LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — As the saying goes, “Old soldiers never die — they just fade away.”
But instead of fading away, 63-year-old Tom Brewer, a decorated and retired Army colonel and state senator, is headed to the front.
Brewer, who was seriously wounded and earned two Purple Hearts during six deployments in Afghanistan, is scheduled to be near the Russian lines in the war in Ukraine this week in Kharkiv. The second-largest city in the country has been the target of relentless shelling by the Russians in June.
A competitive sniper, Brewer’s initial mission was to train Ukrainian soldiers on long-range rifles and check on the humanitarian needs of war refugees, the wounded and civilians still in the country. But it has morphed into a volunteer fact-finding trip that he thinks America should be undertaking.
‘No Americans here’
“There’s no Americans here, no State Department. You gotta have someone to tell the story of what’s going on here,” Brewer said in a phone interview on Friday.
“That’s become more of my mission — be the conduit to share with the world what’s happening here.” he said.
Through Friday, the old soldier has met with the mayors of Lviv and Kyiv, toured a 1,000-bed hospital overcrowded with 4,000 wounded soldiers, visited Ukraine’s war memorial, and attended a solemn funeral for several fighters killed in the war.
Brewer was the subject of a newspaper story in Lviv after his meeting with the mayor, and has conducted more than one interview with Nebraska media, including a radio station in Gordon, in his northwest Nebraska legislative district.
‘A burning hate for Russians’
He said he’s seeing no quit in the Ukrainians he has met during his first week touring the war-torn country.
“They have a burning hate for the Russians and after seeing their people killed and their homes burned, they are in for the long fight,” Brewer said.
“They have lived under the Russian/Communist thumb before and they will die before they will do it again,” he added.
Before Brewer arrived in Ukraine on June 26, he underwent a treatment for leukemia which he’s been battling in recent months.
He figures he’s good to go for 60 days. He is also keeping an eye on developments in Nebraska, where state senators might be called back into special session when he returns to debate a bill to ban abortion.
In Ukraine, he said he’s seeing destruction unlike any he saw in Afghanistan.
“The Russians have systematically demolished these towns, the city hall, the schools, the homes are destroyed,” he said. “They literally go out of their way to leave destruction behind.”
Russia, Brewer said, appears to be running out of precision-aimed, guided missiles. Thus the damage is becoming more random.
He said he didn’t ask permission to go to Ukraine — he’s paying for his own expenses, and isn’t acting in any official capacity. His “team” on the trip is a buddy from Elmwood, Nebraska, an Australian and an interpreter.
“I have a mix of soldiers and pastors helping me,” Brewer added. His duffel bags got lost during the flight to Poland, he said, so he had to buy new clothes, a helmet and armored vest “off the streets.”
For security reasons, he didn’t want to disclose his exact itinerary.
Close to front
Brewer said that as of Friday, he hadn’t faced any threatening situations, but that could change when he gets to Kharkiv. He described where he will be in relation to the Russian lines as the difference between Bellevue and North Omaha.
“There’s things we need to go and see. And that’s the risk you take,” Brewer said.
“I probably should be home mowing the grass, playing with my grandkids, and running the dog,” he said. “But this is history.”
“If we don’t help the Ukrainians I think you’ll see American soldiers fighting a war over here. So let’s give them what they need.”
June was an especially tough month for the Ukrainians, Brewer said. Losses were mounting, and the Russians have them out-numbered and out-gunned, he said.
Weapons from West delayed
The main problem, Brewer said, is that shipments of long-range munitions coming from the West are being delayed by logistical problems, including damage to railroad lines in Ukraine.
Brewer said he’s hoping to help solve that problem through advice to the State Department. If the Ukrainians can get more modern weapons, and get trained on them, he said they could go on the offensive.
While in Kyiv, Brewer said he visited the U.S. Embassy, but the only people there were security staff.
“These (Ukrainians) are so excited to have an American here who isn’t afraid of dying,” he said. “It ought to be our diplomatic staff that’s doing this … it’s what needs to be done.”
“I’m going to get eyeball to eyeball with folks and find out what’s going on.”
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