David Tagliani stops for a photo with his search and rescue dog, Libby, on his way back to Ukraine, where he has been participating in humanitarian missions since earlier this year.
Since mid-March, Seattle native David Tagliani has encountered destruction, loss, pain, fear and hope while doing humanitarian work in war-torn Ukraine.
Tagliani wouldn’t be anywhere else, which is what he tells friends back home in Seattle and Magnolia, where his family has had a home for more than 50 years, if they ask why he stays in the war-torn country.
“My answer is, ‘Where else would I be?’” he said.
Tagliani has been doing volunteer work with various non-governmental humanitarian organizations for 25 years after retiring from Microsoft and wondering what he was going to do next. A certified emergency medical technician, he is also a search and rescue dog handler and responded in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Marie, as well as the Oso landslide. Prior to his search and rescue work, Tagliani lived in Russia for eight years helping run an internet café he created for children living at a Russian orphanage. After that, he was sent to Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Working with the people in Ukraine, however, has pushed him to expand his humanitarian efforts.
When he first started his humanitarian work in Ukraine, he was volunteering with an NGO based out of the United States, performing patient care and aiding with evacuations near the Polish border, where people were dying of hypothermia just trying to reach safety.
It was a dramatic scene, he said. The line to cross to Poland in mid-March was eight to 10 people wide, mostly women and children, and three to four miles long. All men, ages 16 to 60, were required to stay and fight. At that time, neither Ukrainian nor Polish officials were taking much time looking at documentation, doing very precursory examinations and just trying to send people across the border, Tagliani said.
“It was quite heartbreaking,” Tagliani said, adding men would drive up and kiss the women and children goodbye and have to get back in their cars and turn around, while their loved ones waiting to cross the border to safety had to endure long waits in 26-degree weather.
After working in Ukraine a few months, Tagliani joined with a small group of Ukrainian men to lead their own evacuation, EMS and supply-distribution missions, and formed his own humanitarian NGO, Stay Safe International.
“We just fly by the seat of our pants,” Tagliani said.
After a trip back home in August to see family, Tagliani returned to Ukraine with one valuable tool to aid his work — his chocolate Lab search and rescue dog, Libby.
He said he wanted to bring Libby to Ukraine for three reasons. First, Ukrainian forces don’t have search and rescue dogs, and Tagliani knew Libby would be an asset when it came to finding people in rubble.
“Rather than having to pull off 800 tons of concrete to start searching and not knowing where to look, search and rescue dogs can pinpoint where the victims are,” Tagliani said.
He said the second reason was that he thought he could teach rescue workers or firefighters to train their own search and rescue dogs, which is how he justified bringing her to Ukraine to the organization that paired him with Libby.
“She’s technically my dog, but she’s actually a FEMA asset,” Tagliani said.
The third reason? His own mental health, he said.
“There’s nothing like having a dog,” he said. “Every day can be pretty stressful.”
Tagliani said when he and his team were first evacuating people, they heard artillery fire frequently, with the Russians shooting randomly at targets. Because the Russian artillery was not very accurate, the shells went everywhere, hitting anything in their path — from schools to shopping centers.
“You get to the end of the day, and you’re not only exhausted but completely strung out from the stress,” Tagliani said. “There’s nothing like having this waggy tail coming up to you, so excited to see you.”
Up until Tagliani’s trip back from the U.S., he and his crew strictly conducted evacuation missions. For these missions, they leave their home base in Lviv with four or five ambulances and vans filled with food, medical supplies and other necessities, such as clothes, diapers, baby food and pet food. Then they drive 1,200 kilometers to the Kharkiv region, which Tagliani said is about a two-day drive, even taking short breaks.
Tagliani said many people in the larger cities didn’t need a lot of help, so outreach typically goes to the people in the tiny surrounding downs.
Tagliani said he and his team will help anyone they come across, Ukrainian or Russian.
“We help everybody,” he said. “If you need assistance, I’m going to help. That is the ethos I’ve basically taken with Stay Safe, to help everybody.”
He said Stay Safe International is different from NGOs in that he and his crew can go directly to the front lines because they have necessary security passes.
Before recent Ukrainian military successes in driving the Russian soldiers out of previously occupied areas, Tagliani said his team started their days by going to the front lines distributing supplies and evacuating civilians, taking them to Red Cross stations before returning to the front lines again, making up to 10 to 15 trips a day
“We do that all day long, basically, until sunset, and then we do it again the next day,” he said, adding their forays can last two or three days, with the volunteers eating their own food and sleeping in the ambulances at night.
“We have no weapons, we wear flak jackets and helmets, but we’re soft targets,” Tagliani said. “If the Russians advance, we get out of there.”
After they run out of supplies and need to regroup, they drive back to Lviv for a short break before making the 1,200-kilometer trek again.
Tagliani said being able to help Ukrainians who have been living in fear and without supplies has been rewarding.
“It is beyond my ability to describe what the effect is on these people who may have had nothing for the last three months,” Tagliani said. “It is quite moving, and our team, it hits them really, really hard because they are Ukrainian.”
The young men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are all volunteers, and many joined after losing their own livelihoods.
“To see how they’ve been affected by this, it’s really, really torn me up,” he said. “I have to say it’s been very emotional.”
The emotional connections, along with the Ukrainians they are helping, are why Tagliani said he will stay in Ukraine for as long as he is needed. To leave his teammates there to continue their work alone is not an option.
“For myself, from a moral standpoint, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “To face these guys and say, ‘I’m leaving,’ I just wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Tagliani said one of the things he did on his trip back to Seattle in August was to register his NGO as a non-profit in Washington so any donations can be tax-deductible.
To learn more about what Tagliani and his colleagues are doing or to donate to Stay Safe International, visit staysafeua.org.