The Post seeks truth on the ground in war-torn Ukraine as civilians face fight for the future: ‘Freedom is worth dying for’

WASHINGTON – As a reporter on The Post’s national politics team in the nation’s capital, I’ve been covering the Ukraine War from the confines of the Pentagon since Russia launched its full-scale invasion more than two years ago.

But when Ukraine began losing ground due to dwindling ammunition supplies, and with some in Congress questioning the worthiness of continued military aid, I felt a journalistic duty to trade the safety of Washington for a war zone to discover why Western weapons are so critical to Kyiv’s fight.

In the lead-up to the two-year anniversary of full-scale war, the Senate passed a bill that would provide about $60 billion in aid to the country. But so far, Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to put the bill up for a vote in the House.

NY Post reporter Caitlin Doornbos reports from Ukraine.

As the future of Ukraine aid hangs in the balance, we at The Post felt we could serve our readers by bringing you to the scene with reports, videos and photos of what’s really happening there – and why it matters.

On the frontlines

It took two days, two flights and a train ride across the Polish border to reach the war-torn country. I spent the next three weeks traveling throughout Ukraine – from the battlefields to the capital Kyiv – seeking out the truth first-hand.

The most impactful parts of my trip were, admittedly, the most dangerous. From entering top secret Ukrainian repair bases to interviewing troops on the frontlines amid the unsettling sound of artillery fire, I faced the gritty reality of war head-on.

New York Post reporter Caitlin Doornbos in a military vehicle during her trip to Ukraine. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

It was hell on Earth. But even in the scariest times – such as when Russian jets roared overhead – I was put at ease by the troops’ gushing admiration for the American weapons that the Pentagon has sent over the past two years.

In particular, Sergiy, the commander of a firing unit I visited, swooned over the heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. We sat in one as I tried to ignore the bone-rattling booms of nearby artillery.

“These things save lives,” he said, assuring me that the vehicle would protect us should the Russian shells find their mark.

“My men are confident going to the fight if they’re in these.”

A Ukrainian soldier showing Doornbos a weapon. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

It didn’t fully settle my nerves as I tried to ignore the sounds of war nearby. But I wanted to believe it.

And though I’ve embedded many times with US troops in training scenarios over the years, it wasn’t until then, with the rapid rumble of enemy gunfire blasting in our direction, that I realized the true value of American-made military equipment.

In its weapon designs, the Pentagon has long understood that it’s not enough to deliver the most lethal capabilities possible; it’s equally important to ensure equipment keeps its most valuable assets – the troops – as safe as possible.

This concept stands in stark contrast to that of Soviet-era equipment on which Russia relies.

A Ukrainian commander told The Post that Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have “saved lives” during the war. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

“Ukraine is different from Russia – we value the lives of our soldiers and therefore we are seeking technological advantages over the enemy in order to save the lives of soldiers and defend our land,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week.

Close call

After that experience, I wrote an article about Western weapons leveling the field for the Ukrainian army, allowing it to take on one of the largest military forces in the world. But it wasn’t until later that I learned how true it really was.

Just a day after my embed with Sergiy’s unit, I received word that the same MRAP in which I’d interviewed him had been struck with an anti-tank missile.

The MRAP vehicle toured by Doornbos was hit by an anti-tank missile a day later. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

In a video sent from a trench dugout on the frontlines, Sergiy recalled that just an hour after my embed ended, his crew responded to a “combat alarm” calling for cover fire for their fellow troops under attack.

The next morning – hours into the fight – the story he told to calm my nerves proved all too true.

“I was in the tower [of the MRAP] behind the machine gun and had just started shooting,” Sergiy said. “Suddenly, there a pile of smoke, an explosion, and my eyes went black.”

Russian forces had struck the vehicle directly, but due to the quality of the American-made vehicle, Sergiy said he “looked around to see that we were not injured.”

But the MRAP’s transmission had broken in the strike, so they could not drive away. Knowing the Russians were likely planning a second strike, his team gathered what they could from the vehicle – a single, precious M2 .50-caliber machine gun – and climbed out of the vehicle.

The MRAP on fire after the attack. The Ukrainian troops fortunately survived. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

Though Sergiy and his troops survived, the MRAP did not fare as well. In a photo he later sent me, the vehicle was consumed in flames after an Iranian kamikaze drone crashed into it and exploded, burning up the cab and tower I’d sat in just a day earlier.

Making do

With resources running low without additional US aid, Ukrainian forces cannot afford to send anything to the dump. Instead, equipment like the MRAP is taken to secret repair facilities scattered across the country, where troops work around the clock to get the critical equipment back on the battlefield.

I visited two such facilities in separate, undisclosed locations kept highly secret dues to the vital nature of the work done there. Knocking out such a facility would be a big strategic win for Moscow, so I was asked to power off any electronics before I left — in case Russian hackers were tracking my movements.

As I approached under the cover of darkness, I was spooked by a sudden air raid alarm, warning of incoming missiles in the starry, midnight sky. But once inside, any fear I’d had melted away as I spoke with Ukrainian troops sweating over broken equipment.

There, I saw how intently Ukraine cares even for destroyed western weapons — equipment that the US military might otherwise trash. Everything salvageable is kept for future use elsewhere.

Ukrainians have learned to cannibalize equipment as they wait for new shipments of spare parts from the US that may never come.

“Artillery sweat saves infantry blood,” one of the repair facility soldiers told me, explaining the importance of returning such equipment to the battlefield. It’s a phrase that’s become popular among Ukrainian troops who have seen the difference that western weapons have made in their fight.

A Ukrainian mechanic working on a military vehicle at a repair center. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

I watched in awe as they welded together scraps of American-made equipment they’d taken from other destroyed weapons. Though it’s been months since the facility has received a shipment of spare parts, billions of dollars worth of US-sent equipment was given new life with a little Ukrainian ingenuity.

“Now we do not have irreversible losses,” the facility’s commander said, grinning with pride.

But the practice won’t last long without additional aid shipments, as saving one broken weapon means stripping down others. For example, it takes roughly three destroyed M777 Howitzers artillery pieces to provide enough parts to restore one to working order, technicians told me.

Human toll

But my trip wasn’t just about investigating the use of US-made weapons, it was also about witnessing what daily life is like for civilians in a modern, European country under constant barrage of Russian attacks.

Nowhere in Ukraine is safe. Even in the country’s capital with its regal, gold-domed cathedrals, the threat of incoming drones and missiles is a daily reality. There, I met a woman named Tatiana, who had just lost her father on Jan. 2 when a Russia-launched Shahed drone crashed into the Soviet-style apartment complex that served as her childhood home.

An apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Ukraine. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

“This is the apartment of my granny and parents,” she said as she took me for a tour of what remains of the wreckage. “I have many memories here – I grew up here, I married here, my daughter’s first steps were taken here.”

Passing through the threshold, I immediately noticed bloody handprints on the wall – proof of the brutalities her family suffered in the explosion. Not only did her father die in the blast, but her mother lost an eye and her grandmother’s skull was cracked.

She was stoic as she walked me to the site of the explosion: a glass door to a balcony just off the living room now held together with plywood. The impact had destroyed a full wall in the apartment, and she showed me where shards of glass had embedded in the doorframe of her parents’ bedroom 30 feet away.

Debris from the attack on the building. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

A room in one of the apartments of the building. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

In that moment, I asked how she could be so strong, but she simply replied, “What choice do I have?”

“A lot of civilians are suffering, but we are just people,” she said.

“Maybe there are top officials somewhere who know where to hide, but we’re trying to survive like cockroaches.”

Her stoicism briefly turned to anger when she told me about another family member she considers a casualty to Moscow. Her late father’s brother, who lives in Russia, has fallen victim to Kremlin propaganda, she said — and has so far refused to offer his condolences to the family.

A woman named Tatiana told The Post that she lost her father in a Russian drone strike on his apartment complex in January. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

“I have relatives and friends in Russia, but I hate all of them so much now, I cannot even tell you,” she said. “My uncle didn’t make any calls. He doesn’t believe the war is even happening.”

Still, she said she must stay strong for her mother and grandmother – as well as her seven-year-old daughter who doesn’t yet know her beloved grandpa is gone.

“They were very close, he was like an angel. They had a strong connection,” Tatiana said. “She thinks he moved to Dnipro for treatment, so she doesn’t know. And I’m not ready to tell her yet.”

Shared values

After covering this conflict from the Pentagon for two years, I thought I understood what’s at stake should Russia win. But it took meeting ordinary Ukrainians to realize there’s only so much you can learn from second-hand sources and government talking points.

Doornbos interviewing Ukrainians during her tour of the war-torn country. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

Doornbos and Ukrainian troops posing for a photo. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

Doornbos with a Ukrainian and a dog she met during the trip. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

The proof of war was everywhere – buildings stood empty and destroyed throughout the country, air raid alarms went off daily and I couldn’t walk down a street without seeing at least one Ukrainian soldier in uniform.

Yet through it all, Ukraine has stayed true to itself, displaying the national flag anywhere imaginable. In many ways, the country felt like the US did in the months after 9/11 — with patriotism abound and a solemn determination to preserve democracy.

On the frontlines, I routinely asked troops why they continued their fight. And their answers were surprisingly consistent: “Ukrainian values are freedom and democracy,” one after another told me, echoing our own American values that are all too often taken for granted.

Doornbos with a mug depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Biden. N.Y.Post/Caitlin Doornbos

Ukraine has worked too hard to dismantle the rigid system of the past since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to hand over their sovereignty to Vladimir Putin.

“Our freedom is worth dying for,” one soldier on the frontlines told me. “Life under Russian dictatorship is no life at all.”

Throughout my trip, Ukrainians treated me with reverence as an American, repeatedly offering heartfelt thanks for the roughly $42 billion in military aid the US has sent in the past two years — as if it had come from my tax dollars alone.

While they still need additional military aid, the impact past donations have had on their fight is not forgotten by those whose lives depended on it.

And I think that’s something we, as Americans, can take pride in.

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