For a few hundred dollars, euros, or Swiss francs, thanks to Bill Daniels, a retired leadership consultant and trainer who has done some work for UNICEF, you can send a non-lethal surveillance drone to the Ukrainian troops fighting the Russian army. You can also have your name written on the package, and include a message of support, which will be translated into Ukrainian. The most popular mini drone is manufactured by DJI.
This was Uli’s message, from Switzerland: “To the courageous men and women in Ukraine: My thoughts are with you every day in the face of the pain and anguish you have to go through. I wish you all the very best, that you stay strong and in good health, and that you can be reunited with your loved ones soon. May we all find peace again very soon. In sincere gratitude and admiration. Uli.”
The Fight Back for Ukraine project, which buys and sends non-lethal surveillance to Ukrainian troops—besides drones, infra-red night goggles and metal detectors are also in high demand—is Daniels’ brainchild.
AN EPIPHANY BORN FROM INDIGNATION
The sixty-something young retiree, who lived in Colorado before moving to Europe, has the build of an active man. “Rock climbing has been key in shaping who I am as a person,” he tells us, with a heavy midwestern accent, nursing a Coke at a café in Ferney. He won’t lose his drawl, but he has relinquished his US passport. “When Trump was elected, I just lost it,” he says. “I switched to a Canadian passport. I feel better now.”
February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, was the trigger that prompted him to support the Ukrainians. “How dare Russia go after a small, peaceful, and democratic nation?” he questions, the indignation perceptible in his voice. “Everything that the Ukrainians are enduring is so profoundly unfair. Not to mention the effects of the invasion for the rest of us, were Russia to win. I simply don’t want to live in a world where a culture of fear, mistrust, and tyranny reign.”
Initially though, Daniels didn’t think about delivering help to the Ukrainian volunteer forces. His project took shape almost as an epiphany as he was driving back to Ferney from Slovakia, after making the journey in his own car over three days to deliver canned goods. “There were clothes of all sizes, first aid kits, and enough food to feed thousands. It was impressive to see, because that region is so dreadfully poor, but I also realized that my limited food contribution was by no means essential. And what I wanted in my heart was for the Ukrainian people to not end up in a losing situation; either conquered or emasculated with no possible positive future, living with the threat of more incursions at any point in time,” he explains.
That’s when the idea to support frontline troops with non-lethal surveillance equipment dawned on him. “In terms of Ukraine’s ability to fight successfully, the issue has been and is that they are outgunned by the Russians. If I can contribute to saving just one soldier, I would already feel like I’d made a difference. These guys are risking their lives to defeat Russia.”
Back in Gex, he reached out to a contact at the Permanent Mission of Ukraine in Geneva. “Little by little, I managed to establish a significant network with key actors, capable of making sure that the equipment I brought made it into the right hands.”
SIX MISSIONS ON HIS OWN DIME
Since the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bill Daniels has thus been making regular trips by car to the war-torn borders, where he unloads significant stocks of supplies. A colossal mission for a lone volunteer—and for sure, a bit of an adventure in terra incognita.
The first journey proved to be the toughest by far. On-site, delivering products proved almost impossible. The roads are bumpy and potholed; the GPS signal is spotty. “When I arrived, a man in charge of a local association helped me out. He lied to the border patrollers, telling them that the mayor of the nearby Ukrainian town was expecting me. They let us through.”
Part of him still ponders how he ended up helping volunteer soldiers. “I’m not a ‘thank you for your service’ kind of guy," he insists. He appreciates the social model of the US military which “offers education and health benefits.” “But I don’t agree with the politics behind it,” he tells us.
Daniels spent most of his professional life as a leadership consultant, for some large companies, Opel, Dupont De Nemours, Dow Chemicals, or UNICEF, to name a few. The avid mountaineer believes that his past professional experience is closely linked to his current initiative: “I am a ‘facilitator’ in the true sense of the word: I make things easier. I contribute to something that directly resonates with the Ukrainian people. I am result-oriented. Fight Back for Ukraine also offers an alternative to traditional philanthropy and humanitarian relief: you buy the material and I deliver it. Some people give money to the Red Cross, and that’s laudable, but one is never quite sure where the money is going,” he says.
Bill doesn’t hide the fact that after six expeditions through Slovakia or Hungary on his own dime, funds are beginning to dwindle. “Up until now, we’ve raised more than €80,000, including €20,000 out of my pocket,” he discloses. But crowdfunding has sometimes proved to be a challenge. “Algorithms arbitrarily and indiscriminately identify crowdfunding initiatives for Ukraine as scams.” Daniels informs me that Paypal has refused to release $1,300 wired to his organization through the platform. The amount remains frozen; Paypal’s service, however, is again operational.
As in the early days of any crowdfunding effort, most of the people who have donated money to the cause so far are close friends, relatives, or former work colleagues who share his values.
With help from his social media–savvy daughter Sarah and Denver-based former colleague Elfego Gomez, Bill hopes to make another trip to Ukraine in July. He’s realistic, but refuses to give up. “It doesn’t look like Ukraine can 'win’ this war, but it is still possible that they can bring it to a conclusion, and that the noose around their necks won’t be pulled ever tighter.”