He’s graduating from UWT this week. Instead of celebrating, he’s headed to a war zone

Of all the images forever lodged in his brain, it’s the children that stick with David Pavenko the most. When he closes his eyes, he can still see them playing in the rubble.

Pavenko, 24, is like many aspiring young adults from this area. Born and raised in Tacoma, he funneled through Tacoma public schools on his way to Bates Technical College, where he earned a degree in woodworking. From there, he enrolled at the University of Washington Tacoma. This week, he’s graduating with a hard-earned bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

But while Pavenko’s classmates will be celebrating commencement at the Tacoma Dome on Friday, he’ll be more than 5,000 miles away — making his way to the front lines of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

It’s a dangerous journey he’s already made once before, and one he’s compelled to make again, he recently told me.

“I saw the images of civilians lying on the streets, kids lying on the street dead from all the shelling and the rocket attacks, and it just broke my heart,” said Pavenko, a Ukrainian-American who grew up with six siblings in a small house in the shadow of the Narrows. “I figured, although I’m American and I was born here … by blood, I’m still Ukrainian. My parents were Ukrainian. My grandparents were Ukrainian. My great-grandparents suffered under Stalin.”

“I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do something,” added Pavenko, whose mom and dad fled Ukraine for the United States as refugees in 1996, two years before he was born. “I just feel like these are my people, and if I don’t do something I’ll regret it forever.”

David Pavenko photographed during his first trip to Ukraine in fall 2022.
David Pavenko photographed during his first trip to Ukraine in fall 2022.

To understand the connection Pavenko feels with the citizens of Ukraine — and particularly those in the areas of the country currently under brutal Russian attack — it’s helpful to understand his background, and the single-handed humanitarian effort he’s been engaged in since last year. The stories and visuals that emerged in the days and weeks following Russia’s 2022 invasion of the country, including New York Times footage of the massacre in Bucha, a city just west of Kyiv, moved and consumed him, he explained. Before long, he’d lost a cousin to the fighting. He’d already lost two back in 2014, when the Russo-Ukrainian War first started.

So last September Pavenko set off alone, with roughly $7,000 he’d earned during a summer internship, intent on personally delivering essential supplies to civilians caught on the front lines. Through word of mouth and friends of family friends, he connected with a volunteer who makes trips into some of the most war-torn regions of the country. He used his money on food, medicine and other necessities, and his goal was simple: reaching the people who need help the most, and trying to convince families with children to evacuate.

In total, Pavenko spent nearly a month in Ukraine last year, he said, witnessing the atrocities of war firsthand. Just like the videos he first watched from his Tacoma bedroom — in the same house he grew up in, where his devout Christian parents still live — he saw the bombed-out buildings and the bodies and blood in the street for himself. Only this time, he smelled the putrid smoke and he heard the stories of loss face to face. Most importantly, there was something tangible he could do in response.

His parents were terrified of course, and he got plenty of bewildered looks. But it was a deeply powerful experience, he says, and one that changed him forever.

Now that he’s on the cusp of adulthood – intent on entering the workforce and putting his new degree to good use — he told me it’s something he’s driven to do again, before the growing responsibilities of his life no longer allow it.

He has a one-way ticket booked for Tuesday, and he’s raised another $7000 from friends and members of his church. He plans to stay until the money runs out, and he recently purchased a helmet and bulletproof vest for good measure.

“Materialistic things don’t last. But when I went to Ukraine and I had the opportunity to help, it was the best experience of my life, and the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” said Pavenko. He already has an unofficial job offer lined up at a major Northwest employer, scheduled to start in August.

Four days before his scheduled flight, Pavenko — who recently earned his pilot’s license and hopes to one day serve in the Air National Guard — admitted being nervous about the journey ahead. He knows anything could happen, and said it’s difficult to put into words his rationale for risking everything. Most people don’t get it.

Still, more than a year after Vladimir Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine — a country he previously knew best from afar — he feels more connected to the nation and its people than ever. And as he watches the ongoing war slowly fade from the general American consciousness, Pavenko is intent on keeping the daily horrors at the forefront of people’s minds here in Tacoma — and to keep doing his part for Ukraine, whatever it takes.

Mostly, he said, he can’t stop thinking about those kids.

“Going there and seeing the destruction, seeing the kids without the parents, seeing the dead civilians lying in the rubble and the firefighters pulling them out, it affected me in my heart. I want to go back. I have to go back,” Pavenko said.

“There are children there who have a future ahead of them,” he added.

“I’m so blessed. America provided everything for my family. I consider it my duty to help.”