- Photos are courtesy of Alyona Yaroschcuk and Connie McClellan
- Ukrainian flag image by Damian from Pixabay
With a Ukrainian friend’s brother missing in action,
Columbia Marine mom recalls her own trauma.
“I ask you to pray for a miracle to find my brother, Yura alive. For his name to appear in a prisoner list or in a hospital.”
The frantic message about Alyona Yaroschcuk’s brother, a soldier in the Ukrainian Army, appeared as a post on her Facebook page on March 18, 2023. She is my friend, and though she lives 5,200 miles away in Kyiv, Ukraine, as I read her post, it was as if I was right there with her. It took my breath away. I was frozen with heartbreak as I tried to grasp my friend’s soul-deep anguish. Several of Yura’s comrades saw him go down, but because they were all under heavy fire, they were unable to rescue him.
My heart pounded and ached, knowing what she was feeling and experiencing. Although it was 18 years ago this month, it seems like yesterday when I feared my Marine son, John, was among the 16 American lives lost in northeastern Afghanistan when the Taliban shot down a helicopter over the Kunar Province.
Three terrifying days passed before I learned that the servicemen were all Navy Seals. It was another two weeks before we finally received an email from John letting us know he was okay. Though the day I received that email was one of the happiest days of my life, my heart ached and still aches for the families of those 16 Seals.
I do have an inkling of what Alyona and her family have endured- multiplied by 30 times – as it has been 90 days (and counting) since Yura has been missing. His whereabouts? Is he alive? Was he captured? Was he killed?
There’s still no answer to that agonizing question.
I’ve known Alyona Yaroschcuk, a Christian missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU), since 2015 when a mutual friend asked if would connect with Alyona on Skype to help her learn English. Though I’m not an English teacher — by any stretch — I have learned that just being able to converse with someone in another language significantly helps him or her learn the language more quickly. I was happy to help.
We spoke via Skype every week for almost a year. Alyona has progressed from knowing no English to becoming quite fluent in our language. I’ve now had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of one-on-one time with Alyona on her visits to the U.S., and I am proud to call her my friend.
For the past four years, Alyona has lived in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the country’s largest city with a population of some three million people. Since February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, intense bombing has made Kyiv a perilously dangerous place to live.
I can’t fathom what it would be like to live in Kyiv during such a tumultuous time. Alyona graciously accepted my request to share her responses to my multiple questions about how a single woman survives in a war-torn country.
“Alyona … the war has started.”
The 4 a.m. phone call from a co-worker on Feb. 24, 2022, announced the grim news.
“Right away I awoke my sister, who was my roommate, and my brother, Yura, who was staying with us at the time,” Alyona vividly recalls. “We immediately rushed to the television to see what was going on in Kyiv. What we saw as we watched — the bombs exploding throughout our city — was terrible and terrifying.”
Already on ‘War Watch.’
The start of the war was not unexpected, Alyona says, as for some time she had heard that day would come. Part of the pre-war, pre-established protocol for her and fellow CRU missionaries was to have an emergency bag packed as well as a “phone tree” in place, to let others know what was going on. Alyona made the first call to start the alert process.
Meanwhile, Alyona and her siblings agreed that Ozero, Ukraine would be the best place for them to go. It was where their family lived and it was on the country’s western side, which at the time was not as vulnerable to Russia’s invasion and attacks. (By that time, most of the bigger cities in eastern Ukraine, along the Russian border, had been destroyed. The Ukrainian people in those areas evacuated either to the western portion of Ukraine, Poland, or other sympathetic neighboring countries, as well as the U.S., or Canada.)
Alyona received a call from her cousin, Misha, a former Ozero resident but now living in Kyiv. Misha owned a vehicle, and he instructed the three siblings to take a taxi to his apartment; from there they would leave immediately to drive to Ozero. The Yaroschcuk siblings hailed a cab to Misha’s apartment on the other side of town, but due to the mad rush of traffic from residents evacuating Kyiv, what they hoped would be an immediate departure from Misha’s apartment turned out to be a more than 10-hour wait.
Finally, after praying to God for a safe trip, they were able to get on the road headed to Ozero. With snacks and water packed, they were able to travel continuously, only stopping for bathroom breaks and gas fill-ups.
As they left the city, they heard bombs exploding behind them.
Under normal driving conditions, Ozero is approximately five hours from Kyiv, but that day due to traffic it was nearly a nine-hour trip, encountering long lines — sometimes as long as two hours — for gasoline. (Later, they learned that some escaping the city were turned away after finally reaching the pumps because the pumps were empty.) The further Alyona’s group traveled west, the better the supply of gasoline.
“One of the most incredible parts of our trip was when we learned that just 15 minutes after we crossed a major highway bridge, it was bombed,” Alyona explains. “We were so grateful to God that our prayers for a safe trip had been answered.”
They arrived in Ozero to find safety and a tearful reunion with their parents. Home at last. And safe.
A new mission.
Alyona stayed with her family in Ozero for two weeks. While there, hearing of the tremendous need of the soldiers on the new battlegrounds in her country, she made up her mind to make it her mission to raise money to help buy first aid supplies such as tourniquets, bandages, antiseptics, and other material that the Ukrainian army was exhausting as quickly as its inventories were being filled.
That was her focus and mission while in Ozero, and soon it became even more personal. Yura had just joined the Ukrainian military.
While trying to decide her next steps, Alyona says she knew she needed to go somewhere other than Ukraine; a place where she could help to fulfill her new mission, as Ukraine did not have the resources to procure all of the supplies that were needed.
Just prior to the Russian invasion, Alyona received her renewed American visa. Her first visa, four years in the making, was finally approved for her visit in 2019. The renewed visa was approved relatively quickly and is good for 10 years.
She recalls, “While I was in Ozero trying to make plans for where I should go and what I should do, it was like a lightbulb went off. This is the time for me to go to the United States.”
Most people don’t realize that CRU missionaries are not employees of CRU. They are totally dependent on the financial support that they receive from private donors. Most donors for Alyona are from the U.S. — primarily Grace Bible Church of Columbia and many of its parishioners — along with other churches in Columbia and in the U.S.
‘Kindness and generosity.’
Before the war started, Alyona’s U.S. trips were focused on visiting friends and supporters and cultivating new donors. Now her reasons were multi-fold: To visit her friends and supporters, and to raise more funds for her newly realized Ukrainian medical supply mission.
She remembers leaving her ravaged country.
“From Ozero, my cousin Misha, drove me to the Polish border, where I literally walked across into Poland with thousands of other Ukrainians seeking refuge,” she says. “Because there were so many people waiting to cross, it took six hours before I could finally make that big step onto Polish soil. It was a very good feeling.”
However, she was still a long way from the Warsaw, Poland airport, from which her plane would depart for the U.S. Fortunately, she was able to book her flight online, but she still had the challenge of getting to the Warsaw airport. The welcome and support for Ukraine and its refugees was heartwarming.
“I was so impressed by the kindness and generosity of the people at the border. There were volunteers helping people to navigate and relocate, and many of the Polish people even opened their homes to Ukrainians whom they had never met,” Alyona adds. “One gentleman introduced me to a man who was willing to drive me to the train station where I could board the train to Warsaw. The Polish people even provided free train tickets for the Ukrainians refugees.”
She continues, “We are all so grateful for the kindness and generosity shown to us in so many ways by the people of Poland — physically, financially, mentally, and emotionally.”
After the day-long train ride to Warsaw, Alyona was able to find a hotel near the airport. The next day, she boarded her flight to the U.S., with a brief layover in Frankfurt, Germany.
“It was bittersweet,” she says, her voice cracking. “I was so relieved to be out of danger, but my heart ached for my friends and family left back in Ukraine. It was a concern I lived with, day and night.”
The realities of war.
Alyona remained in the U.S. for four months, mostly staying with friends in Columbia. She and fellow Ukrainian CRU missionary, Alina Bartlett — who now lives in the U.S. — worked diligently to raise funds to purchase the desperately-needed first aid supplies for the soldiers in Ukraine.
Both Alyona and Alina expressed satisfaction in knowing that their efforts, along with the generosity of their friends in the U.S., primarily in Columbia, to obtain the medical supplies have helped many injured Ukrainian soldiers.
Returning to Ukraine from the U.S. in the fall of 2022, Alyona discovered that Kyiv was in an even more dire condition than when she left.
“Sirens now go off regularly. At one time there was a bomb that struck 500 yards from my apartment,” Alyona adds. “About one hundred yards from my apartment is the nearest underground shelter. In the beginning, every time the sirens would go off, I would run down the many flights of stairs from my apartment to the shelter. Since then, I’ve learned to wait to actually hear the distant sounds of bombing before heading to the shelter, as sometimes the sirens aren’t intended for my area.”
Alyona explains that most of the grocery stores and even a number of restaurants remained open throughout the war.
“I feel this is a true testament to the resiliency of the Ukrainian people,” she says. “Also, during this wartime, there have been and continue to be many new – mostly online – businesses that have opened in Kyiv. And many of the schools are able to do online classes, which has been a tremendous help to Ukrainian students.”
Throughout the war, Alyona has touted the efforts of the various water and electric crews. In Kyiv, the people had been without water or electricity, but in most cases, service resumed the next day. In the beginning, it was a much bigger problem as water and electrical service were down for several days. At that time, because the elevators did not work, Alyona and her sister had to walk many flights of stairs to and from their apartment, carrying five-gallon water jugs for drinking, cooking, bathing, and flushing.
Gratitude to the United States.
Now, in 2023, in Alyona’s opinion, the people of Kyiv feel safer than at the beginning of the war, primarily because the United States and other countries have provided military equipment, including Patriot missiles that Ukraine uses to fend off and intercept incoming bombs.
“I, along with the Ukrainian people, are so appreciative of everything the U.S. and other countries have done to help our cause,” she says.
Now in June 2023, it’s been 90 days and counting since Yura went missing. The last week of May the family received word through the Wagner Telegram Channel, which is a Russian news agency, “This person is not among the prisoners of war. However, we found his documents in the captioned positions” (the area where he was shot). That is all the information they could get from Wagner. There was nothing regarding his fate, one way or the other, just a photo of his documents that accompanied the Wagner notice.
Alyona and her family have determined that Yura is either dead or, possibly, somehow unaccounted for in a Russian prison. Obviously, neither are desirable outcomes for the family. There are organizations such as the Red Cross that help investigate the whereabouts of injured soldiers, but those avenues have had no success in finding any information on Yura.
Following is Alyona’s Facebook post from April 10, 2023:
“All the gold in the world is not worth love, kindness, and beauty. All the gold in the world is not worth a rose, not worth a tear.” Not worth… I am sincerely grateful for every message, call, and prayer. Let’s not stop asking God for a miracle.”
Alyona arrived in Columbia on June 3 and is staying until July 10. It will be a good time for her to be safe and get some much-needed rest. (Being able to sleep, with constant bombings in the background, is obviously very challenging.) Alyona will be the speaker for an 11 a.m. service on July 9 at Woodlandville United Methodist Church, 9801 Wilhite Road, near Rocheport. The public is invited, with no RSVP required.
If you would like to donate to Alyona’s ministry fund, please send a check to: Campus Crusade for Christ, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832. Please write in the memo line: For Alyona Yaroschcuk, CRU #2878064.
Connie’s story: My Miracle Marine.
The 16 Navy Seals who were shot down in Kunar Province were on a helicopter mission to search for four of their fellow Seals: Marcus Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matthew Axelson. I later learned that John and his comrades were actually on the ground searching for the four Seals. It wasn’t until I read the book, Lone Survivor, (published in 2007, followed by the movie in 2013,) several years later that I realized the extreme danger that surrounded John and his fellow Marines.
At that time it became clear to me there are some things a mother is better off not knowing at the time.
I am so grateful that John and his comrades survived that mission. Sadly, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matthew Axelson had been killed by the Taliban. Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor … hence the book and movie title, Lone Survivor.
The immense concern that I have seen on Alyona’s Facebook posts about her brother vividly reminded me of one of the darkest times in my life, when my Marine son, John, was stationed in Afghanistan. From the time he arrived in Afghanistan in June 2005, we were able to communicate with him at least three times a week, either by AOL instant messaging or by phone. Then starting around June 14, 2005, we did not hear from him for almost two weeks.
Not long after, we heard that a helicopter carrying 16 servicemen was shot down by the Taliban in the Kunar Province – which was the area I knew John and his comrades to be located. All 16 servicemen were killed. I was beside myself with worry until three days later, when I learned that the servicemen were all Navy Seals who were searching for four fellow Seals on the ground scouting Ahmad Shah, a renowned terrorist, known to be in the area.
Still, it was two weeks later before we received an email from John letting us know he was okay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Connie McClellan was born and raised in Quincy, Ill., and has lived in Columbia since 1978. In 2008, she wrote and published the book, My Miracle Marine, the Story of Three-Time Purple Heart Recipient, Lcp. John McClellan. In 2019 she retired after 42 years as a property and casualty insurance agent in Columbia. She still lives in Columbia, and proudly calls it her home.