by Petty Officer 1st Class JOHN BELLINO, USS Arlington, U.S. Navy
RIGA, Latvia – Twenty-seven children of Ukrainian soldiers visited the U.S. Navy San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24) during a port of call to Riga, Latvia, in late August.
The National Defense Patriotic Foundation (NAMEJS), a charitable organization run by retired Latvian Army Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube, hosted the Ukrainian children for a week-long summer camp at the time of USS Arlington’s arrival. Recognizing the significance of the NAMEJS summer camp, Latvian Navy Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. David Sterns and Arlington’s chaplain U.S. Navy Lt. Paul Rockrohr coordinated the visit within 48 hours.
“I really appreciated the speed of the coordination on this project,” said Graube. “I couldn’t believe it was going to happen because of how quick everything came together.”
The NAMEJS mission is to provide support to families of Latvian soldiers and veterans throughout the country, but with the current conflict in nearby Ukraine, Graube felt compelled to assist in whatever way possible.
“When you are on the front lines, you think about your family and making sure they are safe and taken care of,” said Graube. “The least I can do is bring these children to safety for a week. This helps the soldiers on the front lines because they know their children are safe, so they feel safer as well. This is the most important thing.”
Arlington sailors and embarked U.S. Marines attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit greeted the Ukrainian children with applause and high-fives as they entered the ship. U.S. Navy Ensign Vladimir Stadnik – who was born in Nadvirna, Ukraine – acted as their tour guide throughout the visit. Stadnik felt especially connected to the children, because his family lived through a previous Soviet Union occupation of Ukraine and is involved in the present conflict.
“When the Ukrainian children arrived aboard the Arlington, I struggled to keep my composure,” said Stadnik. “The first thing that came to mind was, my cousin’s 10-year-old son staring at his father’s coffin draped in the blue-and-yellow flag. He died heroically in battle just a few days before these children came to the ship.”
A chaperon told Stadnik that this was the first time they had seen the children smile since they crossed the border two days earlier.
A 12-year-old girl in the group spoke about hiding with her family every day in their basement due to routine bombings in her hometown of Khurkiv, Ukraine, the second largest city in the country. Another young boy told stories of his father, a teacher by trade and member of the Ukrainian National Guard, who remained in Khurkiv as he and his mother fled west to safety.
The children toured the ship, went inside helicopters and walked onto a hovercraft. Sailors and Marines also showed them the combat-information center and took them to the pilot house where they could pretend to steer the ship.
“Throughout this deployment, the Arlington has traveled over 20,000 miles, visited three continents and participated in five large-scale multinational NATO and partner nation exercises,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Eric Kellum, commanding officer of the Arlington. “But hosting these children, helping to bring them joy and making them feel safe is the most memorable and purposeful experience we’ve had on this deployment.”
Kellum and Graube spoke of how professional service members in the armed forces understand and accept the potential of being put in harm’s way, yet these children swore no such oath and have been thrust into harm’s way nonetheless, so making them feel safe during their visit was a top priority.
“When this opportunity presented itself, I asked my crew for volunteers to help put together gift bags, provide tours and make these children feel like rock stars,” said Kellum. “Within 24 hours we had nearly 100 sailors and Marines ready to lend a hand. It was truly humbling to witness the outpouring of support from the crew on such short notice.”
Upon departing the Arlington, the children returned to the NAMEJS facility, where they would spend the rest of the week partaking in other recreational activities before returning home to Ukraine.
As a landing platform dock, the USS Arlington is tasked with transporting Marines to world hot-spots and on humanitarian missions. Upon commissioning in 2013, it became the third U.S. Navy ship to bear the county’s name, succeeding a World War II-era transport and a Vietnam-era communications-relay vessel, and was named to honor both the community and the first-responders to the Pentagon during the 2001 terrorist attack.