaders in Ukraine secure a bus to pick people up, there are actual people ready to board it, he said. Bunner estimates there are roughly two-dozen stateside volunteers like Pittman working with Dynamo at any time. Most of the volunteers have come to them, reaching out with offers to help, he said.

"What our guys down range are accomplishing right now, they could not accomplish without these folks," he said. "They're kind of the unsung and unknown heroes. They're the machine."

Pittman said she started volunteering with Dynamo in mid-December, when the organization's focus was still on rescuing Americans from Afghanistan. She said she and her husband are friends with Dynamo founder Bryan Stern and his wife. Her first responsibility was to secure hotel rooms and halal food for a planeload of people Dynamo was flying to New York, she said.

For Ukraine, she transitioned from a logistics role to case manager. The work is often stressful and emotionally taxing, and can run late into the night, when it is morning in Ukraine, she said.

"It's hard to tell a friend, or the usual family members you would go to to confide in to say what a stressful day I had," Pittman said. "Nobody can relate until they're on the receiving end of people saying 'Please, please, please,' and you can hear the kids screaming in the background. It is heart-wrenching."

Deb, another Dynamo volunteer who works from her home in the Vancouver area, near the U.S. border, said her work in the rescue operations takes up most of her free time. Typically, after work, she would go hiking, do yoga, meet friends for drinks, or spend time with her husband and kids. But for the last eight months, her evenings have usually been spent supporting Dynamo case managers and coordinating with U.S. government officials.

"I'm not exhausted. I'm not having as much fun in life as I normally would," said Deb, who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid online retaliation from Russian sympathizers. "I very much, very much live at my desk."

During the day, Deb is a management consultant with a streaming media company. She knows Stern, the Dynamo founder, through her boss, who is on Dynamo's board of directors. She said she got involved with the volunteer effort last August at her boss's request, at first helping to set up the backend infrastructure of Dynamo's website. She now spends most of her time working on business processes and providing critical information to the case managers.

Deb said that on most days she gets up at 6 a.m. to catch up on the latest in Ukraine, works her day job until 5 p.m., and then works late into the night with her Dynamo work.

"It takes up all of my waking hours, and some of my supposed-to-be sleeping hours," she said of the volunteer work. "In terms of time, I'll work well into midnight or 1 a.m. If we have a critical charter happening that needs my help, I may still be on the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Deb said the work has settled down a bit in recent weeks, as the large masses of people looking to flee Ukraine have left on trains and other charters. A lot of Dynamo's current operations now are focused on special cases — people with disabilities, the elderly, babies born to surrogate mothers. "That tends to be pretty rewarding," Deb said.

Max Maks, another Dynamo volunteer, is working with the group in Ukraine. His family is from Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, one of the first cities attacked by the Russians. Maks, a doctor, along with his wife, a psychiatrist, and their two children, 19 and 11, now are helping to run a hotel in western Ukraine that has been dubbed "Club Dynamo." It has become a transit point for the people Dynamo volunteers are rescuing; a place to get a good night's sleep, a good meal, and a shower before continuing their journey out of the country.

People rescued by Project Dynamo can get a meal and a good night’s sleep at a hotel in western Ukraine, dubbed Club Dynamo.

"Our key mission is to bring a light of happiness to these poor people," Maks said in a written interview with National Review. "They can have one or two nights in comfortable rooms, with nice countryside views, and excellent cuisine. We know what they need in this moment. Some safe place to exhale before they cross the border."

Maks said he and his family coordinate with the Dynamo case managers to understand who is coming to Club Dynamo and when. He said information about where the group is coming from, if they are from rural or urban areas, can help them make their daily plans. He and his family also help escort groups to the border, he said.

"We realize the scale of the problem, but we won't stop doing it as long as it's necessary," Maks said. "Ukraine needs your faith, Ukraine needs your prayers, Ukraine needs your ammo, and Ukraine needs Project Dynamo to continue the missions."

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Unseen American Volunteers Work around the Clock to Rescue Ukrainian Civilians

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