For over three decades, her place was in a flak jacket on the frontlines, but now a pioneering international journalist is watching the war unfold in Ukraine from the safety of her home in Norfolk, Connecticut.
As an international correspondent reporting from the front lines of war, Anne Garrels has been a witness to history, winning nearly every major award in journalism for her television and radio reporting for networks including ABC, NBC and NPR. For over 30 years, she ventured into the heart of conflicts unfolding in the Middle East, Central America, the Soviet Union and across the globe.
“I covered the wars in Chechnya, in Russia, in 94, and then again in 2000,” said Garrels, a 2012 inductee of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. “And I’ve watched the Russian military miscalculate then, and then having to recalibrate, destroying everything in their wake. And that's exactly what we're seeing now.”
Photos: Witness To History: War Correspondent Helps Ukraine from CT
Her 2016 book “Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia” documented the aftershocks of the collapse of the Soviet Union and life under President Vladimir Putin’s rule through Garrel’s travels to Chelyabinsk, a military-industrial center a thousand miles east of Moscow in Russia’s heartland.
“Obviously, yes, to some degree, it's, it's a reflection of Putin and policy. But it's really about Russia. The real Russia, why people think the way they do,” she explained. “Conservatively, 70% of Russians support the war. The breakup of the Soviet Union was humiliating for many. And Putin is playing on that, and that Ukraine really isn’t a country, and people have bought into it.”
“I’ve probably spent 15 years of my life in the former Soviet Union and the former republics, Ukraine included,” she said. “I mean, this place is near and dear to me. I have great friends there. And I couldn't just sit by.”
But even as her heart remains abroad, her body is no longer cooperating.
“It came back again in April, the lung cancer,” she said. “I couldn't go through radiation again, because of where the tumor is. It's too close to my aorta. And chemo almost killed me last time.”
“I just said, no way. My husband's dead. I don't have children. I'm not going to jump through hoops. I did do a treatment called cryoablation in August, where they put needles in your back and freeze the tumor and it worked. It reduced it considerably, but it sent me into the worst pain imaginable for three months, and despair.”
So she’s decided to make the most of the time she has left to make a tangible difference for those fighting to survive a warzone. Garrels is a founder of the non-governmental organization Assist Ukraine, working with global partners and contacts gleaned over the course of her career to send critical medical and military supplies to Ukraine.
“In the midst of madness, you know, setting up this NGO has given me a modicum of sanity, and a sense that at least I can do something,” she said.
Along with co-founders Heinz Coordes, a Vietnam fighter pilot, Art Davidson, an author and businessman who organized relief for orphans of the Iraq war, and Irka Tkaczuk, a Ukrainian-American advocate, Assist Ukraine has already donated over $300,000 worth of supplies – ambulances, trauma kits, ATVs and surveillance drones, helmets, flak jackets and more.
“A lot of organizations are well-intentioned, but a lot of the supplies in the region are really subpar,” said Garrels. “And people are sending in, you know, teddy bears. People don't need teddy bears. They need flak jackets. They need helmets, they need night vision. They need trauma kits, and high-end trauma kits because a bad tourniquet kills you. A bad flak jacket gets you killed.”
Assist Ukraine has also secured safe shelter for 51 displaced children whose orphanage was destroyed in a Russian onslaught in Kharkiv. The children ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old are now settled in a small village near the Romanian border, and work is underway to expand facilities to accept a hundred more children orphaned by the conflict.
“They're so traumatized,” said Garrels. “Many of them can't even speak at this point.”
Garrels knows firsthand the horrors of war, having grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder during and after her three decades witnessing the worst of humanity. In 2003, she was one of only 16 Western journalists who remained in Baghdad to report live, and embedded with Marines during the 2004 attack on Fallujah.
“When I was in the throes of it, I was OK. I could deal with bombing. But here at home, the unexpected blast of fireworks sent me into paroxysms of horror. By the time I'd been in Baghdad for eight, nine years, you know, I was drinking way too much at night to go to sleep.”
But what’s given her hope, she says, is that she’s also witnessed the best of the human spirit.
“In the midst of horror,” she reflected, “extraordinary people emerge.”
If you’d like to learn more or donate, visit www.assist-ukraine.org.