‘lawyer by day and a boot smuggler by night,’ this Ukrainian American is helping funnel supplies to Ukrainian soldiers


(CNN)Tetiana Poudel’s father, a deputy commander in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, needed combat boots.

Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and his unit was desperately lacking basic protective gear and medical supplies.
So Poudel, a 31-year-old Ukrainian American citizen — who’s on leave from her California day job as an attorney for the music-streaming service Spotify — packed up her life in Silicon Valley, moved to Poland and raised $13,000 for around 100 pairs of boots for her dad and members of his unit.
“I like to tell people I’m a lawyer by day and a boot smuggler by night,” she said earlier this month in an interview with CNN. A photo she shared with CNN shows her father and another soldier beaming next to new boots stacked on top of cardboard boxes.
Poudel’s initiative is a microcosm of a much larger network of private citizens, many of them veterans, from around the world who are working to provide Ukrainian soldiers with additional equipment they say they need to continue effectively fighting off the Russians.
In some cases, Poudel and Western officials told CNN, efforts by private citizens to funnel gear and supplies to Ukrainian soldiers have been faster and more direct — albeit on a much smaller scale — than the government-led initiatives. The boots are just one need among many — including firearms, ammunition and body armor — that volunteers and private citizens from around the world are trying to fulfill for the Ukrainian army, which has ballooned in size since Russia invaded two months ago.
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The Biden administration is preparing to announce that it is sending another $800 million worth of military assistance to Ukraine, CNN reported Tuesday. If approved, the latest package would mean the US has committed about $3.4 billion in assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.
But for Poudel and others on the ground, the aid being provided by Western countries is still “too slow and it’s not enough,” she said.
Poudel said she has been able to crowdsource enough money — through her contacts on LinkedIn, WhatsApp and volunteer organizations like UkraineNow — to buy the boots and obtain about a dozen tactical vests for her father and members of his unit. She delivered T-shirts to them last week, and the soldiers repaid her with pizza.
“These guys are just so grateful,” she said.
Poudel stands next to a Ukrainian soldier picking up supplies she helped to supply to her father and his unit.

Poudel’s godmother had to pick up the boots in Poland and drive them over the border in multiple trips, since Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 aren’t allowed to leave the country.
At the time, Poudel stayed in Poland with her mother and sister, who had fled Ukraine in the early days of the war. But underscoring how decisive Russia’s defeat has been in northern Ukraine, Poudel and her family felt secure enough in recent weeks to move back to their hometown of Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine, as Russia shifted its focus to the east of the country.
In a statement to CNN, Serhiy Sobko, a deputy commander and chief of staff for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, said the troops are thankful for all of the help from volunteers.
“Within a few weeks, the TDF expanded to over 100,000 people ready to protect their country from the enemy,” Sobko said, which led to a shortage in equipment.
“The Ukrainian government, our international partners, (and) prominent Ukrainian charitable foundations immediately involved their efforts to provide TDF with all needed equipment,” Sobko said. “And TDF command makes sure that those brigades and battalions that are on the front line get the protection first. Therefore we are grateful to those volunteers from Ukraine and abroad who contribute to equipping our soldiers.”

More is needed, soldiers say

A US official told CNN that in terms of equipment and gear, the US has so far provided Ukraine with tactical secure communications systems, night vision devices, thermal imagery systems, optics, laser range finders, explosive ordnance disposal protective gear, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protective equipment, and medical supplies, including first aid kits.
The official did not detail how much of that gear has been delivered so far. But the Ukrainian soldiers need much more of all of it, they said, particularly thermal imaging cameras, night vision devices and quadcopters. They also need extremely basic gear, like seat belts, backpacks, flashlights and gloves, according to a list compiled by the soldiers and obtained by CNN.
When it comes to shipping in heavier protective gear like body armor, Poudel and other volunteers, including two US Marine veterans she met in Poland, have run into considerable hurdles: Level III and IV body armor is regulated by the US and requires special authorization by the State Department, contracts frequently fall through and any equipment that does get in is often backed up at airports.
Level III armor provides protection against rifle rounds and level IV provides the most ballistic protection, according to the National Institute of Justice.
“One of the issues is, obviously, we’re just getting through Covid. So you have all kinds of supply conditions that are difficult just on day one,” Trey Sharpe, one of the Marine veterans helping Poudel, told CNN. “And then two, anytime you’re trying to procure items that are in intense demand, it becomes hard.”
Bureaucracy is another challenge, he said.
“So if I want to ship a level IV (body armor) plate out of the United States, for example, I have to deal with American bureaucracy, Polish bureaucracy, Ukrainian bureaucracy, and then I have to get the money too, and I’m trying to do all of this from a cell phone, often in the middle of nowhere,” he said, referring to his travels throughout western Ukraine. “It’s, you know, it’s not like shopping on Amazon. And I don’t need just one (plate), I need thousands.”
Poudel said the situation is often demoralizing.
“Sometimes I do get very depressed and sad about how much I’m not able to do,” she said. “We have pretty much nothing and it’s not like it’s over just because Russia is refocusing on eastern Ukraine. They are still here” in the country.
It is worth the effort, though, despite the difficulties, she said.
“Doing whatever I can on the ground here feels more meaningful than just sitting in the (United) States, even if it’s just like, buying them vests and raincoats,” she told CNN. “It’s like, OK, I’m doing something real. I really see where it gets delivered.”
Poudel added that while humanitarian aid is clearly needed, it is little more than a short-term solution to the widespread suffering Russia is inflicting upon civilians — if that aid even gets delivered at all.
“I support humanitarian aid,” Poudel said. “But I think that is just a Band-Aid. The most important thing right now is to support the Ukrainian armed forces, because in most cases that humanitarian aid isn’t even getting into the places that need it.”
Poudel’s father, Volodymyr Danyliuk, told CNN in a video interview that what is “most needed are helmets, transport vehicles and air defense systems. Because most of the time they are attacking from the air, and we can’t protect ourselves against it.”
Ukrainian officials have told the US that to keep Russia from controlling the skies over the country, Ukrainian forces need 500 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles per day. The Pentagon plans to speed up production of the weapons; the shipments have so far not kept up with the Ukrainians’ demand.
Medicines are similarly hard to come by. Poudel explained that because so many pharmacies have been destroyed, Ukrainian women, including herself, have begun driving into Poland to pick up medications and deliver them back over the border.