3 Premature Babies Evacuated From Ukraine By Tampa Volunteers

TAMPA, FL — Three premature babies have been whisked to safety from Ukraine to Poland by the Tampa-based nonprofit group, Project Dynamo.

Co-founder Bryan Stern, a decorated veteran of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, said the volunteers were asked to evacuate the babies from the war zone due to heavy shelling and explosions taking place near the hospital in Kyiv.

Stern said the artillery explosions were close enough for the volunteers to hear and feel them as two doctors, two neonatal specialists, a nurse and a Ukranian ambulance crew helped them evacuate twin American baby boys and a British baby girl.

"While departing, the capital, the city of Kyiv was being shelled by Russian artillery within earshot of the hospital," Stern said.

The hospital feared the newborns would die from an explosion or if it lost power to the ventilators and other medical equipment helping to keep the babies alive.

The babies were loaded inside their incubators onto an ambulance and escorted by Project Dynamo's team to Hospital Pro-Familia in Rzeszow, Poland, where they were met by their families and members of the British and U.S. Consular service, said Project Dynamo spokesman James Judge.

Project Dynamo<br>Premature twin baby boys Lenny and Moishe were evacuated from a hospital in Kyiv by the volunteers with Project Dynamo.
Project Dynamo
Premature twin baby boys Lenny and Moishe were evacuated from a hospital in Kyiv by the volunteers with Project Dynamo.

The volunteers also evacuated two Ukrainian women and a British couple during the mission.

Stern said the convoy containing the ambulance and rescuers had to pass through a dozen checkpoints inside Ukraine as it made its way to safety.

"When you approach these checkpoints, it's incredibly scary because the guns are out," Stern said. "There are lots of machine guns, sometimes armored vehicles, all kinds of stuff. So, if you're a civilian, if you're just a housewife or something like that and you have two little kids that are traveling with you like we had the other day, it's scary."

Stern said his volunteers are trained to deal with checkpoints and potentially hostile encounters.

“That’s just part of what we do," Stern said, noting that, among the volunteers, are former American military intelligence and special operations officers. "We are experienced in handling these situations."

The Tampa nonproft group has been evacuating Americans from the war zone for the past two weeks.

Derived from the code name issued to the British Dunkirk evacuation operation of World War II, Project Dynamo is an all-volunteer nonprofit made up of decorated U.S. veterans and active military members.

They formed the nonprofit last year to rescue American citizens trapped in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan when the U.S. pulled out of the country.

Stern said he saw a television interview with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired general, who said the U.S. didn't have the capability to fly in and out of Kabul airport to rescue Americans in Afghanistan.

"Then Bryan just said, 'Let's do it ourselves,' " recalled fellow decorated veteran, Matt Herring, the CEO of Ultra Defense Corp. in Tampa.

Stern, president of John Paul Jones Consulting International LLC, recruited Stan Bunner, a multi-tour combat veteran of the Global War on Terror who now operates his own law firm in Naples. Another decorated veteran, Sean Patrick, soon followed.

"We got visas the first thing Monday morning, hit REI for supplies and headed to the airport," Stern said. "Once we had boots on the ground, we started evacuating people."

That was a week before the Aug. 31 U.S. withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan.

Between August and December, the group evacuated more than 2,000 Americans from Afghanistan after the Kabul airport was closed. The group set up a network of safe houses in neighboring countries and secreted American men, women and children past Taliban checkpoints to safety. Then they arranged for passage on military transports and other aircraft to the United States.

Now, they're doing likewise in Ukraine.

After hearing rumblings of a Russian attack on the country, Project Dynamo members arrived in Ukraine in January to line up buses to transport evacuees, map out routes and develop strategies for getting American citizens out of the country.

There is no U.S. embassy in Ukraine and the U.S. State Department isn't able to launch evacuations in a country in which it has no representation, Stern said.

"The U.S. government made it clear there would be no help for American citizens stuck in the region. When we heard that, we knew it was time for us to begin planning Dynamo-led evacuations,” said Matthew Herring, co-founder of Project Dynamo. “As always, our mission is to never leave an American behind.”

Within hours after Russia began bombing the country with cruise missiles, Stern and his team were making the 18-hour journey to Budapest, Hungary with a busload of American evacuees.

Since then, the group has completed 14 missions throughout Ukraine, rescuing more than 150 people, Judge said.

In advance of the Russian invasion, Project Dynamo volunteers contacted embassies and officials in Hungary, Poland and Romania and made arrangements with those countries to provide safe harbor for the evacuees.

The volunteers fund the effort with their own money and through donations, both of which are getting low, said Stern.

See related story: Americans Evacuate Ukrainian War Zone With Tampa Nonprofit's Help

“The buses don’t pay for themselves; the airplanes don’t pay for themselves," Stern said. The nonprofit also funds hotels and pays for COVID-19 tests for the evacuees, who aren't charged anything.

Stern said the nonprofit is facing other challenges as well.

"Gasoline is hard to find, food is hard to find, safe havens are hard to find, all kinds of stuff," Stern said.

Despite the money constraints, danger and hardships, Stern said he and his fellow volunteers feel it's their patriotic duty to help.

“I’ve been doing the country’s bidding for my entire adult life,” Stern said, who was among the first American troops deployed to Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “One way or the other, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been helping Americans, helping the country, supporting and defending the constitution.”

Although Project Dynamo was formed to evacuate Americans who have found themselves trapped in countries after war broke out, Stern said the volunteers are there to help regardless of the person's nationality.

"While our primary focus is and remains getting Americans out, we are also aiding some residents of neighboring countries who are desperate to flee the war-torn country.”

Judge said the group has received more than 14,000 requests to evacuate American citizens as well as citizens of other NATO countries, including France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Nigeria, Poland and Romania. Many of the evacuees, he said, are children and the elderly and have also included a pregnant woman, a team of journalists, even two dogs and cat.

“While our primary focus is and remains getting Americans out, we are also aiding some residents of neighboring countries who are desperate to flee the war-torn country," said Judge.

Their mission has become more precarious as the war escalates, Stern said.

In Kyiv, the largest city in Ukraine, chaos reigns as both desperate Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians make a mad dash to get out of the country, he said.

"We drove through some crazy places. We're seeing people fleeing everywhere you look. In Kyiv, it is definitely an active combat environment," Stern said.

Stern said they've witnessed Russian and Ukrainian armored tanks are rolling through Kyiv as military helicopters and fighter planes fly above.

"There are Russian GRU agents (previously the KGB) throughout the city. And the Russians are bringing crematoriums into Kyiv on trailers to burn the bodies of the dead," he said.

Nevertheless, Stern said they intend to remain in-country as long as evacuees need help.

Those requesting evacuations are encouraged to sign up for through the U.S. State Department's STEP program or they can fill out a request with Project Dynamo here.

To donate to Project Dynamo, a registered nonprofit, click here.

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch