Danbury couple brings tactical gear to Ukraine: ‘The least we can do is help’

Photo of Alyssa Seidman

DANBURY — Olga Churiy hasn’t heard from her childhood friend in nearly two months.

Her friend, along with her family, was living in Mariupol when Russian forces seized the Ukrainian city in early March. They have been missing ever since.

“I don’t know if she’s alive or not,” said Churiy, who is from Ukraine.

Churiy emigrated to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, but she never forgot about her home country, she said.

“A lot of people will give you their last piece of bread, but there are a lot more people who will try to take advantage of you,” she said.

It was for this reason she and her husband, Don Kelly, Jr., decided to personally deliver supplies to the Ukrainian people to ensure the items ended up where they’re intended.

On March 28 the couple traveled to Warsaw, Poland, with eight bags, the bulk of which was body armor. Kelly is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army, so he had leftover gear.

As a former security contractor for the U.S. State Department, Kelly provided protection to embassy personnel in Iraq from 2004 to 2006. He worked with a small team using basic tactical items.

“I understand what the guy on the ground needs,” said Kelly, who grew up in Ridgefield. “These guys are going from Lviv to Kyiv in their personal vans that are not armored (or) camouflaged. … The kids sign up wearing sweatpants and sneakers

“These guys will volunteer with nothing and fight; the least we can do is help,” he said.

The couple shelled out $20,000 to purchase additional equipment. They packed the bags with bulletproof vests, boots, helmets, gloves, first-aid and trauma kits, night-vision binoculars, drones, elbow and knee pads, safety goggles, batteries, flashlights, sleeping bags and power banks.

Churiy said Ukrainian soldiers use the binoculars to drive at night so they can keep their headlights off and prevent the Russians from following their tracks.

“(It allows them) to move from point A to point B … without being killed,” she said.

Churiy’s father drove the couple eight hours from Warsaw to the Poland-Ukraine border, where they sat for another six hours. They finally crossed into Krakovets with the help of Churiy’s cousin, who is a colonel in the border patrol.

Everywhere they went, they were asked to show their passports. “You can’t just walk into any place,” Churiy said.

Kelly was struck by the checkpoints set up by the country’s volunteer defense forces. Over each position was a netting of homemade camouflage, he said, created with different materials tied together in knots.

Churiy networked with friends she knew from medical school to locate people in need of supplies. Kelly recalled meeting Ukrainian soldiers who were cutting steel into the size of vests, which they would wear during combat. When the soldiers were given a proper piece of body armor, Kelly said, they were “ecstatic.”

A poignant exchange occurred with one of the soldiers who insisted on giving Kelly his military beret. Kelly returned the favor by offering his American flag patch; the soldier doubled down by giving Kelly a Ukrainian flag patch.

“(To) see the faces of the people you’re helping and realize your small bit makes such an impact on other people’s lives, you can’t put a price on that,” he said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

The couple plans to travel to Ukraine on Easter Sunday to deliver another round of supplies to people in Kyiv, Churiy said. She said she wants to visit the nearby territories of Hostomel, Bucha and Irpin, which have endured fierce urban fighting.

The couple organized an online fundraiser shortly after their first trip to make this “next mission” more successful, Kelly said. Outside of monetary donations, the page asks anyone with specific supplies — including rifle optics, night vision and hiking and hunting gear — to email Kelly at dek5138@gmail.com if they wish to donate physical items.

“We hope any of this equipment we’re bringing can save someone’s life,” Churiy said. “Even if it’s just one, it’s better than nothing.”

To donate to the fundraiser, visit www.spotfund.com and search for “Don Kelly.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com