A man, a dog, a mission to Ukraine
For the last year, David Tagliani has been working in Ukraine.
David, along with his dog Libby, is a first responder. He’s an EMT who does search and rescue. For years, he’s spent most of his time away from home, helping where he’s needed.
But this is the first time work has taken him to an active warzone.
David Tagliani lives in his childhood home in Magnolia.
"We moved to Seattle in 1966, originally, so I went to Briar Cliff Elementary School," says Tagliani. "And have been here pretty much since then."
He spent his work life here, too, working for Immunex downtown, and then Microsoft. This is his first time back since August.
For the past year, he's been volunteering with a Ukrainian NGO called Stay Safe.
This all started as a retirement plan.
"When I left Microsoft, it was way back in 1996. And I was pretty burned out. I was very tired, very overweight. I had not been living a very healthy lifestyle during that time. And so I went on this two year backpacking trip, I mean, just cold turkey, filled up a 40-liter backpack and got on the road."
Tagliani backpacked across Europe, and then Asia. He spent almost two years traveling.
He discovered that he didn't just want to visit places; he wanted to help. He started in Russia, using technical knowledge he’d learned at Microsoft.
"I ended up living in this little town called Uglich in the middle of western Russia, north of Moscow, and teaching kids how to use computers. And then I set up a little internet cafe next to the orphanage, the orphanage ran it, and then did that for a while."
He spent eight years in Uglich, working with the orphanage. During that time, he connected with a humanitarian organization called Mercy Corp.
"Every couple of months, Mercy Corps would send me someplace else," says Tagliani. "Iraq during the war there, Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005."
That continued until around 2008, when Tagliani decided he wanted a dog. But he didn’t just want a pet. He wanted a dog that could help. So, he got involved with Search and Rescue.
He became an EMT and started volunteering with Eastside Fire & Rescue in North Bend and with an international search and rescue group called Empact.
He wound up in Poland, helping people crossing the border from Ukraine in the days after the Russian invasion.
Typically, work with Empact is a two week stint. But he extended his time. And then he did it again. And again.
Tagliani had been working on the Polish side of the border. But he kept meeting the same eight Ukrainian men over and over — helping from the other side. They were the founders of a Ukrainian organization called Stay Safe.
Together, they distribute food boxes and medical supplies in what’s called the Grey Zone — the spaces in Ukraine that are between war and peace. Between the front lines, and the relative safety of the West.
They also help to evacuate people.
Tagliani determined that if he was going to stay and help long term, he wanted to do it from Ukraine, not Poland. He offered to help with Stay Safe.
But when he joined, the organization was just getting started. So he found them a warehouse to store donations, and established an office where they could keep track of bills and other documents.
A normal day in Ukraine depends on where he is, says Tagliani. When he's in Lviv, in the west near Poland, things are almost normal.
But, as you enter the east, it becomes clear you're in a war zone.
Tagliani describes craters in the middle of the streets, and tank tracks running through fields.
"It's quite jarring to see an entire field torn up with these little mounds, realizing that those hundreds of mounds all constitute Ukrainian citizens that died as a result of the war," he says.
There are also moments of hope.
He brings his search and rescue dog, Libby, with him when he heads east. Even when she's not on the job, when Ukrainians see her, they're happy. Kids come up to play, and adults offer her food.
"It's just that natural need that people have to have this kind of connection to nature and a friendly face," says Tagliani.
Libby has stayed behind in Ukraine, while Tagliani's been back in Seattle. He says it's good to see family again.
But even while he’s here, it’s hard for Tagliani to take his mind away from the front lines. Or to share what he’s seen with his family.
"They're interested in general terms, but nobody wants details," says Tagliani. "It can be somewhat isolating in that I know I'm going back, so and I know that my mind is already there."
Tagliani returns to Ukraine in a few days. He’s got a new visa that lets him stay in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
"I'm just looking forward to seeing the guys again, and you know, shaking their hands and having a couple of meals together," he says. "I have no doubt that we're going to have a great big dinner on that first day when I get back. And that's gonna be very welcome."
He doesn't have any predictions on how or if this war will end. But, he says that even if it ended tomorrow, it won’t really be over. It will take years for Ukraine to recover and rebuild. But he believes in the people who have stayed. That no matter how long it takes, they’ll rebuild.