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Fargo native on front lines in Ukraine creates nonprofit to help amputees

“It’s a challenge; a lot of the amputees are in high-security military hospitals. You have to build relationships to get in,” said Monte Schumacher, the founder of Courage Ukraine who can’t speak Ukrainian yet.

A woman sits with both legs ending in bandages sits supporting her daughter, whose legs also are covered with bandages.
Yana and her mother Natasha Stepanenko, 43, at a public hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, on Saturday, May 15, 2022. Both mother and daughter were injured in a missile strike while waiting to catch an evacuation train in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.
Special to The Forum
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FARGO — The sights and stories Monte Schumacher sees and hears during his trips into Ukraine to help amputees are heartbreaking snapshots of an ongoing nightmare.

Crammed into military hospitals, thousands of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, injured soldiers, are without limbs. Young video gamers — now conscripted soldiers — are flying altered drones fitted with bombs.

On the front lines, World War I style trenches are bombarded every day while young men in hoodies fill ballistic vests with sand, hoping to stop Russian bullets.

Thick, black smoke billows above bright flames bursting from buildings.
A structure on fire in May 2022 after a bombardment in a Pavolgrad, Ukraine, about 10 miles from the front lines.
Special to The Forum

Schumacher, a Fargo native who graduated from Shanley High School in 1979, first decided to start driving medical supplies into Ukraine from Poland when he discovered hundreds of people missing limbs during his trips.

Since the midnight invasion of Ukraine by Russia began on Feb. 24, there have been more than 9,151 civilian casualties in the country, with 4,169 killed and 4,982 injured, according to the most recent report made available by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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“We estimate 3,000 to 4,000 amputees; it’s hard to get exact numbers. And we estimate upwards of one-third of those casualties are amputees. It’s because of the nature of the war that is being waged by the Russians. It’s almost a World War II ... bombardment style — they level the cities and then enter afterward,” Schumacher said.

Four men stand in a room with red upholstered chairs and walls.
Monte Schumacher, third from left, and Peter Nordquist, second from left, with Lviv government officials in May 2022.
Special to The Forum

Most of the civilian casualties recorded so far came from explosive weapons over a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery, missile and air strikes, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported.

“Keep in mind there are a higher number of soldiers that are amputees,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran and the grandson of Ukrainian immigrants, began a nonprofit organization called Courage Ukraine, a volunteer organization based in Portland, Oregon.

When he arrived in Ukraine about six weeks ago, he began running medical supplies into the country, but he, along with co-founder Peter Nordquist, a humanitarian aid volunteer who has been working in the area since early April, soon discovered there were few specialists dealing with prosthetic limbs or rehabilitation.

A blue and yellow road sign says Ukraine
Monte Schumacher takes a quick picture with his cellphone as he enters Ukraine during one of his trips to deliver medical supplies.
Special to The Forum

“They were patching these people up, and they were just waiting in the hospital. It’s just an awful, awful situation to see,” Schumacher said. “It’s the small, little volunteer groups taking the danger hand in hand, but the amputee category is one that nobody was really addressing.”

Making the situation more desperate, the waiting list for prosthetic limbs was thousands of people long. Soon after he arrived, he and Nordquist formed a crowdfunding campaign with a newly formed nonprofit organization under the Courage Ukraine banner .

“When the war started in Ukraine, all the manufacturing that existed for prosthetics, it stopped,” Schumacher said. “Expensive materials like titanium that are related to creating higher quality prosthetics are just completely absent in the country right now.”

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After five weeks going in and out of Ukraine, Schumacher returned to the United States in May to visit family and find supplies and manufacturers willing to help. He needs to return, however, to continue developing relationships with hospital and government officials to get amputees the prosthetic legs and arms they need.

Based in Warsaw, Poland, Schumacher and his team regularly take trips into eastern Ukraine. Most hospitals are near war zones, and security is strictly controlled, making it hard to get access.

“It’s a challenge; a lot of the amputees are in high-security military hospitals. You have to build relationships to get in,” said Schumacher, who does not speak Ukrainian.

“The first night we crossed the border, we had four air raid sirens, and missiles hit the city. That was my indoctrination on the first night I spent in Ukraine,” he said, adding that his military experience is being put to use operationally to complete the work.

An adolescent girl with legs ending in stumps lays in a bed surrounded by stuffed animals.
Yana Stepanenko recuperates from losing both her legs, one above ankle and the other higher up on her shin.
Special to The Forum

In Lviv, he met Natasha and Yana Stepanenko, mother and daughter, who were waiting for an evacuation train in Kramatorsk on May 15. They decided to buy tea before boarding the train when missiles struck nearby.

Natasha, 43, lost her left leg below the knee. Her 11-year-old daughter, Yana, lost both her legs, one above the ankle and the other higher up on her shin.

Yana’s twin brother, Yarik, wasn’t hurt as he remained behind to watch luggage. He’s now the family caretaker, as their stepfather is fighting at the front. Every day, Yarik fetches wheelchairs and brings food.

The Stepanenko family is just one group among 12.8 million people — 17.5% of the country’s total population — who have been displaced in Ukraine, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights .

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An adolescent girl who is missing the ends of both legs is carried down a hall by a man in scrubs.
Yana Stepanenko, 11, was with her mother buying tea when a missile struck. She lost both her legs below the knees.
Special to The Forum

One way Schumacher can get help for amputees is to get them to safer zones or to other countries so he can get them the supplies and support they need.

“A lot of people cannot get out of Ukraine. Our next fundraising project is for transportation vehicles, which will focus on getting women, children and elderly out of war zones,” Schumacher said.

“They need to be fitted and then begin training themselves on how to use the prosthetics,” he said.

Schumacher will return to Ukraine during the first week of July and stay for two months, he said.

“It’s a very dire situation. I have not seen a well-known NGO, whether Red Cross or UN or Unicef, personally represented in the country. They just won’t send their teams in,” Schumacher said.

All volunteers who cross the border wear ballistic vests and helmets. “Then you go in at your own risk,” he said.

Once, a volunteer with Courage Ukraine who was delivering medical supplies to children was zeroed in on by Russian troops, but he escaped.

Children load their hands with bread and apples.
Children in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, accept apples and bread during a Courage Ukraine medical delivery trip the last week of May 2022.
Special to The Forum

Courage Ukraine hopes to raise enough money to first help up to six amputees. At upwards of $100,000 per person, the organization has set up GoFundMe accounts to help with the costs. Also, they’re trying to raise about $50,000 for a vehicle to transport people out of the country with, but that, too, has its risks.

“When we purchase a vehicle, well, there is no insurance, no coverage personally or for the vehicle. We’re on our own. If we lose a vehicle, it’s up to us to raise money for another one,” Schumacher said.

“We’re really scraping, trying to raise attention. We may have bit off more than we can chew, but we have to start somewhere,” he said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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