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Some 300 rescued by Tampa organization as war in Ukraine enters second month

Project Dynamo has evacuated mostly Americans, sometimes as Russian artillery shells crash around them in their run for the nearest border.
A group of evacuees being transported out of Ukraine by Project Dynamo. The organization has rescued around 300 people since Russia invaded Ukraine last month.
A group of evacuees being transported out of Ukraine by Project Dynamo. The organization has rescued around 300 people since Russia invaded Ukraine last month. [ Project Dynamo ]
Published Mar. 25|Updated Mar. 25

Bryan Stern talks by phone often with people back in the United States, from wherever in Ukraine he may be at the moment.

As he spoke Thursday evening, fighter planes roared in the background.

“I really hope those are Ukrainian jets,” he said.

Constant communication is key to the mission for Stern, 42, a Tampa Army veteran. His organization, Project Dynamo, is evacuating Americans and others from war-ravaged Ukraine — some 300 of them so far, as the Russian attack enters its second month.

Among the most recent is Robert Platt, veteran of the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division. Platt and his Ukrainian wife became trapped in their home as Russian tanks and troops rolled through the streets below. The latest front line of the Russian invasion ran through their village north of Kyiv.

“As far as places you could be in Ukraine, this was one of the worst ones,” Stern said.

Bryan Stern of Project Dynamo, left, with Army veteran Robert Platt after the organization evacuated Platt and his Ukrainian wife from their village north of Kyiv as Russian troops came through.
Bryan Stern of Project Dynamo, left, with Army veteran Robert Platt after the organization evacuated Platt and his Ukrainian wife from their village north of Kyiv as Russian troops came through. [ Project Dynamo ]

The couple had decided against moving out earlier because Platt’s wife contracted COVID-19. By the time she recovered, the Russians were at their doorstep.

Stern’s team learned of the Platts’ plight, but during their first rescue attempt they were turned back at Ukrainian checkpoints because the Russian Army was too close.

Finally, on March 19, Stern reached their home. The Platts and their two cats secured, they drove north toward the border with Poland. Artillery shells crashed around them. The next day, bombs destroyed the neighborhood.

“He got out just in time,” Stern said.

The Platts’ rescue may have been the most dramatic, but other Project Dynamo evacuations have been conducted under fire, Stern said. It’s the nature of working in a war zone.

“If you’re out there and want out, we’ll do everything we can to get you,” Stern said.

Most of the people rescued by the group are American, but Project Dynamo volunteers will help whoever asks. So far, that has included British, Afghan, Mexican, Nigerian, Ukrainian and Romanian nationals. All are released at borders with Moldova, Poland or Romania.

The process works like this: Evacuees fill out a form online with their name, number, citizenship, last-known location and where they need to be taken. From there, the team works to reach and evacuate them, even if the Russian advance is nearing.

Before Stern started crisscrossing Ukraine, he was evacuating Afghans after the Taliban takeover of their nation Aug. 30.

He came up with the idea while watching the Taliban takeover on TV from the couch of his home in Tampa, he told NewsRadio WFLA: “We formed it on a Monday and we were in the air on Tuesday.”

Project Dynamo has operated off of donations since its inception. The group saw an influx of money in the first week of the Russian invasion, and donations have remained steady. But money burns up quickly in a war zone.

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“Everything here is hard to find and is expensive once you do,” Stern said Thursday. “Sometimes, we can’t even find toilet paper.”

The average donation has been about $125, Stern said. His dream is to keep growing the organization until a major investor sees its value and injects the cash to keep it going. More money would mean more resources, he said, and more lives saved.

As of Friday, the group had raised $2.34 million of its $2.5 million goal, according to its website — 10 times more than its donation total one month ago.

Project Dynamo is a joint operation of two veterans coalitions, Digital Dunkirk and Dynamo II, and gets its funding through donations to a Naples-based nonprofit — Liberty Aviation International Rescue, according to its website.

Operation Dynamo was the code name for the civilian-driven mass evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during World War II.

Stern declined to talk about details of the organization’s work in Ukraine out of concern for the safety of his team and those they’re helping. How many volunteers are on the ground, where they’re working, who’s providing local support are questions he won’t discuss.

Russia’s army may be struggling to gain ground in Ukraine, he said, but the attackers’ intelligence-gathering remains strong.

The success Ukraine has shown so far in holding them off was to be expected, Stern said.

“The Ukrainian people are the strongest I know, and their will to fight is showing,” he said. “There isn’t a Russian flag flying proudly over any place in Ukraine.”

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