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March 20, 2023

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Vancouver man on a mission in Ukraine

Mikhail Pavenko returns to his native nation as chaplain amid Russia’s invasion

By , Columbian staff writer
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8 Photos
Volunteer military chaplain and Vancouver resident Mikhail Pavenko, fourth from left, visiting Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv region in summer 2022. The soldier farthest left, in helmet, died three days later when a mortar hit his position, Pavenko said.
Volunteer military chaplain and Vancouver resident Mikhail Pavenko, fourth from left, visiting Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv region in summer 2022. The soldier farthest left, in helmet, died three days later when a mortar hit his position, Pavenko said. (Contributed by Mikhail Pavenko) Photo Gallery

When he hears that wicked whistling sound overhead, Mikhail Pavenko knows he’s only got a second or two to hit the ground.

“Get low. Kiss the Earth. That’s what they teach you to do when there is shelling,” Pavenko said. “Numerous times we had to take cover from Russian shelling.”

Pavenko, a Vancouver resident, emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 1996. But his ties to his native nation remain tight. Ongoing conflict with Russia has drawn him back to Ukraine as a volunteer military chaplain more than a dozen times.

Since Russia’s February invasion, Pavenko has traveled to Ukraine twice, for five weeks in June and July and for just over two weeks in October, he said.

“I saw a massive need for people who need help,” he said. “I saw people with massive trauma, people in physical pain, mental pain, moral pain. I wanted to feel useful.”

Still connected

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Pavenko’s parents were hungry for religious freedom and financial opportunity after a lifetime of persecution and oppression. They resettled their large family in the Tacoma area.

“I lived my life here very comfortably,” said Pavenko, who’s now 35, married and raising two young children.

He holds an iconic American job. As in the Glen Campbell song, Pavenko is “a lineman for the county.” He’s been climbing poles and fixing power lines for Clark Public Utilities since 2014.

That year, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its eastern flank, annexing the former and sparking a grinding, low-level conflict in the latter. It continued under the radar for many Americans until Russia’s current all-out war on Ukraine.

Pavenko’s first trip back to Ukraine was in 2015, when he prayed over the graves of two cousins killed by Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, he said.

“They were murdered for being Protestant,” Pavenko said. “They were murdered for practicing their Christian faith.”

Pavenko volunteered with a couple of his uncles, who are still pastors in churches in the dangerous east. Eventually he got trained as a military chaplain, working alongside medics with the Ukrainian army.

Cities of pain

On his earlier trips, Pavenko was able to fly into Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city. That’s no longer possible. This year, he landed in Warsaw, Poland, and met up with other volunteers to make an approximately 18-hour drive across the border and to Ukraine’s front line.

Military chaplains wear armor and helmets but don’t carry weapons, Pavenko said. They offer any kind of help to anyone who needs it, from spiritual comfort to grunt labor. Pavenko has delivered food to disabled and elderly people stuck in combat zones. He helped one family with roof repairs and helped coax a widow’s damaged washing machine back to life, he said.

Chiefly, he said, military chaplains visit soldiers on the front lines and hold the hands of the wounded as they’re sped toward medical care.

“You tell these guys, ‘You are going to make it. You are going to be OK,’ ” he said. “You try to keep them engaged mentally.”

Pavenko said he can never forget the tragedies he’s witnessed. In a big military hospital in the city of Dnipro, he sat with a severely disabled soldier who asked him to call home and deliver the news that he’d lost one hand and both feet in combat.

In Izium, Pavenko met a widow whose husband disappeared after he refused to let Russian troops take his private car. Two months later, the man’s body was discovered in a ditch, Pavenko said.

In Mariupol, Pavenko met a frantic mother whose child had been taken away at a checkpoint. He said the woman never learned what happened to her child, and remains terrified that the child is among the estimated 700,000-plus Ukrainian children who have been forcibly relocated and adopted into Russia.

That’s ethnic cleansing, Pavenko said, an attempt to wipe out the Ukrainian people. He recalled that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has advocated a version of history that considers Ukraine’s very existence to be “a mistake or accident.”

“One of the goals of this occupation is to erase Ukraine as an identity,” Pavenko said. “That is Hitler-like.”

Mariupol and Izium are just two of many cities that have been substantially destroyed. Mass graves and evidence of other atrocities have been uncovered after Russian troops withdrew again.

“Mariupol was such a beautiful city, a clean and thriving city on the coastline,” Pavenko said. “Now it is a city of pain.”

Regular dads

Pavenko has traveled to Ukraine as often as his concerned-but-supportive wife will let him, he said with a grin.

He said it’s surprisingly easy to keep in touch with his wife and children, ages 1 and 5, from over there.

“They have 5G everywhere in Ukraine,” he said. “I don’t know how they do that.”

In late November, Pavenko said he has no immediate plans to return to Ukraine. He has faith that, when he does, the war will be over.

“I’m planning on going next year, but hopefully it will be a victory day,” he said.

Russia’s superior military might and vast resources were widely expected to conquer Ukraine within a few weeks of this year’s invasion, Pavenko noted. But an entirely different reality unfolded, with Russian troops retreating in disarray from many Ukrainian cities they’d already taken.

Russia has resorted to lobbing missiles from afar, specifically targeting civilian infrastructure like heat, power and water systems. It’s a scorched-Earth policy that betrays desperation, Pavenko said.

“If they can’t take it, they’re going to level it,” he said. “Their goal is to make Ukraine unlivable.”

But the scrappy and well-supported Ukrainian military has shown surprising strength, smarts and heart, Pavenko said. Same goes for the civilian population.

“When I’m home, I’m a regular dad,” he said. “Many who are signing up to fight in Ukraine are regular dads. They are doing this out of love for their children and love for their nation.”

Thank you

His experiences in Ukraine have reshaped his domestic politics, Pavenko said. While proudly conservative, he said the Republican candidate for Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, Joe Kent, lost his vote — and the vote of many in the local Slavic community, he expects — by downplaying the invasion of Ukraine and calling Putin’s demands “reasonable.”

“People on either side who support modern-day Hitlers have no business in American politics,” Pavenko said.

He’s deeply appreciative of the United States’ unswerving support of Ukraine so far, Pavenko said. Likewise, when Ukrainians discover he’s actually an American, they always want to shake his hand and pass along their gratitude, he said. During his interview with The Columbian, Pavenko stressed again and again that the U.S., while not perfect, is recognized as a force for good around the world — and especially in Ukraine.

“People all over the world know, when there is a fight for freedom, America is always at the forefront,” he said.

That’s true of allied nations and people of conscience from all over the globe, he said. In the midst of so much misery in Ukraine, Pavenko has been moved to meet so many self-motivated soldiers, medics, chaplains and others who have come to help from places as far-flung as Finland, Sweden, Israel and the U.S.

“War brings out the very worst and the very best in people,” he said. “In Ukraine, I have met the best people of my life.”