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Front Page - Friday, February 17, 2023

When thoughts, prayers are not enough

CPD’s Cook leads group providing aid in Ukraine

When Russia launched its unprovoked large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, people were drawn to news outlets to learn the details of the conflict. Sgt. Jeremiah Cook of the Chattanooga Police Department was compelled to travel to the combat zone to provide humanitarian aid.

Cook is the founder of Rescue 82, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit consisting of mostly police officers who are initially focused on gathering and transporting medical supplies, food and other aid to the battered people of Ukraine. The group is preparing to make its third trip to the besieged country in March.

“One of the great things about working at the police department is everyone is a first responder. There’s something inside of us that wants to help,” Cook says. “When the tornado hit Chattanooga in 2020, many of our officers showed up without being called. That’s who they are.”

During trips to Ukraine in the spring and fall of last year, Rescue 82 – which at the time consisted of seven volunteers – delivered assistance to people who’d taken refuge among the debris of previously occupied villages in the southern region of the country.

Cook says most of the hamlets were the size of a large neighborhood and had a grocery store and a smattering of farms. Some of the residents had lived in these communities before Russian troops and missiles had reduced them to rubble; others had migrated west from Russian-occupied areas in Eastern Ukraine and traveled as far as they could before running out of provisions – or fortitude – says Cook.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why are they here? Why aren’t they somewhere safer?’ But even though Russians missiles were still hitting those places, they were less dangerous than where they’d been.”

Every person in those villages had lost something in the attack, whether it was a job, a home or loved ones, Cook continues.

And they all needed something, whether it was a first-aid kit, a meal or kindness from a stranger, Cook continues.

“Some Americans have given me the impression that they believe the U.S. has helped enough. And I understand that sentiment; our government has sent billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine. But it was clear to me more help was needed.”

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress sent nearly $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine in 2022, including humanitarian, financial and military support. While the aid was beneficial, Cook continues, it didn’t trickle down through the outlying ruins, where many ordinary citizens are sheltering.

“I have no control over where the federal government sends money; all I can do is try to help the person standing in front of me,” Cook says.

Although the members of Rescue 82 delivered aid outside of Ukraine’s major cities, evidence of the war was everywhere. Cook says the remains of the former villages reminded him of the wreckage the Easter 2020 tornado left behind as it cut a 14-mile path of destruction from Southeast Chattanooga to Ooltewah.

“Street after street after street after street after street was demolished.”

The Russia miliary had not completely withdrawn from these areas, Cook adds. On one occasion, the Rescue 82 team could hear artillery fire in the distance. When Cook asked someone how close they were to the fighting, the person pointed to a line of trees Cook estimates was about a mile away and said the invading troops were on the other side of it.

Despite their close proximity to danger, the members of Rescue 82 didn’t bring weapons into Ukraine and had no firearms with them, Cook says. Instead, as they drove past crumbling buildings and incinerated tanks, navigated large craters created by Russian missiles and tried to gauge the distance between them and gunfire, they trusted that their first responder training would ensure their survival if the danger that fumed around them grew closer.

“Our training as first responders prepared us to be there,” Cook says. “If things had gone south, we were prepared to deal with them. I’ve responded to mass casualty events in Chattanooga, and the rest of our team members have their own diverse skills from the calls they’ve answered.”

Called to action

Although the heart of a servant beats inside Cook, he says his desire to help others has a second fount: his faith in Christ.

“Jesus said when we help the poor, it’s as though we’re helping Him,” he explains.

The aspiration to help the beleaguered people of war-torn countries welled up in Cook several years before Russia attacked Ukraine, he says. When news of last year’s invasion reached his ears, he’d been trying for several months to rally a team for traveling to Myanmar, an Asian country in the throes of a 70-year civil war.

He’d also considered going to Yemen, a Middle Eastern county stricken with internal conflict.

The roads to these destinations were peppered with roadblocks, so when Cook felt pulled toward Ukraine, he uttered a short prayer asking for guidance.

“I said, ‘Lord, if you want me to go to Ukraine, let my phone ring.’”

Less than 24 hours later, a friend sent Cook a text message requesting his presence on a trip to the country, he says.

“I stared at my phone and thought, ‘There’s my answer.’ [He and I] hadn’t even discussed Ukraine. So I texted back, ‘When do we leave?’”

Knowing that being a police officer provides him with access, Cook believed traveling under the umbrella of an organization might help to open doors – and checkpoints – in Ukraine. So, before leaving, he filed the necessary paperwork with the state of Tennessee to create a nonprofit called Rescue 82.

“I based the name of the organization on Psalm 82:3–4, which says, ‘Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked,’” Cook says.

The next few weeks were a fury of preparation as Cook assembled a team, raised money for travel expenses and humanitarian supplies on GoFundMe and established a connection in Bucharest, Romania through a college friend.

Once in Bucharest, Cook’s contact connected Rescue 82 to a pastor in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Before traveling there, Cook made sure they acquired the specific aid the people there needed.

“We’d raised more money than we’d expected and were able to ask the pastor what he needed and purchase the supplies ourselves,” he reports.

When Rescue 82 left Bucharest en route to Odessa, it consisted of a convoy of three vans packed with food, medicine and first aid kits. The documents Cook carried in his back pocket identifying the group as Rescue 82 paved the way past checkpoints, where Ukrainian military and police were watching for Russian sympathizers and spies.

In Odessa, Rescue 82 found the scraps of a city once known for its Black Sea beaches and 19th century architecture. (The colossal Potemkin Stairs featured in “The Battleship Potemkin” are located in the city.) They also found a spirited Christian congregation doing everything in its ability to help the residents and refugees living in the city.

“The pastor and his church have leaned into the crisis,” Cook says with admiration and respect. “Instead of dissipating, the congregation has banded together and put a lot of effort into helping people who have lost everything and moved to their city.”

The members of Rescue 82 met many heroes among the Ukrainian people, Cook continues. One was a man he says left the city of Kherson – which the Wall Street Journal calls “one of the war’s most pummeled places” – and was coordinating aid and transporting supplies back to the city.

Cook was also impressed with the pastor of the Odessa church, who has dual Ukrainian-Romanian citizenship and is free to leave Ukraine and reside in Romania but chooses to remain with his congregation.

“He secured his family in a safe location outside the country and then returned to lead his congregation as it provides as much humanitarian aid as possible,” Cook says. “So, not only is he living where it’s dangerous, he’s apart from his family when he has every legal right to leave and stay with them until the war is over. What a brave leader.”

Return trip

When Rescue 82 returned from its first trip to Ukraine, Cook was convinced the group of first responders is uniquely qualified to handle extended excursions into combat zones – where many aid organizations decline to go.

A return trip in the fall of last year solfaed Cook’s resolve. Moving forward, he hopes to expand the nonprofit’s operations to helping those caught up in conflicts elsewhere around the world. Myanmar and Yemen are among the candidates.

“These are places where people were simply living their lives when two sides decided to start shooting at each other,” he says. “And we have the ability to help in ways other organizations can’t.”

As Rescue 82 gears up for a third tour in Ukraine in March, its ranks have swelled to include three additional Chattanooga police officers. The growth of the team pleases Cook, who insists on enlisting first responders. (The only member of the team outside of their profession is Brad Cobb, president of Bowers Automotive Group.)

“Several people who are not first responders have inquired about coming with us, but I believe having that experience is important because of where we go,” Cook clarifies.

Fundraising for the trip is underway, with Cook saying every dollar will go toward helping the internal refugees of a conflict that shows no signs of ending.

“We will literally hand the supplies we purchase with the funds people donate to the Ukrainians who need them. That gives me the confidence that we’re doing the right things.”

Learn more and donate at www.rescue82.org.