'It's not just some faraway country': former service member recounts time in Ukraine as invasion continues
BATON ROUGE - Sounds of air raid sirens and gunfire mixed with harrowing images from Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine are troubling for anyone to watch. For Will Mari, who spent time in the eastern European country and got to know many residents, that feeling is amplified.
"I was thinking about what is happening to them," said Mari, now a professor at LSU. "Are they running away? Are they staying inside? It's really scary to be in a war zone and to hear all that. It's absolutely terrifying."
Mari spent eight years in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He traveled to Ukraine in the summer of 2017 for an exercise with the Ukrainian Navy, spending time in the southern port city of Odessa, which is now in the middle of the conflict.
"I was struck by just how similar it felt to the West," Mari recounted. "I thought it would be more like Russia, but it felt like its own separate country. I was struck by how beautiful it was [with] lots of sunflower fields, pretty ocean, [the] Black Sea. Just a really gorgeous place."
While there, Mari was able to get to know his counterparts in the Ukrainian Navy.
"The typical Ukrainian military person is a volunteer," Mari said. "A lot of them are from, not just Ukraine, obviously, but from close to where all this is happening. Many of them have family, of course, in Ukraine and are very invested in Ukraine. They don't have to do this, but they have chosen to serve their country like our military does."
Even five years removed from his time in Ukraine, Mari says he got the sense that the country and its residents were always aware of the country to the east.
"They definitely felt the presence of Russia, and definitely felt it was the big brother next door," Mari said. "I think that they are, and were, trying to assert their independence as a different country."
As some families evacuate, and others take shelter from the growing conflict, Mari says the United States and its residents should continue to pay attention while also offering any and all assistance.
"I think it's tempting to forget about that part of the world and dismiss it as far away, but it's really the place where the future is going to be determined," Mari said. "It's not just some faraway country, it's our friends, so I think we should help."
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