As Russian airstrikes and armed incursions force thousands of Ukrainians to flee their country, a group of U.S. military special operations veterans headed toward the danger this week to rescue orphaned children.
Nashville-based Aerial Recovery Group, a global emergency management nonprofit, is helping facilitate the evacuation and fostering of “as many of the thousands of Ukrainian orphans as possible” in a mission dubbed Ukraine Orphan Rescue.
Ret. Green Beret Jeremy Locke, Chief of Operations for Aerial Recovery Group and leader of the mission, told American Military News that the mission began this week in Poland near its border with Ukraine and the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
From there, his initial team of five veterans — most of whom are from the special operations community — are working with other [non-government organizations], Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian nationals to locate orphanages and facilitate the protection and transportation of hundreds of children, as well as anyone else who “can’t physically get themselves west to the border,” including the elderly or disabled.
To meet the demands of the mission, Locke said his team will likely grow to 10 personnel in the coming days.
Aerial Recovery Group is working quickly and collaboratively with a number of other nonprofits to rescue the orphans, including Force 4 Hope, a Christian group that aims to address the needs of orphans around the world, and Global Empowerment Mission, a global disaster response group.
“This is different than an earthquake or something – there’s bombing and it’s an active warzone,” Locke said. “So time is of the essence.”
Once his team and other operators move the Ukrainian orphans across the border into Poland, groups like Force 4 Hope will take control of the children.
“They have temporary sites with foster care and they’re already starting to line up adoptions and everything for these kids when they come across,” Locke said, noting that Aerial Recovery Group never conducts a rescue “unless we know there’s a safe place for them to go and we’ve vetted and trust the organization that we’re passing them off to.”
The mission is expected to take at least 30 days, but it will more likely last 90 days to six months, he said, noting that a “mass exodus” is underway, with “tens of thousands” to “hundreds of thousands” of people making their way through Ukraine to escape across its borders into neighboring nations.
“To cross into Poland right now, at some of the crossing points, the wait is over 20 miles long, and it’s taking about four days to get across the border,” Locke said.
Locals in the region have been overwhelmingly supportive of their effort, offering Aerial Recovery Group additional volunteers, a house to stay in, a warehouse where they can keep supplies, and even intelligence on Ukrainian defensive positions, including mined roads so “we can avoid them with our movements out there.”
Highlighting Aerial Recovery Group’s connections in the region, during American Military News’ interview with Locke, he received an intelligence update from the General Staff of the Armed Services of Ukraine that said 5,710 Russian soldiers have been killed in action, and 198 Russian tanks, 20 Russian helicopters, and 7 Russian air defense systems have been destroyed.
Despite the mission taking place in an active war zone, Locke said his team of primarily special ops veterans will not carry weapons as they move through Ukraine, operating strictly as noncombatants.
“While I would normally try to move tactically and not be seen, I’m going to have the team very overt in this one. We’re not going to be carrying weapons, the set of medics will be identified as medical personnel, those with cameras will be identified as press or photographers, and we’re going to move around that way,” Locke said, adding that he understands the gravity of being unarmed in an active war zone without the “ability to call in air support…or even shoot back.”
When asked how his team of veterans felt about entering a war zone unarmed, Locke laughed and said he was “surprisingly ok with the concept.” As a Christian, Locke said he prays about missions with his wife Britnie Turner – founder and CEO of Aerial Recovery Group – and feels called to serve civilians impacted by war.
“I pray about where I’m going to go with my wife before we decide to go. And when I get there, I’m there because I really want to be there. I spent so much time in the military being focused on the enemy. Then you see civilians that might be suffering around you and [you] can’t always help them. So that really struck a chord with me,” Locke said. “And now I’m very called to and feel passionate about assisting those that are affected by those disasters, particularly with this situation in Ukraine because of my past military experience. I’m actually very comfortable going in there because it’s what my calling is and the team that I put together, they feel the same way.”
Locke described the situation in Ukraine as “desperate.” He’s even received messages from people willing to pay him $20,000 to recover individuals stuck in the battle-scarred country.
“It breaks my heart. I always just answer them back, ‘Don’t worry about the money. If it falls within our operational scope and we’re able to do that, we will do our best to help you in that situation.’” Locke explained.
Locke said his drive to help people stems from his military experience. After retiring, the former Green Beret went through depression, medication, counseling, and a PTSD diagnosis before finding his way to Aerial Recovery Group. Now that he is able to serve again, “all of that stuff” has started to go away.
“So, my passion is to grow this organization as large as I can just to provide opportunities for former military to continue to serve and, hopefully, through healing others, they can heal themselves,” he said. “We’re a nonprofit. We’re not going in there for the money. It’s very dangerous, but we’re very willing to put our lives on the line because we want to defend innocent people.”
Locke said he has also witnessed a lot of “patriotism” among Ukrainians who want to get into the country to help fight against the Russian invasion. Other Ukrainians and even Russian citizens have contacted him to see how they can support humanitarian efforts.
“I would say it’s pretty equal [between Russians and Ukrainians looking to help]. They’re like, ‘I’m from here in Russia. Can I donate to you guys?’ So there are actual Russian citizens who have been reaching out and seeing how they can support what’s going on over there,” Locke said. “And I know they’re very monitored and censored, but there are those people in Russia that are willing to help as they can, too, and the consequences of them getting caught is pretty severe in that country.”
Even though he has “hung up the dog tags,” Locke said he always tries to approach a mission through the lens of a Green Beret, which operates by the motto “De Oppresso Liber” meaning “to liberate the oppressed.”
“I just want, and my team just wants, to do whatever we can to alleviate the pain of the innocent people that are affected by war,” Locke told American Military News. “As someone who’s been through it and been on multiple deployments – war steals people’s innocence. I just want to do my best to stand between those people who still have their innocence and war.”
To support Aerial Recovery Group’s mission in Ukraine, donate to Ukraine Orphan Rescue here.