ORONO, Maine — Kyle Parker remembers the fear coursing through his body during a January visit to a pediatric hospital in Kherson, Ukraine The walls shook and the windows rattled, and it felt like Russian forces were walking artillery closer and closer into the hospital, which had been hit a few days before, he said.
As this happened, Parker said he spoke with the hospital’s director, who oversaw a 1,300-person staff before the war that had shrunk to just 300 workers. They keep the lights on for the patients needing care, despite the merciless shelling and challenges of securing medical equipment looted by the Russians during occupation.
Parker, the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s senior Senate staff representative, shared the vivid memory with University of Maine students and other members of the public during a talk on campus Monday.
As the commission’s chief of staff when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February of last year, Parker was among the first United States officials to visit, even traveling to the frontlines on some occasions. He is an Old Town native who lives and works in Washington, D.C. Parker is a graduate of the University of Maine and U.S. Naval War College.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission, also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is an independent government agency that promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia and North America.
During Monday’s talk, Parker reflected on his seven visits to wartime Ukraine in the last year. He has spent more time in the country than any other U.S. government official, according to a flyer promoting the event. He shared items from his travels, including patches, shrapnel, fragments of Russian drones and flags that Ukrainian soldiers have torn down. He shared stories from Ukrainian civilians and soldiers that moved the more than 40 attendees.
Parker also advocated for “Ukraine’s timely and total victory,” and the role that Americans play in the war.
“The connecting thread is really that there is still a full-blown war happening,” Parker said prior to the talk. “The outcome still hangs in the balance. As much as we have cheered the Ukrainians on in their many victories, it’s far too early to conclude that they will win this war. We have the power, especially as Americans, to help determine at what cost their victory will come.”
During Parker’s visits to Ukraine, his focus was largely to get eyes on the ground outside of Kyiv. He met with members of the military to understand their challenges, deliver aid and provide moral support.
“To say, hey, I’m out here sleeping tonight in your trench, subject to the same risk as you are,” he said.
Another key responsibility was bringing back information to top-level policymakers in the United States. When Russia’s full-scale invasion began, the Helsinki Commission switched its focus from 57 states to solely Ukraine, and “total restoration of sovereignty” of the country’s 1991 borders became the goal, Parker said.
How a state will treat its people is often an indicator of how it will act beyond its borders, which the world is now seeing as the war drags on in Ukraine, he said.
Parker passed around items from his travels, including a deadly thermite pellet from northeastern city Kharkiv, which is banned from civilian areas because it sets everything around it on fire. Ukrainian soldiers get into trenches or underneath equipment to protect themselves, but many times, civilians are unaware of the effect, he said.
“If you smell this, you can smell a little bit of war and gunpowder,” he said of a smokescreen canister that was used by Russian forces as they entered the Kharkiv Oblast.
While in Ukraine, Parker met with some of the country’s defenders, including demining teams, drone operators, foreign fighters, military psychologists and units conducting raids in Russia.
Parker told the story of rescuing his in-laws from Ukraine, who weren’t ready to leave last April but finally came around to the idea after shelling at their doorstep. On another occasion, he delivered humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian relatives of a friend in Michigan.
There were frightening trips to the frontline, too, and difficult conversations, like one with a 23-year-old mechanic who suddenly became a defender and helped stop the Russian forces’ advance on Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
During Parker’s visit with the hospital director in Kherson, he asked if she had a message to bring back to Americans when he returned home.
“She paused for a minute, collected her thoughts and looked at me and said, ‘Thank you,’” he recalled. “Then she started to cry.”