After seeing the destruction caused by the Russian invasion, a local man’s convictions brought him out of retirement and from Waynesville to Ukraine, where he is training and assisting in the removal of dangerous munitions.
Retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. John Culp left the U.S. on April 5 to volunteer with Bomb Techs Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to preventing deaths by landmines, IEDs and other explosive remnants of war.
“I was already making plans to come anyway, but I was looking for the right fit. I didn’t want to just show up in Ukraine and not have a plan, so I linked up with (Bomb Techs Without Borders), and their initial reaction was, ‘We were planning to go over there when the shooting stops,'” Culp said from Kharkiv, where he was helping war crime investigators study blast sites on May 24. “I said, ‘I’m not waiting until the shooting stops. I’m going. Do you want me to work for you?'”
Culp’s army career began as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician, and he spent much of his time working with and training others on the disposal of explosives. In Kharkiv, he said he was also training an International Legion Unit, a collection of volunteers from other countries.
According to the May 24 Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, significant fighting happened to the North-East of Kharkiv near the Russia-Ukraine border within 24 hours of the report’s release. Despite Kharkiv still being under attack by Russian artillery, Culp said he had not seen any fighting and that things in the city were looking up.
“People we have talked to down here are saying the same thing, ‘Each day there is another restaurant opening, another store opening,'” he said.
When he first arrived in Ukraine, Culp was in Kyiv helping train the National Police at the National Academy of Internal Affairs. He said life in Kyiv, which was upended during Russia’s attack on the city earlier in the year, is returning to normal.
On Victory Day, a holiday celebrating Russia’s victory over Germany in WWII, Culp said he went to Maidan Square and was surprised by what he saw.
“It was just alive. There were live music being played on the streets, and there were people all over the place, and people riding bicycles. There were people doing Tai Chi to demonstrate against the Chinese Communists. There was all kinds of stuff going on,” he said.
Culp then helped to clear and destroy munitions in Hostomels, Irpin and Bucha. He also did training with police in Zhytomyr before traveling to Kharkiv. He said he would be traveling back to Kyiv on May 26 to meet back up with Bomb Techs Without Borders CEO Matthew Howard.
In church, Culp said he was learning about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran priest from Germany who was executed in the 1930s by Germany for his anti-Nazi views and actions. After watching a video on bomb technicians in Ukraine struggling with a lack of modern supplies and training, Culp felt like he needed to help.
“I’m 69 years old and, although I am in pretty good shape, I don’t flatter myself to think that I’m particularly front-line duty,” he said. “But I looked at that, and I said, “That’s something I could offer some expertise.'”
Culp’s wife Donna, a retired Air Force Captain and president of the Western North Carolina Chapter of the Military Officer’s Association of America, which meets at Kenmure Country Club in Flat Rock, said she is fully in support of her husband.
“I said the selfish side of me would say, ‘We are retired, you just need to stay here and support from whatever remote possibility you can, you know, donating money or whatever,” she said. “But I said, ‘You know what, you do bring a lot to the table, and this is a place where you can really make a difference.'”
Because Bomb Techs Without Borders is a non-profit, Culp isn’t paid for his time in Ukraine. Donna Culp said they funded the trip by selling an old car they were thinking of selling anyway.
She also said that, while the first few weeks were hard, because she can talk to him every night, she is used to him being deployed and through her faith in God, she is able to get used to the “new rhythm of life.”
“Every day I get a sign of life, and we can’t really talk about details or anything, but I can just see in his demeanor, in his voice, in his countenance and everything that he really is feeling like he’s making a contribution,” she said.
Donna Culp said right from the start, her husband was a humble person with a big heart.
“He told me when I first met him, he said, ‘I’m just a certified nice guy,'” she said.
They met after she already retired from the Air Force. At the time, they were both single parents and met up through a classifieds ad she put in the paper to expand her group of single parent friends.
“I told him, I said, ‘I’m not interested in getting married again. That’s just not for me … Now if you ever decide you want to get married again, you find Mrs. Right. You can invite me to the wedding and I’ll support you.’ And the rest is history,” she said.
John and Donna Culp’s children, who all have the Culp name after he adopted her kids, are as supportive of their father as his wife.
“They’ve always been proud of what we have done, and they understand the gravity of the situation in Ukraine,” Donna Culp said. “If they were in positions in their life right now to be able to just pull up stakes and go over with some humanitarian effort, I know for sure one of them would in particular.”
Travis Culp, who lives in Forth Worth, Texas, is doing fundraising efforts for Bomb Techs Without Borders.
“If you believe in this fight, support it,” John Culp said. “You know, everyone can spare a dime or two, or $10, and I’m not saying send it to BTWOB. I’m saying send it to whatever charity you think motivates you. Send it to people that are providing food. Send it to people who are providing medical supplies.”
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Retired Special Forces officer comes out of retirement to help in Ukraine