Convoy of hope and ‘despair’: Volunteers drive ambulances from Virginia to Baltimore in an effort to help Ukraine

BALTIMORE — Art Beltrone closest to arriving to drive the ambulance got behind the wheel of a U-Haul rental truck. But before dawn on March 8 — after a test lap the day before — he climbed into one of the white emergency vehicles with lights and sirens and buckled up for the long journey from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Baltimore.

Beltrone, a former Newsday reporter and military artefact assessor living in Keswick, Virginia, joined a crew of volunteers who drove an ambulance fleet down the East Coast to the Port of Baltimore, where the vehicles were to be delivered to soldiers and citizens in Ukraine as part of a humanitarian relief effort sparked by Russia’s invasion of the country in February last year.

“It was my way of helping out there, a little bit, even though I didn’t go,” said Beltrone, 81, who served in the US Marine Corps Reserves during the Vietnam War but was never deployed. “This overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.”

The ambulance convoy numbered 15 by the time it reached the Baltimore Harbor Access Control Center at around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday. The delivery of fewer than 22 vehicles was planned – two broke down on the road and five were unsuccessful in Virginia – although all the ambulances could still make it to Ukraine, if repaired in time.

Some of the 27 volunteer drivers wake up just after midnight to prepare for the 3am departure. All battled against the glaring morning sun, as it rose during the journey of about 170 miles.

Brock Bierman, former president and CEO of Ukraine Friends and founder of a group called Volunteer Ambulance Corps, arrived at the port after another driver – his ambulance was one of two given out on the last trip.

“It hasn’t been used in years,” he said of the ambulance, which he bought from a used car dealer. “We reconditioned them as best we could.”

Bierman, 58, lives in Lyndhurst, Virginia, and previously served as chief of staff for the US Bureau of International Development for Europe and Eurasia. He was a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives three times.

Since May, the non-profit organizations Ukraine Friends and Volunteer Ambulance Corps have donated and delivered 90 ambulances to Ukraine. Most have been handed over to the country’s Territorial Defense Forces, the reserve branch of Ukraine’s military.

“Part of the program is to actually get them to the front lines,” says Bierman, chronicling his several trips to Ukraine. “You see rockets overhead coming into apartment buildings and houses.”

During an informal assessment he conducted of the needs of Ukrainians in one visit, he said, “the problem that kept coming up was ambulances.”

Until now, the vehicles have been sourced from other European countries. The fleet to be dispatched from Baltimore is the first coordinated by Bierman from the US, with an estimated cost of under $10,000, including shipping and customs fees.

Bierman first saw the ambulance at a used car repair shop on the side of Route 11 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. When he asked to buy a lot, the owner “looked at me as if my head was wrong,” he recalls.

Hitting volunteer drivers is easier; many came from the Rotary International club in Virginia, Bierman said, adding that in some cases the organization had partnered with Ukraine Friends to buy ambulances.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen,” Beltrone said of her current involvement in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

When she ran into Bierman a few weeks ago at a military memorabilia show in Louisville, Kentucky, she jumped at the opportunity to drive one of the ambulances herself.

“It was hard,” he said of the trip. He chose ambulance #70, he explained, because “seven is my lucky number.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been met with humanitarian relief efforts across the US. In Maryland, Baltimore residents have invested in causes, rallying around community fundraisers.

“There are many people who care with their hearts and minds for this war to end,” said Karina Mandell, who was born in Ukraine and chairs the Baltimore-Odesa Sister City Committee.

But as the war continued, he sensed that some of the Ukrainian supporters had lost heart.

“We have challenges in our own backyard and challenges in our country,” said Mandell.

Organizers are planning a spring 5K race around Patterson Park to raise more funds and are in talks with the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Preparedness and Response about a possible shipment of 1,500 ventilators to Ukraine, based on an earlier donation from the state.

The Ukraine Friends ambulance was scheduled to leave port on a cargo ship March 20, initially destined for Hamburg, Germany, Bierman said.

Mark McCray, senior project manager at DHL Global Forwarding, said it was his first time managing such work, but playing a role in global relief efforts was nothing new for the shipping company.

The Port “is extremely proud to be actively involved in humanitarian initiatives,” said William Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, in a statement to The Sun. Doyle said the port would be interested in supporting “like-minded projects in the future.”

In April, Bierman plans to chase an ambulance in Germany. He asked about including himself in the delivery, as an escort, but was turned down, he said.

Once in Ukraine, the vehicles will be distributed by the leaders of the Territorial Defense Forces. In talking to Ukrainian doctors and soldiers, Bierman said he learned that one ambulance could potentially save an average of 200 lives per month.

“We saved thousands of lives with these ambulances coming from the United States,” he said.

The diesel vehicle is in better condition than any other Bierman has delivered so far, he said. Still, he estimated they would only last 30 to 60 days on land before being rendered unusable, a fate he attributed to the damage caused by Russian shelling.

On March 5, Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian news website, reported that medic Yana “Yara” Rykhlitska, 29, died near Bakhmut when her ambulance was “ran over”. A missile attack on an emergency ambulance was blamed for the death of an American volunteer in Bakhmut last month, according to a CNN report.

Bierman said he will now turn his attention to Ukraine Focus, a recently revived and renamed nonprofit, where he will continue to coordinate ambulance donations with the Volunteer Ambulance Corps. He said he looked forward to the day when such relief efforts were no longer needed.

“I hope the war ends tomorrow,” he said. “I wish it was over today, actually.”

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