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Stories of Ukraine shared at Normal West high school

A Ukrainian army unit flag hangs in Glen Petersen's classroom at Normal West High School., a memento of his Illinois National Guard service in Ukraine last year as a trainer.
Charlie Schlenker
A Ukrainian army unit flag hangs in Glen Petersen's classroom at Normal West high school, a memento of his Illinois National Guard service in Ukraine last year as a trainer.

Speaking to students Friday at Normal West high school, a veteran soldier and a Peace Corps volunteer both described Ukraine as a lovely country with a gently rolling landscape similar to central Illinois — and the people as freedom-loving who have fought hard for liberties and separation from Russian domination.

Retired Illinois Army National Guard Colonel Glen Petersen spent July 2020-April 2021 in Ukraine, training the country’s army. Petersen, who was in the Guard 35 years, is a social studies and history teacher at Normal West. Casey Peterson (no relation) taught English in Ukrainian schools from 2016-2018. He’s now the business retention and expansion manager for the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

The culture in Ukraine is slower paced than in the U.S. and more laid back, both men said.

“Dinner out is the evening. It's not like in America where you just rush off to the next thing. They just really enjoy each other's company. When they ask you to come out to eat with them, they want to really engage with you,” said Glen Petersen.

The culture goes back more than 1,000 years. Several cities in Ukraine predate Moscow by a couple centuries. They spent decades under the Soviet system and then alternated back and forth between free governments and Russian stand-ins until the students revolution of 2014, said Casey Peterson.

“And because they've had such a tumultuous history, they really do appreciate the good time. So, they're really good at just slowing down, having a picnic or whatever else. They're a lot more contented a people than we are. And they realize what's important is time with each other,” he said.

Glen Petersen said he saw an entrepreneurial society beginning to move toward prosperity.

“Just everywhere you looked, people were working hard, you could see that the country was moving forward," he said. "There was lots of construction, even though they don't have all the resources like we do.”

Ukraine is a big country, stretching the equivalent of an area from New York to Chicago. It is a breadbasket to the world. About 600 million people are fed by the produce from Ukraine, said Petersen, adding it has some of the most fertile soil in the world.

“In fact, there's a lot of American agricultural businesses that are invested in Ukraine. When I was driving across the countryside, I would see Cargill and Pioneer seed corn labels on the side of the road,” said Petersen. “Some of the southern parts, we're talking fields that are bigger than anything I've ever seen in my life. And I grew up on a farm here in central Illinois.”

Right about now, farmers are making planting decisions and the two men said some farmers in Ukraine may not be able to grow things this year because of the invasion. Two-thirds of the population live in cities.

But that does not mean there is a guarantee of famine in Ukraine.

NWHS Social Studies and History teacher Glen Petersen tells students about his Illinois National Guard service in 2020-21 as a trainer for the Ukrainian Army.
Charlie Schlenker
NWHS Social Studies and History teacher Glen Petersen tells students about his Illinois National Guard service in 2020-21 as a trainer for the Ukrainian Army.

“This sounds horrible, but in way I think Ukraine is well suited for an invasion, because so many people still rely on subsistence farming. Right? How many of us if we, let's say we got invaded, could go out to the backyard and grow vegetables?” said Casey Peterson.

Following the 2014 revolution that saw a Putin puppet president abscond with billions and escape in a Moscow-bound helicopter, Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Russia has since supported separatist movements in a couple disputed territories in the east.

And former Peace Corps teacher, Casey Peterson said that has inflected how the schools operate. They realized they would have to have a military draft, something the U.S. has not had since the Vietnam War. He said there was a rifle range in the basement of the school.

“We need to get these kids, boys and girls, learning how to shoot. And it was fun to go down there after school and speak with the shooting instructor. Middle schoolers would shoot pellets. And high schoolers would shoot .22 And this is just a regular class that they have,” said Casey Peterson.

He said a lot of his former students are hiding in basements now. Ukraine was a fierce battleground during World War II. Millions died. Peterson said that influences the culture still. In cemeteries, the tombstones have the picture of the person who died and usually mentions how they died.

“If they died in battle people wanted to know that, but sometimes it was like, they got hit by a car, too. And it's interesting. They have a really cool national holiday where everyone goes to these cemeteries. There are park benches next to a lot of the plots. And on the holiday, they'll go and sit in the cemetery and talk about and remember those people who were at the cemetery. And I think that's kind of a nice thing,” said Peterson.

Potatoes are a staple of the diet. Beets, too, Peterson said. And elders are respected and listened to.

“Grandmas are the mafia of eastern Europe in general. But also Ukraine. I've seen them dismantle drunk guys so fast, and nobody messes with the Babushkas,” said Casey Peterson.

Many observers have been surprised the Ukrainian armed forces have held out this long against the significantly larger numbers of troops Russia has poured into the country. Glen Petersen said the army is professional and motivated.

“They don't have the luxury of all the resources like we do in the United States Army, with lots of funding, and, the latest, greatest technology," he said. "But they trained extremely hard. Their soldiers are very professional. And one of the things that really struck me is how progressive they were, they are really eager to learn. And they knew that they had to continue to improve their military structure, organization and processes, their technical skills, and tactical skills for them to deal with emerging threats. Because, you know, they've been at war for almost eight years now."

Among the things Glen Petersen did was train Ukrainian trainers in using the Javelin anti-tank missile system.

Petersen said he is still in contact with some people he befriended, including his translator. He has had only sporadic contact with others.

“Most of those Ukrainian soldiers I had contact with have taken down their Facebook pages because that creates a risk for them with Russian cyber warfare. They tend to go after people and their families,” said Petersen.

He said one of his Ukrainian colleagues was hit in a missile attack last weekend, but survived. Others did not.

“As soon as I heard of the invasion, it really hit close to home. I made friends over there. I know that right now they're out there somewhere fighting for their lives and for their countrymen. And you just wish you could do more to help them,” said Petersen.

Normal West students asked both men how the U.S. is perceived. The answer was, in mixed ways. Casey Peterson said Ukrainians like the quality of goods made in the U.S., and American culture. Politically, he said the impression is that the U.S. does not welcome refugees and so the Ukrainians said they would prefer moving to Canada.

"So, for them, the American dream was more of a Canadian dream," said Peterson.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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