‘I was touched by the resiliency of a lot of people’: Local man returns home from Ukraine

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A month and a half after Russia invaded Ukraine, we now know thousands of civilians have been killed. While countries all over the world have tried to figure out what to do next, many humanitarian groups are stepping in to help care for the people of Ukraine.

One local man named John Pfefferle is a pediatric dentist who went to Ukraine three weeks ago to help orphans who had been forced out of their hometown of Kyiv.

PREVIOUS STORY: Local man shares recent experience helping Ukrainian orphans in war-torn Ukraine

“You go to bed and everything is good. You set an alarm clock, and instead, you got artillery waking you up the next morning,” he said.

The entire time Pfefferle was in Ukraine, he was sending Action News Jax’s Kristen Rary pictures, videos and stories of the people he came across. Now that he’s back, Rary spoke to him about what the experience was like in person, and what he wants people in Jacksonville to know.

“I’m tired. jetlagged,” Pfefferle said.

As Pfefferle returned to Jacksonville, he said he had one thing on his mind.

“You never get to understand why you get to come home and they don’t. Why did their country get bombed and ours didn’t? Why, why, why?”

The pediatric dentist went to the western side of Ukraine to help kids who had been pulled from their orphanage in Kyiv. He was invited to help by a minister who was taking 160 orphans in.

“How in the world do you take 15 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds by yourself and calm them down?” He asked as he recalled speaking to a teacher who traveled with the orphans.

The children rode a bus for 14 hours the morning after the attacks started. The teachers left everything to accompany them.

“Taking care of yourself would be hard enough, but when you’ve got the lives of other people that you’re responsible for children? I don’t know how they did it,” Pfefferle said.

In the end, Pfefferle and the dentist he went with treated 49 orphans, refugees, locals from nearby towns and even Ukrainian soldiers.

STORY: St. Johns County firefighters donate gear for Ukrainian first responders

“I said you’re going to shoot Russians, and you’re afraid of me, a little dentist? But you know, fear is fear. I was touched by the resiliency of a lot of people,” he said.

Pfefferle said the stories he heard show just how much everything has changed for these people in the last month.

“The teenagers... told me they don’t have a lot of things planned for the future, but they do have plans. And all of a sudden, the few plans they had in life, a little things they had to live for, gone.”

He noted he wasn’t sure anyone would be able to understand their pain.

“Until you can see it, taste it, and smell it you don’t know. It’s not personal enough,” Pfefferle said.

Despite 115 mission trips, Pfefferle said it was his first time going into a country with an active war zone. He wasn’t thinking about the danger.

“Well, I don’t know that it’s any more dangerous than going down to Jacksonville at night,” Pfefferle said.

Even though the town he stayed in was attacked the day after he left, he believes he made the right choice.

“I do it because I think I can and some part of me thinks I think I should,” he said.

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