“I do have faith that Ukraine will regain its freedom. But I witnessed the war crimes from Russia's side with my own eyes, so I think more and more countries will become aware of what is really happening, and maybe put their foot in the door and help a little bit more, so people here, in Ukraine, can live freely. I don't have any idea on the time frame, but I do believe that it will happen soon. It is really heartbreaking that a lot of blood has to be shed, so we can be independent.” Shannon Taylor, a Kiwi, tells the story of how she became a combat nurse in Ukraine, which she considers to be her second home.
Brave Fairy Nurse
25-year-old Shannon is from the small town of Kawerau, Bay of Plenty, in New Zealand. The story of how she came to Ukraine reads like a fairytale about a courageous spirit crossing the ocean to bring support to those who need it most. Having started a nursing career dealing with mental health and psychiatry then, later, moving to emergency and trauma care; she has now been a registered nurse for 5 years. Before going anywhere to provide help, Shannon intended to get even more skills to bring the full support:
“I have always wanted to be a combat nurse, I medic at the frontline, a nurse in the warzone. I loved a TV-series growing-up called “ANZAC girls”, and it was back in the WWI , there was an abandoned building where 5 nurses who developed a field hospital. And I watched that show a million times, because I wanted to be like those women. And here I am.” (ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”)
Despite the worrying about their brave girl, Shannon’s family completely understands her motivation to go to Ukraine as she explained to her mother and grandmother the importance of the mission she is willing to pursue here. All of Shannon’s actions including her tattoo of a nurse in a war-zone with “Lest we forget” representing the fallen soldiers of Australia and New Zealand speak louder than words. Her relatives follow the news really carefully, and she always stays in touch.
I called my mom and I gave her an update that I no longer do evacs or humanitarian work near the front line, that I am training soldeirs now, and that I am protected. And I can be with these Defenders that I am teaching important life-saving skills and she is very proud of me. She manages. So, I often ring her, “Hi, I am alive still!”, explains Kiwi nurse.
Before Shannon came to Ukraine, she went to a special ceremony back home, at the local RSA (Returned Serviceman Association). On the wall behind the speakers there was a list commemorating all of the fallen soldiers, and the prayer resonated through the air to fill Shannon’s journey with protection and her heart with peace. In the Maori culture, in New Zealand for such occasions, there is a special blessing that is called “karakia” and a cloak a “korowai” made of feathers, which the enthusiastic combat nurse likens to her time in Ukraine:
While being in Ukraine, I felt like I had a “korowai of peace” because there were a few times we were driving and hit the barricade and the car was about to flip. I have no idea how we escaped that. I remembered men who passed away from the past wars. It was so spiritual, they protected me, and people might think that's crazy, but I feel like those late heroes are with me here. I was grateful to have my cultural strength embedded into me.
Shannon’s connection with her native culture and home is imprinted in her spirit and on her body as another tattoo. There is nature, roots, her immediate and extended family intertwining and always helping the girl to feel grounded and protected.
ConFRONTing the reality of the battlefront
When a tragedy befell a Kiwi soldier and Shannon’s friend Kane Te Tai in Soledar in March 2023 it was a big loss and wound for the late soldier’s family, unit brothers and Shannon personally. Kane had been helping Ukraine since April 2022, first as a volunteer and later as a Defender. Shannon went back to New Zealand to support the family of Kane Te Tai and give her friend and brave warrior all the honors and support his family needed at such hard time.
Facing the fragile reality of the clash between life and death in the war became a constant trial for the always optimistic and hopeful Kiwi nurse. Once Shannon’s team vehicle was stuck on the top of an unexploded missile on the road, there was no way they could get out. The army was retreating, so they couldn’t help. They had to wait in the shelter with other civilians.
There was a chance to return with the last BMP that was there. One hour passed, two hours, three hours, four… There was white phosphorous bursting all around, the missiles were screaming, as Shannon recollects. Yet, no matter what, she didn’t and doesn't allow herself to get too overwhelmed by fear and tries to process, cope with it at any cost:
When I was down there in the shelter under the attack, anyone would be scared, but I felt at peace I think it was my own mind and my own body trying to protect themselves. It is ok, I might die, but I am with all these beautiful families here. I was lying next to a babushka and her husband and many other people, and she kissed me on the forehead, she put a picture of Mary and Jesus above my head. And we just went to sleep. And there was a very heavy shelling, and the dust was falling on my face, and I was like, “It is ok, Shannon, just go to sleep, and I prayed”
Shannon was woken up by her teammate who said that BMP guys successfully got their car off the road. It was very late, past the curfew, so they had to drive without their lights on. They had a few obstacles on the way, but managed to return and carry on the next morning as if nothing happened.
Ukraine as a second home
I really admire the resilience of the Ukrainian people. During the evacs and during the humanitarian work, I would go to the war-torn areas after the Russians had been pushed back. People in liberated areas were able to return obviously not to their life but to gain some sort of control, I really admire the strength of the people around here, the vivacious Kiwi nurse reveals.
Before coming here, Shannon had no expectations and came really open-minded. She noticed the thirst for independence in the hearts of Ukrainians depicted in every little thing, like even growing their own vegetables and fruit and preserving them in jars instead of going to the grocery store. To her mind, in many well-developed countries people take certain things for granted and can be indignant about all the minor things which is practically something you will never observe in Ukraine, according to Shannon:
Even when there is no power here, we light a candle, tell stories, just as if it is not even an issue. People here have nothing and they are still able to get through the day and smile. And never complain. Everyone here has to work, take care of the family. People also have no choice but to do gardening because sometimes the nearest store is miles away. Some individuals working in the hospital in New Zealand might moan about the lights being too bright or about the hospital food. I am much more inspired working in these environments where people are managing to be happy even though their life is being torn apart.
The Kiwi nurse feels an unshakable bond with Ukraine and people. Over the course of her service here, Shannon collected a precious constellation of memorabilia - little cute gifts from different people, contexts and stories which weave the story of her mission in Ukraine:
I have a little collection of little bits and pieces I have been given in Ukraine while I was doing health checks in Bakhmut before it got really heated. There was this young boy and a mother, they had nothing to give, but they gave me a little toy. I almost cried; I carried it in my jersey all the time. I find people here very loving, supportive and their hospitality is amazing. They are really appreciative, points out Shannon.
There are patches from soldiers, medics, volunteers and civilians, dressings, bandages, aikido wristbands and even icons, handmade toys from children in the shelter, a ‘motanka’ guardian talisman, a grenade ring, stones to name just a few.
The first patch in the collection is from a 15-year-old boy whose grandparents are still in the occupied territories, but he himself is too young to join the army, yet helps the Defenders and medical workers in all the ways possible. Even the threats of an elderly neighbor to tell on him if Russia takes over the city are never an obstacle to him contributing to the Victory of Ukraine. Shannon and her friend noticed that the boy was a big fan of one soccer team so when they bought him a jersey with the team’s emblem, the young man almost cried. That made Shannon call this gift one of the most rewarding experiences she had in Ukraine, and this patch that she wears on her body armor always reminds her of such an unforgettable encounter.
Shannon is very close with people that surround her, so every time she gets the chance, she provides them not only with physical but emotional support:
I fear about children and their mental health, the kids are living in constant fear. Their parents, or grandfathers or brothers aren't there to assist them because they are fighting at the frontline. And it doesn’t depend on the age. There were some people that were discussing sleeping issues and the lack of appetite, but I just stressed to them, that they are not crazy, it is a normal response to everything that is going on around. They were so appreciative of that explanation.
During one of the tactical training sessions, Shannon had a talk with one of the brave Ukrainian Defenders who picked up a rifle just two days before their meeting. The young warrior explained that he couldn’t just sit and do nothing, but had to fight for his country. That’s something that crystallizes and illuminates the invincibility of the Ukrainian spirit in all of its iridescent forms and shapes, as the Kiwi nurse emphasizes:
I do have great faith in Ukraine and its Victory. You guys, have an amazing President who is very loyal to the country. He is very strong and determined. There are losses, but we will be able to gain too. Even if it is probably going to be really reconstructing from scratch. Ukraine is a united country, and the National flag is still high and proud, so I do believe that we will be able to have freedom here again.
As you are reading Shannon’s story, she is flying back to Ukraine to join the Foreign Legion after visiting and reassuring her family and friends in New Zealand.
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