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Vancouver Island man returns from Ukraine with a message

Darrell McKay wants to make sure Canadians don’t forget about the war-torn country

After a stint embedded with a Ukrainian unit training to fight the Russians, a Campbell River man is raising money to send stretchers to Ukraine because that’s one of two items the unit’s trainer said he needs.

“I asked Magnus, ‘if I could send two things, what would you need?’” Darrell McKay said. “And he says, ‘body bags and stretchers.’

“A sobering thing to say.”

McKay decided to focus on the stretchers. What they’re using in Ukraine, at least in some places, which is now 481 days into an invasion from neighbouring Russia, is rope wound into a figure eight design.

“They’re putting the wounded on the rope and they’re pulling them out as quick as they can on a rope, which puts guys at risk (of a spinal injury),” McKay said.

So, the stretchers McKay is raising funds for are not big rigid carriers but portable ones worth $37 each and made out of cordura – “like backpack material,” he says. They can be folded up and stuffed in a backpack.

“And for $37 they can save a life,” McKay said.

McKay is not long back from his fourth trip to Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid. This trip wasn’t just spent embedded with a training unit, that was just a side activity that he was invited to. Most of the six weeks he was in Ukraine in April and May was working with a NGO (non-governmental organization) called Ukrainian Patriot, a small organization founded in Saskatchewan. He worked in their warehouse but that included a run to the eastern part of the country near the Russian border and close to the heavy fighting.

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“The closest we were to the Russian front was maybe 15k,” McKay said. “And we could see Bahkmut burning.”

The group McKay was with brought food, medical supplies and goods and even hot water tanks to the city of Kramatorsk in the area of the Russian border near the Crimea. There is a refugee shelter there for the people from Bahkmut.

“They had nowhere to shower, they just had, just kind of like, rooms to live in … (with) the money that I had raised, I bought a hot water tank for these people. And we installed that – or started – the install is done now. So these people living kind of in squalor now have hot water, they can shower at least now,” McKay said.

He also was involved in delivering food to liberated villages.

“And driving through there was pretty heartbreaking,” he said. “Every single building on the outskirts of town for miles and miles … (there) wasn’t an intact building.”

When delivering food to one town, they met a 94-year-old woman who was a refugee from Bahkmut.

“I couldn’t believe her hope, her determination and her faith in the people,” McKay said. “She said (through a translator), ‘I have faith in my boys. I’ll be home soon.’”

McKay was exposed to many incredible experiences during his six weeks in Ukraine – constant air raids and for the last week when he was in the east, it was “constant mortar attacks.”

He says Ukraine is a beautiful country, not unlike our own Canadian prairies in Saskatchewan. One moment, though, you’re in beautiful fields of canola in bloom and then you pass a bus that has numbers like 200 and 300 on the back. One number is the number of wounded and the other is the number of bodies being retrieved and being taken back to their families.

Another experience he had was falling in with a volunteer from Sweden with a military background providing training for the Ukrainian military. His name was Magnus, no last name given. Because McKay is a photographer, he was invited along on a live fire photo shoot with a group of about 14-16 young men. There was supposed to be tanks involved with the training session but they were called to the front.

“They’re just like us, there are kids that work in the grocery store or farm boys or whatever. They’re out there defending their country. They’re the real heroes,” McKay said.

McKay said he just doesn’t want Canadians to forget about Ukraine as the conflict wears on. So, he talks about his experiences and he’s doing the fundraiser for the stretchers. If you want to help out you can connect with his Facebook group, or email him at


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Alistair Taylor

About the Author: Alistair Taylor

I have been editor of the Campbell River Mirror since 1989. Our team takes great pride in serving our community.
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