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By Jeremy Stalnecker –
For ten days at the end of June and beginning of July, Susanne and I had the privilege of participating in a camp designed to serve Ukraine military members and their families.  I am in fact on the return flight home as I reflect on and write about some of the experiences had and lessons learned.  I hope to write three different blogs to capture as much as possible not only so that I do not forget, but so that I can share the highlights with others.  Before I share a list of some lessons learned for this first post, here is a brief summary of the trip.
Our team, flying from different states across the country, met up in Kiev the capital city of Ukraine.  Susanne and I went as teachers and representatives of Mighty Oaks and the rest of the team represented Cru Military Ministry.  We were met in Kiev by Cru Military missionaries of more than 25 years Jeff and Carol Laughlin.  Jeff and Carol are incredible servants with an amazing heart for the military families of Ukraine.  From Kiev we took a twelve-hour train ride to the Carpathian mountain region of western Ukraine where we prepared to meet the families who would attend. Here we met the Ukrainian members of our team who did the hard work of organizing and running the camp. With their help we taught and counseled soldiers and their families while trying to encourage them as they fight a very real war on their own soil.  In the process we made some great friends, had some unexpected opportunities and learned quite a few lessons.  As is often the case when we feel like we are going to be a blessing to others, we found that we were the ones who were truly blessed.  Some of the lessons learned during this time, in no particular order:

  1. There are some amazing people doing some amazing work that most of us will never know about. Throughout the week we met more people than I can count who are doing a work I did not even know existed. Men and women who are serving soldiers on the front line of an active war, ministering to the widows of the men who have lost their lives, and making sure the children have everything that they need to embrace a hope filled future.  It is easy to believe that we are the only ones working to make a difference, but believing we are alone does not make it true.
  2. People struggle in ways we could never imagine. Like most Americans who watch the news I knew there was a war taking place in Ukraine, but until this week, I did not understand the extent of that war and the impact on the people who are serving. We heard story after story of the death of loved ones in the war, more than 12,000 (the official number and what most people believe to be true does not match but the official number is around 12,000), of families torn apart choosing opposite sides, of year long deployments followed by three months of training for the next year long deployment again and again for four years, of spouses joining the military just so they can be with their husbands at the front as well as many other stories.  The struggle and the suffering are incredible but generally unknown outside of the country.  We never know what others are dealing with.
  3. We are not that different. As someone who works with military members and their families I was very interested to see how different those who serve in Ukraine are from those who serve in the U.S. My conclusion, they are not that different.  Those who serve and the families who support them have a connection that nation and language do not determine.  Not only are the traumas and difficulties created by war the same, but so are the solutions and the hope that take us forward.  We may have struggled to have conversations with a mix of broken English and even more broken Ukraine, but we never struggled to communicate.  At the human level, that thing that makes us who we are, we are not really that different.
  4. We all need friends and we all need people to believe in us. These families, in many ways, have no one that they can trust or share their experiences with. It was a great joy to get to know these men and women and develop relationships that, I hope, will last throughout our lives.  We had the opportunity to share some of our common struggles an exercise that, for many, was a first.  C.S. Lewis made a statement that I saw clearly play out during this trip. He said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”’ We can give hope when we simply share our own struggles and our path forward.
  5. When we learn about others the rest of our life comes into perspective. Meeting these wonderful folks and so many of the people who serve them has helped to bring a fresh perspective to my own life. It is so easy to get so caught up in the things that we are involved in that we forget there is a big world full of people doing really important things.  I believe that I can be a better more complete person by simply regaining the perspective that exposure to the lives of others provides.

I will share a few more thoughts in the coming days, but these are just a few of the standout lessons.  Thank you to all who made this opportunity possible and to the families who are holding the line in Ukraine.