Featured, Latest News

Slava Ukraini, for a long as it takes: Soldier visiting Morgantown from the fighting in Ukraine said Putin underestimated the people’s resolve

Ariah Ben Yehuda was still trying to figure out Tuesday if his lunch order at the Morgantown Eat ’n Park really was a metaphor of Western abundance and exuberance.

Or maybe, came the second thought, it was just simply a nice meal, offered up in kindness and brotherhood.

Either way, the soldier fresh from the fighting in Ukraine appreciated the overture by his new friends in the University City.

“Americans and their portions,” he said, smiling down at a plate heaping (for him) with fried chicken salad, Texas toast and a new favorite beverage in the States: restaurant coffee.

A member of the wait staff recommended the menu selection.

“All this food,” he said.

“There’s just so much … of everything … here.”

In 2022, two weeks into the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s troops and tanks, Ben Yehuda pared down the portions of his life into an existence that couldn’t have been more elemental or immediate.

The policeman-turned-soldier, who just celebrated his 59th birthday Saturday, grew up in England, but he made his life and literal name — more on that — in Israel.

He had lived in Tel Aviv going on four decades, with 22 of those years logged as a police officer.

When early reports of the Russian aggression began crackling across Israeli TV, and when Ben Yehuda regarded the fearful faces of Ukrainians blinking at the concrete rebar ruins of what used to be their apartment buildings, well, he said, he was surprised by the velocity of his emotions.

He was seeing, he said, a whole population inexorably caught in the headlights of still yet another war.

“This is global,” he said.

“Putin is a true threat to the world. My conscience wouldn’t allow me to sit by. So I went.”

By the end of his first month in-country, he was an infantryman and combat medic on the move.

He quickly acclimated.

His police training helped.

Ben Yehuda saw some things on Tel Aviv’s sometimes mean streets.

There, as a law enforcement professional obligated to protect and serve, he worked a full range of cases, from the prosecution of rapists to the diffusing of bombs. He infiltrated gangs.

On the ground in Ukraine, though, he saw something else.

During one of his first patrols in-country, his unit happened upon a makeshift, mass grave.

It was grim.

Bodies — women and children included — with bound hands and bullet holes in the backs of their heads.

Forget “collateral damage,” he said.

The execution-style slayings of civilians, he said, made an already ruthlessly cruel battlefield even more so.

All those years removed from England, he still speaks in the clipped, modified Cockney accent of London, his original hometown.

As he described his inaugural encounter, he couldn’t help but let a bit of British gallows-drollery drip into his voice.

“Vladimir Putin,” he said, “doesn’t abide by the Geneva Convention.”

Where in the world?

Ariah Ben Yehuda was born David A. Young, in England.

His father was Jamaican and his mother was Welsh.

Growing up on the western fringes of London, his sense of otherness ruled his day-to-day.

He came from an abusive home, he said, and outside the walls of his flat, there wasn’t much relief, either.

London has a seemingly endless litany of social protocols — but for young master David and his definite, non-Angelo facial features, the city, for him, oftentimes wore its racism like a royal vestment.

“I had to get away,” he said.

He started banking his pound notes from menial jobs, and when he was 21, he spun a globe on his table.

With his eyes closed, he pointed with an index finger to stop the revolution.

The knuckle bent at Israel.

Tel Aviv was as good a destination for a new start as any, he said.

Soon after his arrival, he began considering the sprawling city of more than 450,000 along Israel’s travel poster Mediterranean coast as his new hometown.

Police work kept him more than busy, even as Tel Aviv has a relatively low crime rate for a city its size.

Tel Aviv, though, is a still a target for terrorism. Call the events there of this past Oct. 7 a new Exhibit A.

People, he said, are the city’s most-powerful industry.

They remain open, generous and friendly, Ben Yehuda said.

And that’s despite whatever gets dropped at their doorstep, he said, amid the ideological, ordnance-laden tremors which daily define life in the Middle East.

“They’re a beautiful people.”

In Tel Aviv, he became fluent in Hebrew.

He was naturalized an Israeli citizen.

David became Ariah.

The once-Londoner and Roman Catholic converted to Judaism and took his new name — and none of it, he said, sat very well with family back home, estrangement or no.

“They didn’t speak to me for 20 years.”

In the meantime, leaving his career and his friends in Tel Aviv wasn’t easy — but he was compelled.

Those Ukrainian faces on Israeli TV, he said.

Those same (adopted) homeland stirrings, he said.

No spinning of the globe, this time: “I knew exactly where I was going.”

Living it, looking it

Ben Yehuda is a lean, rangy 6-foot-3, with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard.

On this cold afternoon, halfway across that globe in a West Virginia college town, he was wearing his combat camouflage fatigues, which are basically the only clothing he brought with him.

His warrior presence caused a couple diners to glance over and nod hellos.

And everyone noticed the patch on his shoulder, identifying his military occupational specialty as a medic.

Said patch, incongruously, is a grinning skull, topped with an Army helmet — which, in turn, is emblazoned with a red cross that looks just like the American Red Cross one.

Meanwhile, Archer Ginsburg and Boris Akkerman, both buddies from Morgantown, kept stealing glances.

The 9-year-olds play on the same soccer team.

Archer goes to Eastwood Elementary and Boris is a student at North.

Ben Yehuda, who is unmarried and doesn’t have children — no familial ties made doing a hard thing easier, he said — shook their hands as he would a grown-up and inquired about their grades and school.

The boys were there with their dads, who befriended the sojourner via X, the social media venue formerly known as Twitter.

Experiences, shared and felt

Michael Ginsburg is a Morgantown musician, who, as a teenager, studied classical violin in Israel.

After a time, he came back to the U.S., where he discovered bluegrass and old-time music.

The sonic reinvention took the Pennsylvania native all the way the Oklahoma State Fiddling Championship in 2007, where he sawed his way to the top blue ribbon.  

Vyacheslav Akkerman is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at WVU.

He’s Ukrainian and was born when his country was known as The Ukraine, existing, as it did, in the big shadow of the former Soviet Union.

Akkerman studied in Russia and held faculty appointments and fellowships at Stanford, Princeton and NASA before his arrival in Morgantown 12 years ago.

During a Fourth of July celebration right before Boris made his arrival, Akkerman and his wife took in a fireworks display.

He regarded the Rocket’s Red Glare, and his wife’s round belly,  at the same time.

“I remember thinking, my son is going to be born an American and he’s going to have a good life,” the professor recalled.

“And he won’t automatically be drafted into the military when he’s 18.”

Ginsburg, meanwhile, wanted his son to “see what bravery and empathy looks like,” as he put it.

He drove Ben Yehuda over from Philadelphia, the initial stop of a soldier making his first trip to the U.S., after having made online acquaintances earlier in the City of Brotherly Love.

“I needed to decompress,” the soldier said, even as he added that he isn’t sure if it’s working.

“I’m over here, my head is still over there.”

Ben Yehuda, who is currently lodging at a Morgantown-area bed and breakfast, will catch a flight out of Newark sometime after the first week of February.

He’ll again report for duty in that Ukrainian winter, he said, with the soul-sapping cold, the hell-rumble of the Russian tanks and the lethal whistle that always signals incoming mortar rounds.

“You look at him and you see a guy who could die on his first day back,” Ginsburg said.

“And, for a country and for a people he doesn’t really know. How many of us, really, actually, would be willing to do that?”

Kremlin miscalculation

Call Ukraine a nation and place of surprise for Putin, Ben Yehuda said.

That’s because the Russian leader, he said, still hasn’t gotten over the fierce response from Ukraine, soldiers and citizenry alike, once those tanks starting churning the earth at the border two years ago.

In a country where “Slava Ukraini” — Glory to Ukraine — is both an everyday greeting and a call to arms, the Kremlin, Ben Yehuda said, failed to tactically gauge just what guerilla pride and fierce nationalism can do in the hail of an invading force.

“Putin underestimated the resolve of the people,” the combat medic said.

“The Ukrainians are not going to give up their land, what’s theirs. They’ll fight forever.”

All in the marketing (he said, without irony)

That fight, though, of course, he said, is predicated on international aid.

And the Russian army, he said, is often ill-trained.

While Putin’s forces have sheer volume on their side, Ben Yehuda said, the actual waging of the war — commands, conquests — often comes up short.

Right now, he and his internationally inclined brothers and sisters in arms are watching the doings of Washington, D.C., knowing that lawmakers are chafing about the amount of U.S. dollars and munitions that have gone to the cause.

He knows that the ongoing fight for the Gaza Strip between Hamas and forces in his adopted homeland is diverting the international attention, both militarily and in a humanitarian sense.

That’s why, in a digital world, the combat medic is now the general of his own marketing campaign.

The dollars that are going in are mainly going for munitions, he said.

Numbers of war-wounded are leaving him unarmed, as it were, related to the inventory of supplies he needs to keep soldiers alive on the battlefield.

“What went on in Gaza on Oct. 7 is every day for us,” he said.

He’s soliciting money on his own for medical supplies.

Any second of downtime is spent maintaining his social media presence — provided a tower or grid is still standing, wherever he may be.

Of critical concern, he said, is the shortage of seventh-generation combat application tourniquets, known in the field as CAT-7s.

The Ukraine-Russian war is an artillery war, meaning devastating injuries.

A CAT-7, known as the standard among medics and field hospitals, can quickly be deployed to keep a wounded soldier from bleeding to death.

“We don’t travel with blood supplies for transfusions,” he said.

“Right now, we have the Chinese-made version of the CAT-7, but it just isn’t good,” Ben Yehuda said.

“It will snap, like that, and a guy will bleed out, right there. We’ve lost him, when we could have easily saved his life.”

With the monies that do come in, Ben Yehuda goes on wartime shopping expeditions to medical supply houses still standing, to pay on the spot for what he needs, often driving or patrolling on foot, and under fire, to get there.

He has a Facebook page and email — ariahbenyehuda@gmail.com — for information on how you can support the effort through his PayPal account.

His X (Twitter) account is @AriahBen2024. On Instagram, it’s @abenyehuda. Photographs and videos are posted on both.

Slava Ukraini — for as long as it takes

Ben Yehuda has bled for the cause, as well.

He sustained serious leg injuries when a Humvee he was riding in rolled over a landmine last fall. The soldier sitting next to him was killed.

He’s battled COVID and pneumonia in the field, on top of engaging the enemy up close. He’s been wounded two other times in the fray.

Bullets found their mark when he was fired upon by troops from a Russian personnel carrier.

He was also shot when a trench he was encamped in was overrun.

“We’re dug in, and they’re dug in, too,” he said.

“It’s like the trench warfare of World War I.”

This war — “For the people of Ukraine,” he said — he’ll wage until it’s done.

Then, and only then, he said, will he go back home to Israel.

“I’ve got six lives left. We’ll see.”

TWEET @DominionPostWV