An American Fleeing War in Ukraine Finds Community and a Chance to Give Back Through the USO

By Daniel Drummond

Helping people in need: it’s what Ann Merrill does. Whether in Kyiv, Ukraine, or at a USO center in Germany, she is always there to support those who need a kind word and a smile to get them through their day. Yet, recently, it was Merrill herself who needed the generosity of others to get her across the border of Ukraine and to safety.

On the morning of February 24, 2022 – when Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine – Merrill, an American citizen, was asleep when suddenly her phone rang.

Ann Merrill, an American citizen, was forced to leave her adopted home of Kyiv, Ukraine, after Russia invaded and began attacking the country in February 2022. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“A friend of mine from the States, from Ohio, called and woke me up. And said ‘What is happening?” Merrill said. “And then I heard an explosion., The alarms went off and I had my go bag and my cat carrier and went down to my basement.”

Later that day, Merrill traveled to another, more secure shelter with a friend. Along with five other people and her cat Ziggy, they huddled together in the bomb shelter overnight. The next morning, they were able to get out of Kyiv, taking 24 hours to go west to the city of Lviv – a trip that usually only takes six hours by car. Unfortunately, Merrill had to leave her cat Ziggy behind in Kyiv with a friend. In leaving her adopted hometown of 17 years, Merrill knew she was leaving a life behind – for now.

“I never got to go back to my apartment,” she said. “All I had was my backpack and my cat.”

“All I had was my backpack and my cat,” Merrill said when explaining how quickly she had to rush to the Polish border for safety as the Russian attacks on Ukraine began. Her cat Ziggy is pictured here with his pet passport. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

In Lviv, Merrill and her friend met a group of Israelis who helped them get across the Ukraine-Poland border, but it took some time. Due to the thousands of others fleeing Ukraine and filling the roads, Merrill explained that the 12-mile trek across the border was painstakingly slow – the bus they traveled on only went about 150 feet an hour throughout the entire journey. In the end, it took three full days to travel 12 miles and make it to Poland.

“We were just these two orphan ladies … they said they felt responsible for us, they took care of us,” Merrill said of the group of Israelis who had helped them. “They moved mountains to get us on a bus.”

On her journey from Lviv to Poland, Merrill watched as people with just their backpacks and children on their hips walked all the way into Poland and an uncertain future.

“We just got caught in the mad rush. It was so heartbreaking, mostly women and children, men taking their families to the border to get them out,” she said.

Although the situation was incredibly sad, she also saw great kindness as strangers came out from their homes and provided the refugees with hot soup and tea.

Fortunately for Merrill, she had friends in Germany who could meet her at the Polish border. Those friends were longtime USO volunteers Eileen and Bill, and they waited in their cars for Merrill until she arrived, before taking her to Grafenwoehr, Germany.

Once Merrill got settled in Grafenwoehr, she and Eileen started baking muffins that would eventually make their way to the USO center at Camp Aachen in Grafenwoehr. After that, they started talking about how Merrill could keep busy and came upon the idea of her volunteering at the USO.

So, on March 11, just days after fleeing her war-stricken adopted home, Merrill joined a family of tens of thousands of USO volunteers who work hard to deliver our mission, providing critical support to our troops around the world.

“I’ve been called ‘ma’am’ a lot,” Merrill said with a smile.

Once settled in Germany, Ann Merrill decided to dedicate her time to volunteering with the USO and supporting American service members deployed to Europe. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Grant McCormick, USO’s regional vice president for Europe-Middle East-Africa, said that USO volunteers are the backbone of the organization. Without USO volunteers giving of their time to support our nation’s military, the organization would not be able to fulfill its mission.

But having a volunteer come straight from a war-torn country and decide to spend their time volunteering at a USO demonstrates a whole new level of selflessness.

“Ann is a remarkable person. She understands better than most the feeling of separation. Her being here with the soldiers at Camp Aachen provides them with comfort, care, and connection,” McCormick said. “We are very grateful for her selflessness in supporting our troops.”

Merrill said that there are many parallels to her situation and that of the mostly young soldiers who have been piling into USO Camp Aachen, Germany.

“I know [that] these folks, a lot of them, had to leave home quickly. They’re nervous, they’re scared, they don’t know where they are going next necessarily,” she said.

“The world is very stressful and confusing for them. And maybe what I’m supposed to be doing now is helping them feel a little more comfortable.”

Merrill initially moved to Ukraine to use her skills and education from The Ohio State University in the form of diplomatic work. Ukraine, she explained, is an amazing country due to its people, its resiliency and its kindness. And while Merrill yearns to go back to the place she calls home, where she has served in a variety of roles with the United Nations and other organizations, she is very proud to be supporting the American troops in Germany who may again be called to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“I am proud of them,” Merrill says of the soldiers. “Proud of what they are doing. I’m glad they are here.”

It goes without saying that the USO is glad that Merrill is there too.

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