By Teja Pallikonda
TEJA 1: I’m Teja Pallikonda, and you’re listening to Telling True Stories in Sound.
We’ve all seen the disturbing videos and images from Ukraine these past three months. But there’s one image that I can’t get out of my head.
A young mother named Sasha took a picture of her 2-year-old daughter’s back. Written in permanent marker is the name of an extended family member and two phone numbers, so in case the parents died trying to escape the war, their daughter wouldn’t end up an orphan.
Everyday, parents in Ukraine are making impossible decisions in order to protect their families. Fleeing their homes, sending their kids off to relatives while their parents fight in a bloody war, or even sacrificing their own lives to spare their children’s.
But I have a friend here that may be making a huge sacrifice for his parents that they never asked for.
TEJA 2: Hey Josh, you there?
JOSH 1: How’s it going?
TEJA 3: Good! How are you? It’s so good to see you!
JOSH 2: Yeah, you too. It’s been a while.
TEJA 4: That’s my buddy from high school, Josh Reinstrom. He was a year above me and currently lives in Minnesota as he’s finishing up his bachelor’s in international relations.
Josh and I were in the same debate team for most of high school. The more we learned about what was happening in the world, the more motivated we became to make a difference. Hours after practice, you’d still find us in the classroom blowing off our homework to vent about super PACs, genocides of the 20th century, education policy,
Yea – we were those nerds.
Wherever life took us after debate, we all shared the same drive to become powerful people sitting in important seats that could make an impact on the world. I never once thought that any of us would think of picking up a gun and fighting in a war.
JOSH 3: Ukraine is alone in this fight in terms of military powers helping or not, and so you have this very gut feeling that you know this is wrong and, it’s just knowing that you’re not just helping people, you’re saving their life.
TEJA 5: As soon as he found out that the Ukrainian President was inviting international volunteers to fight against Russia, Josh called the embassy to see how he could apply.
But there’s one thing that’s been holding him back from going to Ukraine: he’s diabetic. He’s unsure whether he’d be able to get the insulin he needs in a conflict zone, or whether he’d be able to store it properly.
But despite his medical concerns, he’s still determined to fight.
JOSH 4: I need to do something, I’m, I’m not going to look back on this point in my life
later and, and say that I did nothing. I’m going to say that I did everything I could
TEJA 6: On top of being diabetic, Josh also doesn’t have formal military training. He’s never been in a conflict zone, and the only time he’s handled a gun is when he hunts with family.
As much as I appreciate his Captain America-like attitude to do the right thing and protect people’s freedom, I seriously doubted whether he really understood what he was signing up for. And I’m not alone.
JOHN 1: Unless you’ve been in combat, you don’t know anything about it.
TEJA 7: That’s Josh’s dad, John.
The two of them have a close relationship and very much exude the “like father, like son” dynamic. They’re both history buffs. They’re both diabetic. In fact, John is the one that introduced Josh to his love of military history.
JOHN 2: We used to kind of have quizzes at the dining room table over dinner about certain
periods of history whether it was the Revolutionary War, or World War II, or Vietnam.
TEJA 8: Even for vacation, they’d travel to historic military grounds.
JOHN 3: We’ve been to Gettysburg. He’s walked the entire battle field so we could see where one of the pivotal battles in the American Civil War was fought. He’s been out here to visit me in early April during Patriot’s Day where the Battles of Lexington and Concord are reenacted.
TEJA 9: Both John and Josh believe what’s happening in Ukraine has a lot of parallels to the early days of World War II.
But beyond the fear of watching history repeat itself, I wanted to know from John what else could be motivating Josh to want to fight. So I asked if he has family in the military.
JOHN 4: Not directly, not not in my family.
TEJA 10: Josh did tell me he is Eastern European on his mother’s side but didn’t actually know his family that was still living in the region. Is there someone on his dad’s side he was worried about?
JOHN 5: My family heritage is entirely Scandinavian.
TEJA 11: Well, both of them were drawing a lot of parallels between Putinism and Nazism. Are they Jewish?
JOHN 6: No. No member of my family, close or extended, is Jewish.
TEJA 12: Is there a part of Josh that’s confrontational? Does he like fighting?
JOHN 7: Josh didn’t really get into any fights. He wasn’t confrontational. He he was much more interested in finding a common middle ground uh as long as that aligned with his understanding of what was fair and right.
TEJA 13: So Josh is just a young, white man in America studying international relations who wants to join a war in Europe having no military background because he wants to do the right thing and bring about peace? That’s not an attitude I come across in most people.
JOHN 8: Yea, so I’m not surprised to hear that. When he was younger, uh he developed a very clear focus and understanding of a sense of right and wrong. He can be very driven to be king of the hill, top of the heap. You know, arguments would break out between his sisters, he would attempt to establish a neutral area where they could come together and he would sometimes try to facilitate some kind of mutual agreement to diffuse the situation.
TEJA 14: Halfway around the world, parents are doing everything they possibly can to keep their kids as far away from this war as possible, and here’s Josh, ready to walk into the fire. If it were me telling my parents I’m voluntarily joining a war, they’d do everything possible to talk me out of it. Lock me in my room if they had to. But John doesn’t see things that way.
JOHN 9: The worst possible thing for me as his as his dad would be go over there and get killed. I would…that would be terrible..burden I’d carry the rest of my life. But it’s not my decision to make. If I were younger and didn’t have diabetes, I’d probably do the same. On the other side of that balance though you also have to think about well what happens if Josh feels compelled, convicted to go and does not and something bad happens and he feels a personal burden for not doing what he could to alter the outcome. That would be a regret he carries for the rest of his life as well.
TEJA 15: I did try to talk to Josh’s mom about how she feels about him joining the war. She didn’t want to speak with me, but did want to convey this message to him:
“I understand your reason for wanting to fight, and ultimately it’s your decision; but I’m not happy about it.
If you were fighting for your homeland, it would be one thing; but this is not your homeland, and there are underlying forces at work of which you have no knowledge.”
So the jury is split. Both parents have concerns about Josh’s safety, readiness, and whether he truly understands what he’d be signing up for. I do too. But I’ve never seen a parent show as much grace and respect for their child’s choices as John is showing to Josh.
JOHN 10: I’m not gonna tell him to live his life the way that I want. Everybody should be living the best version of themselves as they know it. That’s the secret to a well lived life. If you’re doing things that other people want, there’s much in life you will miss and not fulfill and I don’t want that for him as his dad.
TEJA 16: As of now, Josh hasn’t made a decision about going or not. Recently, Russia retreated out of Kyiv, but the scene left behind is gruesome. Some news outlets are calling it a genocide. I can’t imagine that not weighing on Josh. But whatever he decides to do, his dad wanted him to know this:
JOHN 11: I’d want to tell him that I…that I love him. I’m so proud of the man that he is now becoming, and the admiration that he’s doing something that I didn’t do. And I’d tell him that I pray, I do this already, but I pray for his welfare and his his happiness everyday, every morning before I go to work and I’d continue to do that probably more so if he was over there.