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New York's DEC chief felt 'pulled' to volunteer in Ukraine

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Basil Seggos
The destruction in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

Basil Seggos, the Department of Environmental Conservation's commissioner, says he was “pulled” to volunteer after watching the war unfold.

"This atrocious war, with civilians being killed on a regular basis and yet the people united under the cause of democracy and their own self-governance," Seggos says. "I wanted to do what I could to help."

Seggos took a leave of absence from his post at the DEC and drove ambulances across the border from Slovakia to Kyiv for the not-for-profit Ukraine Friends.

Seggos is now back at his job in Albany. He spoke with North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein about his experiences in Ukraine. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

BASIL SEGGOS: It came down to the need for ambulance drivers. Literally, they just needed people to drive ambulances that had been donated from Europe and the US into the country from Slovakia and Poland. So I raised my hand and jumped on board and became an ambulance driver for two weeks.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: So that's what you did. You drove ambulances?

SEGGOS: I did. We gathered in Slovakia and made a border crossing. We did about a 13-hour drive straight from the Slovakia border all the way into Kyiv with a convoy of about 20 ambulances. And a few days later, we did a bit of a ceremony effectively giving all these ambulances — 44 of them total — to both the Ministry of Health and the territorial defense forces, and then those ambulances we had to then deliver out to units around the country.

Ukraine is a beautiful European country. I mean, Kyiv itself really has the hallmarks of just a beautiful European capital and to see it, and to see so many of the surrounding villages so devastated. You certainly get it from the news, but to see it firsthand, and to see literally hundreds of miles of villages flattened, civilians having been targeted. I mean, it's impossible not to feel a degree of anger.

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Chantal Mistral-Bernard
Seggos drove an ambulance in a 12-hour convoy from Mukachevo to Kyiv over the Karpathian mountains.

SOMMERSTEIN: You're New York's top environmental official in your day job. So what were you seeing through the lens of your environmental brain as you were in Ukraine?

SEGGOS: Yeah, I mentioned that devastation, seeing the suburbs of Kiev, many of which are flattened, Bucha, others, heading out to Kharkiv, seeing the devastation of that city and some of the frontline damage that I witnessed. I mean, it's hard not to see the environmental degradation.

It's complete destruction of the water infrastructure, sewage, the energy grid directly targeted. The landscape itself shattered. I mean, just shattered with waste, debris, rocket parts, unexploded ordinances. I mean, this is going to take a generation to clean up once they prevail, once there's a rebuild, it will take a generation. I've never seen anything like it.

I mean, certainly I have seen Superstorm Sandy 10 years ago, the devastation downstate. I've seen other impacted areas. I was in Haiti after the earthquake there many years ago. But to see it at this scale, across like thousands of square miles? Yes, they need to rebuild, but the landscape itself will be a huge challenge.

SOMMERSTEIN: You've been back for several days now. When you're talking with your friends and family, what's the one story that you keep telling over and over?

SEGGOS: Just one anecdote is [a conversation with] a young individual there who's helping with some of the rebuild.

There's an enormous amount of brain drain. And when the Russians attacked Ukraine, civilians that weren't killed, many of them fled, either fled to the west or fled into Europe. And there's a huge need right now to attract those people back. The youth are helping to do that.

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Basil Seggos
Young people in Ukraine are building heaters and making paraffin candles to prepare for winter.

I was so inspired by these kind of pop-up advocacy organizations, one of which was focusing on shelter and displaced people and trying as much as possible to get these policies in place to attract Ukrainians back into the country, so that, frankly, it can be repopulated in some of these areas that have been decimated.

And I made an observation to him, I said, 'you know, you're really the future of this country, aren't you?' And he said to me, 'no, we're the generation of the now'.

And that is something that is going to stick with me, that it's literally the entire country, the kids in the factories, building heaters, the young activists that are creating pathways back into the country for those that had fled, the soldiers on the front line who were sitting there on watch and defending, frankly, all of our freedoms and all of our democracies.

So that to me, is something that is stuck with me for life. And I think it should be something that everyone is attuned to.

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Chantal Mistral Bernard
Basil Seggos, right, and his team with Ukraine Friends delivering first aid kits to soldiers at the front.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.