While media coverage of the war in Ukraine shows shocking images that evoke horror and compassion, a former Statesboro man witnessed some of the savagery firsthand.
Ottis "Chip" W. Taylor recently evacuated from Ukraine, fearing for his family's safety due to his role in helping Ukrainian soldiers. Taylor worked closely with soldiers who have fought the Russians since they invaded Crimea in the southern part of the country in 2014.
His job was to help the soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and with drug and alcohol addiction recovery. While living in the war-torn country, he witnessed some vicious acts by Russian soldiers, who targeted not only the Ukrainian military, but civilians.
"Old people. Children," he said.
Coming to Statesboro
Taylor first came to Statesboro in 1983, "running from trouble with addiction." In 1987, he was admitted to Willingway Hospital, where he “got sober” and worked for a while with Bulloch Memorial Hospital.
He left for a bit, but returned to Statesboro in 2004 to be close to family. It was then that he was ordained as a Baptist minister in Dover in Screven County, he said.
Subsequently, he went on a mission trip to the city of Krasnodar in Russia and he became aware of an urgent need for addiction and recovery programs in the country.
"There, I learned how bad drug and alcohol addiction was."
He was asked to give a talk about recovery from addiction, and, with his experience with the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, he agreed to be a counselor for various programs.
He returned to Statesboro, but soon thereafter was asked to help again in Russia – this time with a program in Moscow. He ended up as a director of an addiction recovery program in Moscow from 2006 to 2008.
"I had no intention of working over there," he said. "But something about that mission trip got under my skin."
The Crimean invasion of Ukraine had not yet begun, but "increasingly difficult politics" ended with Taylor going to Ukraine to work in a similar field.
"A Russian Orthodox church hired me to run an alcohol and drug treatment center in a monastery," he said.
He worked as recovery and counseling director at Ukraine Recovery Resources in Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine, not far from the Crimean peninsula. (During the current invasion, Russian forces kidnapped the city's mayor, but released him five days later.)
Taylor also worked in Dnipro, which is eastern Ukraine, where he helped “teach psychologists how to deal with abandoned and abused kids with PTSD," he said. He was there until 2016. After that, he went to in Zalistsi in western Ukraine, where he worked as program director and case manager for the Zalistsi Treatment Center.
Working with soldiers
Taylor, working with soldiers coming back from combat, saw firsthand the results of increasing turmoil in the country.
It was during this time he met and married his wife Lidia, and they had a son, Daniel, who is now 7.
The world only began to focus sharply on the Russian invasion after leader Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale assault on eastern Ukraine and the capitol city of Kyiv. But, Taylor said, "The war actually started in 2014" and just accelerated this year, he said.
"Over 14,000 people had already been killed before Putin started this" current attack.
With the work he was doing with Ukrainian soldiers at the Zalistsi Treatment Center, it became clear in early February that he would become a target with the imminent invasion.
"I had friends in the state department in Kyiv who told me I needed to leave," he said.
While Taylor said he was not forced to evacuate, there had been significant media coverage on the work he had been doing to help Ukrainian soldiers, "People knew who I was," he said.
"My friends in the state told me I needed to leave. I knew (the Russians) would kill me and my wife and son. It would be too dangerous."
Fortunately, "We left before the shelling began."
On Feb. 11, he was told to get out within 24 hours for his family's safety. They had to wait until Feb. 19 before he could do so. The family first fled to Poland, where a problem with Daniel's passport was cleared. Then Taylor and his son came to the US.
With the onset of the invasion Feb. 24, "Lidia stayed to help funnel (Ukrainian refugees) across the border until March 3," he said.
The family now resides in St. Simons Island, where Taylor has relatives. He works in drug and alcohol treatment and marketing with Golden Isles Treatment Center.
He and his family may be safe, but what he witnessed prior to leaving and the knowledge of what is happening now, haunt him.
"I have friends fighting and dying in Kyiv right now," he said. "People have died whose children I have held, who I dined with. These are my friends. The soldiers I had been working with."
He described a house near where he lived in Zalistsi that was set up with soldiers and machine guns, ready to fight, and an elderly woman who lived next door.
She had her windows boarded up and covered, but still, "The Russians would shoot at her house, knowing an old woman lived there."
Russian soldiers do not only fight soldiers; they attack the innocent and helpless, he said.
"Bombs that look like toys are dropped so kids could pick them up and play with them, then they would explode. They are not just shooting soldiers. They are shooting civilians. Old men on bicycles, children. They are making sport out of it."
Taylor told the story of an older Ukrainian woman whose adult son went out for firewood.
"It is still cold there," he said. "They shot him in the legs, then in the body, and let him suffer until they shot him in the head. She, a 60-year-old woman, had to dig a hole and bury her own son in her front yard."
Trying to help
Although safe in the United States, Taylor is working to help the adopted home he and his family were forced to leave behind.
He and Lidia are working with a group "like the ‘Underground Railroad,’ pulling people out of Ukraine, to Poland or other safe countries," he said.
The group helps with financial resources, food and medical needs such as bandages and antibiotics.
"We have friends sending weapons," he said. "They need night goggles and body armor."
Some are even sending money to help care for animals, set free by refugees, that are wandering and need food and care, he said.
Taylor said he feels a restlessness – a frustration over not being able to do more.
"If not for my wife and son, I'd be over there killing Russians," he said. "It is even worse than what you see on TV. I wake up every night at 3 a.m. thinking of this (expletive). I am in a nice house, drinking coffee, and people are over there dying. It's messed up."
But the efforts of people in the United States and around the world, such as Taylor and his group, can still help in assisting with evacuation and sending supplies.
"People are fighting in the streets over there, and we have a small way of getting them a little of what they need."
Taylor may be reached by email at ottistaylor10@gmail or find him on Facebook under Ottis Chip W Taylor.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 243-7815