After Afghanistan's fall, a Canadian veteran turned his grief into hope for Ukraine

After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Canadian combat veteran John Lowe felt he had a choice between 'anger' and action. He chose action — through a charity supplying civilian hospitals in Ukraine with badly needed medical supplies.

The HERO society has one shipping container of supplies en route to Ukraine, with more shipments planned

Canadian veteran injured in Afghanistan delivers medical aid to Ukrainian hospitals

1 year ago
Duration 2:18
Heartbroken by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a Canadian veteran injured in Afghanistan decided to take action by delivering medical supplies to Ukrainian hospitals.

Former corporal John Lowe was angry and overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness as he watched the breathtaking collapse of Afghanistan a year ago.

Everything he and other Canadian combat veterans had fought for there seemed to have been swept away in the wake of the Taliban takeover — a brutal event after two decades of unrelenting guerilla warfare.

The B.C. resident was just coming to terms with his disillusionment when Russian tanks roared across the border into Ukraine last winter.

"I remember some of the images coming out of Bucha and particularly an image of a child that had died," Lowe said, referring to the Kyiv suburb that has been the source of widespread reports of Russian troops murdering civilians. "It brought me back to some of those experiences that I had in Afghanistan."

The images, he said, made him "quite upset and angry." There was regret, mixed with a little guilt — a sense that he somehow hadn't done enough to help. 

But what could he do?

A choice between despair and hope

"I knew, at a certain point, that I would have to make a choice between being angry and miserable about what was happening to innocent people, or whether I was going to make a difference on my own," Lowe told CBC News.

Former Cpl. John Lowe rests during an operation on March 23, 2010, in Panjwaii, Afghanistan. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

He chose to make a difference. In late winter, Lowe went door-to-door at doctor's offices in Chilliwack, B.C., collecting medical supplies for civilian Ukrainian hospitals.

His efforts were rewarded with a few boxes of gauze. But Lowe collected business cards and persisted.

He researched the surplus and waste in Canadian hospitals. He wrote letters to health care facilities and assisted living homes.

Joining forces with other veterans and volunteers under the banner of the non-profit HERO Society — a group started by another former Canadian soldier, Steve Krsnik — the floodgates started to open.

WATCH | Combat veteran John Lowe explains why he's sending medical supplies to Ukraine:

What inspired a Canadian veteran to help Ukraine

1 year ago
Duration 0:57
Retired corporal John Lowe chose action over anger, which got him into collecting and delivering medical aid to Ukraine.

Soon they were collecting tourniquets, Quikclot (a hemostatic dressing for wounds), thermal imagers and a lot of bandages, said Lowe, who added that the initial focus was on medical supplies "requested by frontline soldiers."

They moved on to collecting bedsheets and hand-held medical instruments.

The HERO Society and Lowe were able to fill just a few suitcases at first. In late spring they started making runs into Ukraine, where more volunteers on the ground helped distribute the supplies to hospitals. Lowe personally delivered 26 suitcases in June.

The donations kept pouring in throughout the summer. Lowe and the other volunteers started getting donations of bigger things: hospital gurneys, stretchers and sophisticated monitoring equipment, items that had been decommissioned by local health authorities but were still in good condition.

Connections in Kyiv

Suddenly, they needed a sea container to move everything.

Enter Roman Sawychy, a consultant, business executive and president of Ukrainian-Canada Social Services in Vancouver. He has deep connections in Kyiv going back decades.

Sawychy has shipped five containers of humanitarian supplies to Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion.

He had seen the condition of hospitals in eastern Ukraine up close. When the HERO Society asked him for help, he said, he was onboard right away.

Last weekend in the Abbotsford, B.C. region, a 40-foot shipping container was loaded up with medical supplies collected by HERO volunteers for Ukraine. Sawychy said he hopes it's the first of many.

"As long as they supply equipment, we're going to keep shipping this equipment," he said.

The container will travel overland to Halifax, where it will be loaded on a container ship for Poland and then transported to the Ukrainian border. At some point, the shipment will have to be broken up for individual deliveries. The entire journey is expected to take a few weeks.

Waiting to receive the contents in Ukraine is another Canadian, 27-year-old Alex Nau. The Regina resident interrupted his masters studies in computer science to volunteer in the war-torn country.

He's been helping to ferry supplies and food to some of the hardest-hit regions of Ukraine. One such place is Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, which has been under constant shellfire since February. Another is Zaporizhzhia, a southern city that has at times been flooded by displaced civilians seeking safety and now sits on the edge of a potential nuclear disaster as fighting rages around a nearby reactor plant.

WATCH | A Canadian volunteer marvels at the toughness of Ukrainians:

A Canadian volunteer marvels at Ukrainians' resilience

1 year ago
Duration 0:49
Canadian HERO Society volunteer Alex Nau says he's deeply impressed by Ukrainians' ability to continue normal life in a war zone.

He said he has nothing but admiration for the Ukrainians.

"I can't believe how strong some people can be ... that people can still live in this and live through bombings all the time," Nau told CBC News from Kharkiv.

The strain showed on Nau's face as he told CBC News about the risks involved in running supplies into bombed-out hospitals and clinics. That stress is taking its toll, he said — but he doesn't want to leave until he knows the network he and others have built will be able to carry on without him.

Bracing for evacuation

"I usually wake up at 7 or 8 before mission days ... [I] got woken up at 6 in the morning the other day because there was bombs about five kilometres away," he said.

"The night before that, I got woken up at 4 in the morning — two explosions very, very close ... We had to get ready to possibly evacuate, and that happens quite often.

"And when the bombs are going off during the day, it's not too scary. Like, I'm kind of used to running in the middle of the night and you get woken up and you don't want to get out of bed but you have to ... That can be pretty scary sometimes."

Nau said it's all worth it, though.

It's also appreciated, said Vitaly Lynycky, a former web developer who acts as Nau's Ukrainian translator and guide. The two of them returned recently to the rubble-filled Kharkiv neighbourhood where Lynycky grew up to deliver food.

"I know every metre of this place," he told CBC News, adding the medical supplies that are on their way now are desperately needed.

"Many hospitals [are] bombed and doctors [still] need to make some operations in hospitals," Lynycky said.

The hospitals, he said, have "very big traffic" these days.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.