At 77, it was easy for the retired airline pilot and Florida businessman to take for granted a daily routine that included trips to Dunkin’, the dog park or the beach.
After selling his USGenerator business two years ago, life was good for the lifelong bachelor. William Broocke enjoyed writing a few pages a day for his second book at the rural Indian River County homestead that his father, a distinguished World War II aviator, bought in the 1960s.
But what would motivate him to disregard the U.S. Department of State’s “do not travel” advisory and head to Ukraine for a month?
It wasn’t that October was another monotonous month of heat and humidity or likely a final hurricane threat in Florida. Flying to Poland, then making two train connections en route to Ukraine, would yield firsthand research for a military novel Broocke has been working on, allow him to help people of a bullied country and connect him with a woman he had met online.
‘A lot of missiles and a lot of drone attacks’
“It was as I suspected – a lot of missiles and a lot of drone attacks,” he said of a monthlong trek into the middle of a war zone. “But I never felt at any time I was in danger.”
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On his second day at the Holiday Inn in Kyiv, air raid sirens sounded before he and other guests were ushered to basement shelters. Among his first thoughts underground: It was like being in a World War II movie, like Londoners in Nazi blitzkriegs.
“Keep calm and carry on,” words repeated in England during that time, describes how Ukrainians handled the sirens, evacuations, rolling blackouts and sounds of gunfire and explosions, he said.
Early on, a guide took him to a park about a mile from the hotel. The park memorializes 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko with a monument.
The next day, Broocke said, rockets hit about 50 feet from where he had stood, learning about and appreciating Shevchenko’s “My Testament.” The poem shows the writer’s love for his unique Ukrainian homeland, often victimized by invaders.
It seemed more dangerous in Vietnam
The attacks took Broocke back to 1970-71 in South Vietnam, when he said he flew 96 sorties delivering cargo for the U.S. Air Force in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules.
“It was far worse back then,” he said, citing the frequency of attacks, including one time when his plane was destroyed while sitting empty on an airfield.
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“I was never scared (of the attacks in Kyiv),” Broocke said. “To get to me personally they would really have had to have saturation-bomb that place.”
It seemed more dangerous in Vietnam, he said. There, while the enemy lurked, he had to land a loaded C-130 on 3,000-foot (less than half the length of Vero Beach Regional Airport’s longest runway) landing strips lit only with smudge pots and having little visibility in the rain.
“That got my attention,” he said.
‘The Russian savagery will water your eyes’
In Ukraine, Broocke, an amiable type, sought color for his novel about an unlikable U.S. fighter pilot who wants to battle an infamous Russian top gun.
He befriended an intelligence officer and traveled with him into the battered Kyiv suburbs. He said he saw evidence of and heard about Russians attacking civilians leaving cities, bombing apartment buildings and raping women and young boys. Evidence of war crimes has been reported in the U.S. news media.
“There’s something that happens to you when you see a bombed out city,” he said of a suburb he visited.
He had to see it for himself.
“In war, they say truth is the first casualty,” Broocke said, noting he discounted about 50% of what he heard. “But the Russian savagery will water your eyes.
“They’re like locusts – they steal everything in sight.”
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‘Conceptualize the fear and anxiety the Ukrainians face’
Westerners can’t understand how despicable the invaders’ actions have been. U.S. soldiers obey the law. If they don’t, they face court-martial.
“We have no frame of reality to attach these (war-crime allegation) stories to,” Broocke said, adding that Americans take so much for granted.
“Here we are, living our lives, doing our routines daily and we can’t conceptualize the fear and anxiety the Ukrainians face,” he said. “They are very stoic people. Everybody’s a little scared.”
He appreciated Ukrainian women he met, like the two traveling with children on the 18-hour train ride between Warsaw and Kyiv. The daughter of a Pentecostal minister and her friend were traveling with three children, to whom he gave U.S.-Ukraine flag pins after they ended up in his cabin.
They didn’t speak English but knew he was thirsty, hungry and tired. They gave him room to lie down and sleep. When he awoke, they were gone, but had left him with bottles of water and a fruit basket.
A handwritten note said, “Bon appetit. God bless you.”
Another time he was dining with a woman who didn’t speak English well. He was coughing. She excused herself. A few minutes later she returned with cough drops she bought at the pharmacy down the block.
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‘I’ve got to die of something’
The warmth he felt and the suffering he saw motivated him to volunteer as part of a group of Westerners with military experience who train the military, help in search and rescue and deliver humanitarian aid.
He was not called to duty but would go back to help in a heartbeat, noting that things could be worse than dying on the front lines at the hand of a Russian sniper.
“You have a false feeling of immortality. I’m 77 years old; I’ve got to die of something. I’m going to do what I want to do now.”
One of the most touching moments he had was his last night in a Kyiv club, where patrons knew rolling blackouts would keep things dark until after 9 p.m. As soon as the lights went on, the band and crowd, at the top of their voices, celebrated with a rousing rendition of a patriotic Ukrainian song.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we have that kind of unity in our country?’ ” Broocke said. “The Ukrainians are very patriotic; they love their country; they love (President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy. But they are in desperate need of weapons.”
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He said he had dinner that night with a younger woman he had met online. Her mother lived in Russian-occupied Kherson and had been cut off from the outside world. The two hadn’t communicated in months. Only after Broocke left Ukraine was Kherson liberated.
Broocke contrasted the daily struggle in Ukraine with U.S. news coverage of politics.
“The issues that I formerly thought were important (here) seem so trite and insignificant compared to what I saw over there,” he said. “The people there are facing life and death.”
Nothing compared, however, with when his plane touched down on the return trip.
“When I landed in Miami, I thought how great it was to be home,” Broocke said. “There’s nothing like the good, old USA.
“We really have something good and we don’t want to screw it up.”
Broocke’s first book, “Flight of the Black Stork,” is available on Amazon.
Laurence Reisman is the community editor and columnist for Indian River County, Fla. at TCPalm, where this column first ran. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurenceReisman