COLORADO, USA — Shaughn Varnell remembers the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He watched developments on the news from his home in Colorado.
“I was a CNN junkie for the first week, even to the point of listening to it at work, trying to find out what’s going on,” he said.
“I heard a joke a while back, that a lot of people are waking up, checking on Zelenskyy and then having their morning coffee. That would be me. I wake up every morning and check in on it. It’s such a huge world event right now. And I hope not, but it could influence the next couple decades of international politics.”
Like many other Americans, he felt a desire to help. Unlike most people, though, Varnell wanted to give more than just money.
“Nobody knew how long the [Ukrainian] military could hold out. Once they started holding out for a while, I thought – you know – maybe there’s a chance I could go over there and do some good. I’m single. I don’t have kids. So I’m kind of an ideal person for that.”
In his ‘day job,’ Varnell is a technician-mechanic at Merdeces Benz of Denver (in Glendale), working in the reconditioning department fixing up used cars for resale. He figured some of his skills could translate to the war efforts.
“Hopefully I can help them repair military vehicles, repair ambulances, whatever they need,” he said. “I’ll fill sandbags and pass out food if they need me to.”
Varnell had some planning to do before he could leave.
“I went to Chicago to the Ukrainian Consulate there, and they said to basically just get to Poland. They said there’s tons of organizations that need help, at the very least, the Ukrainian government needs assistance too,” he said.
He didn’t have an updated passport. Varnell said by taking the risk to go ahead and buy his flight ticket, he was able to secure an expedited passport appointment. He leaves for Poland later this month, and plans to take a train from Warsaw to the Ukrainian border.
Varnell doesn’t have any personal or family connections to Ukraine. He’s not sure how long he’ll be there. He said he knows the risk.
“It’s an interest mix of excited and nervous and scared,” he said. “I think it will be a good opportunity to help people. But there’s also missiles and bombs and bullets flying everywhere. You’d have to be crazy to not be somewhat concerned.”
Varnell listened to advice to buy safety gear, like a helmet and ballistic vest. He is raising money for his trip to cover travel, lodging, food and safety expenses.
“I want to be as little a burden on the people there as possible,” he said.
He said he has also attended local fundraising efforts in Colorado and was quick to credit the local Ukrainian community and others working to raise money and collect medical equipment, like Ukrainians of Colorado.
Varnell’s bosses and co-workers were stunned by his plans, but inspired.
“I got big saucers for eyes and thought – 'what in the word is he thinking about?'” said Terry Minnick, GM of Mercedes Benz of Denver. “But I couldn’t be more proud.”
On Friday, Minnick surprised Varnell with the news that the company was donating $5,000 to his fundraising efforts.
“[We’re] hoping for his safe return,” Minnick said, then turning to Varnell he added:
“And I hope that, Shaughn, you find what you’re looking for. I know this is a big sense of purpose for you. And I mean, it's in some ways pursuing a dream. And like I said, we couldn’t be more proud.”
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