Kyiv, 20 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- During the Cold War, Darrell Clark knew Ukraine like few other people in the world -- through the lens of an aerial camera used to photograph Soviet military sites on airborne spying missions. Now, the former U.S. special forces pilot is seeing a different side of Ukraine, when he visits its orphanages and children's hospitals to deliver humanitarian aid.
Retired after a 31-year military career filled with cloak-and-dagger daring, the 57-year-old career pilot, parachutist and underwater specialist has discovered he can do a lot of good on the ground, battling the poverty and sickness that plague thousands of underprivileged Ukrainian children.
"When you watch the roads and the rivers and you know everything from sixty, seventy, eighty thousand feet above, you always wonder what is on the surface - what the people are like and what is really there," Clark tells RFE/RL. His first glimpse of what life was like in post-independence Ukraine came in 1995 when he visited Kyiv as a member of an advance team for Operation Blessing, a humanitarian aid project that brought a custom-built airborne medical center to the region in the autumn of 1996. Clark was responsible for selecting and purchasing the aircraft and designing the interior. It was then that he saw firsthand how the young were often hardest hit by the changes sweeping through the former Soviet Union.
He recalls a seven-year-old girl he encountered. "Anya latched onto me as I walked in the door and was virtually with me every minute of the day. She was the blondest blonde and had the bluest blue eyes. She was always wanting to snuggle and be close. And, when I walked away, she had tears in her eyes," Clark says, his own eyes watery and his voice shaking. "She died of leukemia six months later."
Now, Clark is president and co-founder of Ukraine Children's Project, a U.S.-based charity that provides medical and humanitarian supplies to orphanages and children's hospitals. Over the last 16 months, Clark, along with partner Carey Adams and a team of American and Ukrainian volunteers have delivered shipments to ten children's facilities in Kyiv, Vinnytsya, Pervomaisk and Kremenchug.
Donors from across America contribute. A store in the midst of moving its operation provided a crate of new Nike sneakers; a 100-year-old woman in the state of Washington gave socks and mittens she knitted herself. Clark estimates the value of the shipments at $200,000, with another $50,000 worth of medical supplies en route. "We've poured almost everything we have into bringing people and stuff here. ... Putting it into dollars is meaningless. It is the changes on the faces of the kids," said Clark. "It isn't easy getting the stuff in (through customs). It's not a job for the faint-hearted. ... But when you take the stuff to an orphanage and you see a Dima or a Sasha or an Anya, you forget all about the other stuff."
Clark's organization is also helping orphaned children become independent by teaching them vocational skills. Ukraine Children's Project is currently working to import toolboxes and sewing equipment, so that orphanage staff can teach boys and girls a marketable trade.
Given Clark's previous career as a Cold Warrior, his newfound attachment to a people he was rigorously taught to view as enemies is, to use his word, "ironic."
The Montana native joined the U.S. Air Force in 1963, eventually becoming a member of an elite special operations branch. Clark spent 19 years on secret missions to more than 100 countries that involved everything from piloting reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory to testing the enemy's MiGs and Antonovs.
Seeking transport for some of his organization's humanitarian shipments, Clark met Yura, a former Soviet intelligence officer who now owns a trucking company in Kyiv. The two were shocked to learn that their paths had crossed years earlier, in an Eastern European country where Yura's unit operated surveillance equipment that one day disappeared -- courtesy of Clark's team. Yura was nearly court-martialed as a result.
When not out stealing military secrets from the Soviet Union, Clark also served as an Air Force One pilot, during the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Clark's last foray into battle was against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Then, in 1994, he decided to hang up his goggles and parachute for a more peaceful life as a civilian -- and, an evangelical Christian.
A lifetime of soldiering at an end, Clark has dedicated himself to helping the young who cannot help themselves. In addition to the humanitarian aid, his organization is trying to bring Ukrainian orphans with severe birth defects to the U.S. for medical treatment. "The children that are in the orphanages today represent a significant percentage of the young people in this country, and...I really do believe that, unless they achieve their full capabilities, the nation won't achieve its full potential," says Clark.