NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The Ukrainian American Veterans, working with Ukraine’s Embassy in Washington, helped organize an official U.S. fact-finding visit on February 27 through March 4 for Iryna Friz, Ukraine’s newly minted minister of veterans affairs. As the low-grade war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight, more and more veterans there find themselves in need of medical and support services. Confirmed in November 2018 by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, Minister Friz now faces the daunting challenge of creating a new ministry from scratch and helping those who bravely served Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression.
Minister Friz was elected to Ukraine’s Parliament in 2014 as a member of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. She has served as communications director for the Presidential Administration. She has worked on legislation to enhance Ukraine’s special forces operations and to reorient Ukraine onto a path towards NATO. Having engaged in Ukraine-NATO security cooperation projects, Minister Friz has headed Ukraine’s delegation to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly.
She was accompanied on her U.S. visit, which spanned three packed days in Washington and three in Connecticut, by Col. Oksana Havryliuk, herself a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation in Ukraine’s east.
Challenges and plans
Ukraine’s new VA Ministry faces unique challenges. Some 22 current government organizations currently engage with veterans in some manner. These span three ministries: Defense, Social Policy and Health. The new Ministry of Veterans Affairs is now the fourth to handle issues related to veterans.
How and which organizations will transition to the new structure? How will people be transferred and new hires brought on? And, most importantly, how will budgets be reassigned and consolidated? The concern is that redundant positions will be created as the three earlier ministries resist any change resulting in loss of staff and budgets. Bureaucratic infighting is coming and smooth operations cannot be expected at the onset as four ministries will be involved with veterans’ care. (In contrast, in the U.S. the Veterans’ Administration works only with the Pentagon.)
Ukraine’s small and feeble economy and the war’s ongoing fiscal drain are additional headwinds for proper funding of the new ministry.
In light of these limitations, Minister Friz is adopting a basic phased approach. Priority one is to construct an online registry of all veterans. It is important to know whom the ministry will serve. Current records are incomplete, with estimates of up to 1.2 million, including about 400,000 veterans from the ongoing war (a number that continues to grow).
Once the registry is completed, the minister will build on the successes of the e-procurement system ProZorro and other e-initiatives in Ukraine to build an e-veteran portal. Here any veteran will be able to register, be verified online, and request information and services that can be dispensed. The portal will allow individualized follow-up for each veteran and become a communications vehicle for new services as they come online in phases. Through the digitization and tracking of information in a centralized database, it will be possible to evaluate outcomes of new programs and services.
From its Soviet legacy, Ukraine has inherited some 30 hospitals that could better serve veterans. Minister Friz plans to select five of them, in different geographic regions, to serve as models for effective medical and mental health care. As these pilot efforts evolve to achieve an acceptable level of service, other hospitals could then be reconstituted.
Minister Friz is also working with Acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun, M.D., on organizing a mental health treatment for veterans, especially for the treatment of PTSD. This growing problem in Ukraine often leads to substance abuse, homelessness and even suicide.
The most valuable resource that Minister Friz currently possesses is the veterans themselves. Today, some 1,000 voluntary veterans groups work throughout Ukraine under the model “veterans helping other veterans.” Last August, laying the foundation for the creation of a VA Ministry, Col. Havryliuk and Ms. Friz, then a candidate for the VA Ministry, organized a two-day Veterans Forum, which was opened by President Poroshenko, that brought together these disparate groups. A delegation of Ukrainian American Veterans actively participated in that Kyiv forum to share U.S. experiences. The UAV delegation, consisting of then National Commander Peter Bencak, current National Commander Ihor Rudko, Adjutant John Steciw, Judge Advocate Michael Hrycak, New Haven Post 33 Commander Carl Harvey and this writer, Welfare Officer Myron Melnyk, learned first-hand about the spirited activity and great potential of these voluntary organizations. Minister Friz’s challenge will be to mold this energy into a cohesive and repeatable service for veterans while allowing decentralization and creativity on the local level.
Official visit to Washington
Working with the Embassy of Ukraine, which was responsible for the minister’s official visit, the UAV (uavets.org) helped create a constructive experience consisting of visits to the national VA, meetings on Capitol Hill, tours of VA hospitals and veterans centers on both the national and local levels, and meetings with Ukrainian communities and relief organizations.
Connecticut UAV members, Messrs. Harvey, Melnyk and Rudko organized activities at the National VA, as well as the Connecticut visits. Mr. Hrycak and retired VA executive and UAV Post 33 (Cleveland) member Orest Wasyluk assisted throughout. Following protocol, Col. Andrii Ordynovych and Col. Volodymyr Humeniuk, military attachés from the Embassy, served as escorts.
The first day, February 27, was dedicated to visits on Capitol Hill, where Minister Friz presented her vision for the creation of Ukraine’s VA. Meetings were held in Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) office, with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), and with Rep. Mark Tokano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Sen. Blumenthal, who sits on both the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee and who authored a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the treatment of severely wounded Ukrainian soldiers in U.S. military hospitals, has expressed support to further enhance this provision. The discussion with his dedicated Ukraine specialist, Sarah Eyman, centered on the NDAA, as well as ways to assist the fledgling Ukraine VA.
Rep. Kaptur, continuing her strong support for Ukraine, immediately focused on mental health and PTSD. Quickly getting down to specifics, she teleconferenced in Ukrainian American psychiatrists from her Cleveland-area home district to engage them in the discussions, which lasted two hours. She then assigned staff members to follow up with the UAV and Minister Friz.
The next day, February 28, formed the heart of the visit; it was devoted to comprehensive meetings with National Veterans Administration Office staff and with U.S. Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Robert Wilkie.
The Veterans Administration, established in 1930, became a Cabinet-level agency in 1989 to provide comprehensive health care services at VA medical centers and outpatient clinics, and to provide non-health-care benefits, including disability compensation, vocational rehabilitation, education assistance, home loans, life insurance, as well as burial and memorial benefits to veterans and families. Employing almost 400,000 people with an annual budget of $300 billion, the VA’s work is enhanced by a sprawling network of volunteer service organizations (VSOs) consisting mostly of veterans helping other veterans.
After this overview, Ted Diaz, head of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the VA, and his experts briefed the Ukraine delegation on the major VA services provided: medical and mental health care, benefits, geriatric care, burial and memorial services. An additional briefing was added on the crucial role of volunteers.
The highlight of the day and perhaps the entire visit was the warm personal reception provided by Secretary Wilkie, who pledged his total support.
To round out the day, Minister Friz addressed the annual U.S.-Ukraine Security Dialogue conference, which was being held at the National Press Club.
On March 1, the day began with a tour of the flagship VA Hospital in Washington, where the delegation toured facilities and discussed programs that are increasingly holistic in nature and engage the entire family where possible. We learned of the novel and impactful idea first implemented by Gen. Omar Bradley after World War II: to connect each VA hospital with a medical school. Such an affiliation provides a ready source of doctors as well as residents doing their specialty rotations. For the VA, the connection ensures a quality environment and access to the latest treatment protocols. The medical school, in turn, benefits by serving a needy population with injuries and needs uncommon in the general population. Currently some 85 percent of U.S. medical schools have formally allied with the VA. A similar affiliation model may be relevant in Ukraine.
Then it was on to the Pentagon, where Minister Friz met with Kelly McKeague, head of the POW/MIA Accounting Agency for the Defense Department. Particularly consequential was the session with Laura Cooper deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, and who sets Pentagon policy towards Ukraine. Also in attendance was T.J. Cipoletti, Ukrainian Desk director at the Pentagon.
During an afternoon visit to Quantico, the Marine Corps base in Virginia, Lawrence Provost, head of the National Cemetery Association, briefed the minister on how the VA provides a dignified and lasting memorial for veterans. A moving tour of Quantico’s National Cemetery, one of 136 nationwide, followed.
The capstone to Minister Friz’s Washington visit was an Embassy reception/fund-raiser for United Help Ukraine (unitedhelpukraine.org), a Washington area-based charitable organization.
The local perspective
UAV Posts 33 in New Haven and Post 14 in Hartford sought to give Minister Friz a local perspective on how veterans are assisted. Under the leadership of Post 33 Commander Harvey, a schedule was prepared, including a New Haven community reception/fund-raiser, a meeting with a business group that helps veterans, a visit to a local VA hospital in West Haven and its connected community care facility, and a tour of Connecticut’s State Veterans Center.
Minister Friz and the UAV delegation detoured on March 2 to Philadelphia for a full day series of discussions with groups that assist Ukraine’s soldiers and veterans, and their families. The focus was on better ways to coordinate aid and possible new projects.
During a luncheon hosted by the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee (www.uuarc.org) headed by Dr. Larissa Kyj, Minister Friz expressed her gratitude for the breadth of humanitarian assistance already provided by the UUARC, including programs to adopt a wounded soldier, help families with children orphaned by the war, and aid families of the Heavenly Hundred. Present were members of the UUARC board.
At the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center (UECC), the delegation was greeted by members of UAV Post 1 of Philadelphia and Post 42 of Lehigh Valley. A discussion ensued with the relief organization Ukrainian Federation of America (www. ukrainianfederationofamerica.org), headed by Dr. Zenia Chernyk. The UFA helps Ukraine’s soldiers fight – not on the battlefield – but in hospital operating rooms and rehab centers. The UFA has brought Ukrainian soldiers to the U.S. for treatment, helped treat soldiers in Ukraine and conducted training programs. Of particular interest during the conversation was a pilot mental health/PTSD program that Dr. Chernyk has initiated in Lviv. The program has shown promise and is ready for expansion to other regions. This is a potential joint program with the UAV, which is seeking U.S. government funding for this type of program.
Activities on March 3 included a community luncheon/fund-raiser at St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church Hall in New Haven. Minister Friz addressed the packed hall, stressing that Ukraine has a moral obligation to help its veterans who defended Ukraine against Russian aggression and that every soldier who takes up the fight must be assured that Ukraine will stand by him/her after discharge from service.
Minister Friz wanted to learn about private volunteer efforts to help veterans, especially those organized by business. Mohegan Sun, a casino in eastern Connecticut, is an interesting example of a business that for several years now has sponsored VETSROCK, a very successful statewide job fair and place where veterans can get assistance. On the evening of March 3, CEO Kevin Brown took the group on a tour of the casino facilities and conference center, and described how to go about organizing such an event. He explained that VETSROCK is not only a key component of his company’s social responsibility agenda but that such events also bring public awareness and good will for his business.
On the final day the delegation visited two major care providers in Connecticut: the sprawling VA Hospital in West Haven and the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. The West Haven VA formerly served as the National Center for PTSD and has a close relationship with Yale Medical School, where seminal research on PTSD continues. The VA incorporates these latest findings into its treatment programs throughout the country. Minister Friz had an opportunity to pose questions to the assembled Yale-affiliated psychiatrists about the best way to gain and transfer knowledge about this mental health condition.
Dr. Robert Rosenheck, who has spent 22 years evaluating, disseminating and monitoring innovative mental health programs across the VA system, expressed interest in continuing the discussion and possibly conducting research in Ukraine.
At the Connecticut Veterans Center in Rocky Hill, just outside of Hartford, the group was met by Connecticut VA Commissioner Thomas J. Saadi, who explained that Connecticut enhances existing National VA services and adds programs of its own. For example, the residential facility for veterans at the center is being expanded using additional local and state funding. Innovative non-medical programs and social activities exist at the center.
Upon completion of the briefings at the Connecticut Veteran Center, UAV members Messrs. Rudko, Harvey and Melnyk met to discuss future cooperation between the UAV and Ukraine’s VA. An after-action report will be compiled as the basis for continued support of Ukraine’s veterans. Minister Friz, Col. Havryliuk and Col. Humeniuk departed for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for their flight back to Ukraine.
UAV National Commander Rudko commented on the visit: “The motto from last summer’s Veterans Forum in Kyiv – ‘Tam de my, tam Ukraina’ (Ukraine is wherever we are) – became an emotional reality. If the talent and professionalism exhibited by Iryna Friz and Oksana Havryliuk depicts the example of Ukraine’s new generation, then Ukraine is on its way to becoming a force to be reckoned with.”