Ukraine crisis worries Clarksville Peace Corps veteran

When Peggy Walton returned to Ukraine six months ago, 20 years after a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, she only wanted to quell her own restlessness and satisfy her curiosity about how the country had changed. 

Little did the retired Howard Community College professor know she'd wind up in the middle of a riveting international crisis that would force her to flee the country, leaving behind an unfinished job, worried Ukrainian friends and many of her personal possessions. 

Now, Walton is back in her Clarksville condominium, sad that her stay ended so abruptly and worried about the future of a country and a people she loves. 

"I feel as if I'm grieving," said Walton, 67, sitting in her kitchen next to a wall adorned with colorful, hand-painted Ukrainian plates. "I follow what's going on there as much as I can tolerate it, but I just get really sad. That's part of my grieving over this: Sadness about their country and what's going on there." 

An English teacher with a doctorate, Walton has lived in Howard County since 1980. She's been active in her community, serving as president of her condo association and a volunteer for several causes, including work with a hospice bereavement group. Still, she has a restlessness and a passion for travel. 

She wanted to join the Peace Corps when she was younger, she said, but life intervened in the form of a marriage and two children. 

But in the mid-1990s, divorced and with her two sons grown, she saw the opportunity to rekindle that dream, and she signed up. In 1994, the Peace Corps sent her to the eastern Ukraine city of Dnipropetrovsk for 27 months, to train native English teachers at a professional development center. 

Ukraine had won independence from Soviet rule only a few years earlier and was still a poor country in many ways, Walton recalled. Despite the challenges of living in such a place, isolated in many ways from family and friends, her stay was rewarding, and she considered her two-plus years there a "peak experience" in her life.  Still, she had no plans to return. 

Walton is an inveterate traveler, one who has visited countries from New Zealand to Ecuador. And last year, retired from HCC and growingly restless, she stumbled on an Internet announcement for Peace Corps Response Volunteers, former volunteers who rejoin the corps for shorter stints in the country they'd previously served. 

That was all it took. "When it popped up on the Internet, I said, 'Wow, this is meant to be,' " she recalled. "So I just said, 'Yes,' and off I went again."

 Some who knew her were not so sure about the trip, Walton conceded.

"A lot of my friends, who were also retired, looked at me and said, 'What are you doing? Why? Why? You have the good life here. You're retired, you've got friends, you do a lot of volunteer work. You've got a dog, you've got grandchildren … So what's the deal?' " she said. "But they came to understand I needed more stimulation and meaning, and still had some juice in me to teach."

Back to Ukraine

In September 2013, Walton arrived in the western Ukraine city of Lutsk for what was to be a 10-month stay. Two months later, the civil unrest that was to topple the pro-Russian government and lead to the current crisis began.

Like just about everyone else. Walton was surprised.

"I had no sense the national and political fervor would be unleashed like this," she said. "It was very gratifying, in many ways. This is a country with a very short history of independence. They are not used to making a difference in their lives. For them to get out and protest and actually bring down the government was startling." 

The worst of the protests were in Kiev, the capital. Walton said she never felt unsafe in Lutsk.

"There were protests and gatherings of people, but there was never any violence when I was there," she said. "It did happen, but later, when I wasn't there." 

Still, the mounting tensions began to affect all Peace Corps volunteers. In late January, with the crisis escalating Peace Corps volunteers were told not to travel. For Walton, that would have meant canceling a planned trip to Berlin to visit a friend. 

A week or two later, however, the ban was lifted, and she flew to Berlin. But not long after she arrived in Berlin, the ban was reinstated. Shortly after that, Ukraine was deemed no longer safe and all 250 Peace Corps volunteers were sent home. 

For most volunteers, that meant a rapid exit from an increasingly tense environment: Even in relatively quiet Lutsk, a police station was vandalized and burned, and Peace Corps volunteers were not allowed outside at night.  

For Walton, the evacuation meant she never got back to Kiev or Lutsk. On Feb. 22, halfway into her scheduled 10-month second stint in Ukraine, she flew back to Washington, leaving most of her possessions behind in Lutsk. 

In a blog, she called having to fly from Germany back to the United States "the closest to being a political refugee that I ever want to come." 

"Everything is still in Lutsk," Walton said last week. "Clothing, computer, camera, shoes. All I took to Berlin was a small suitcase." 

Feeling a loss

While Walton is confident she'll get her belongings back, she is far less certain she'll return to Ukraine for any sort of closure. If the situation settles down by mid-April, the Peace Corps volunteers will be sent back, but Walton considers that unlikely, and the thought saddens her. 

"It's as if I knew someone might die but I wasn't there when the person died," she said. "I was so engaged and felt as if I was really making a contribution, that people valued it. And it just ended abruptly. … It's a grieving, a loss, a real loss of something that was very important to me." 

In her blog, Walton recalled her last day teaching in Lutsk. It was Feb. 13, the day before Valentine's Day, and her class surprised her with a party that included cookies, tea and a large Valentine with personal notes of appreciation from all of her students. 

"Alas, that large Valentine is still in my apartment in Lutsk," she wrote in her blog. 

Walton is grieving as well for the Ukrainians, whom she describes as a welcoming, warm people who have made enormous progress since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s. 

"People were poor," she recalled of her first visit there. "There was no hot water, very little heat, nothing on shelves in the stores. People didn't have cars, there were no restaurants." 

Twenty years later, she saw a different Ukraine. "There were kids walking down the street with cell phones, lots of banks, notary publics all around. ... And the number of cars — not old jalopies, not old Ladas [a Russian-made car], but Toyotas and Fords and a lot of Lexuses and BMWs.

"The affluence is obvious. They'd made amazing progress."

Walton fears that progress, which was fueled in part by the country's increased connections with Western Europe, is now threatened by the prospect of a growing Russian influence over the country.

"What will become of this country that was just starting to get on its feet 20 years after independence?" she said. "There is so much uncertainty. … I'm afraid of regression instead of progression."

On March 16, residents of the Crimea region voted overwhelmingly to break from Ukraine and join Russia in what some in the West say was an illegal election, according to CNN. The next day, President Barack Obama announced U.S. sanctions against some Russian officials.

In May, Ukrainians will elect a new president, a crucial decision that should help determine the country's direction.

Walton said it is difficult to know what is going on in Lutsk these days. While she trades emails with friends there, their messages don't reveal much about the political situation. "They grew up with the Soviet system," she explained. 

With all the turmoil and uncertainty, would she return to Ukraine? 

"Not right now," she said, then paused and laughed. "But you know, never say never." 

Family, friends relieved

Walton's family and friends, meanwhile, are just happy she's home — with or without her possessions. 

"For me, the feeling is relief that she's safe and back in the States," said her son Jonathan Walton, 42, who lives in New Hampshire. 

He said he was in contact with his mother during the roller-coaster ride of on-and-off travel alerts in February, and his initial concerns lifted when she was allowed to travel to Berlin. But then he got an email from her telling him she would not be allowed back in Ukraine. 

"It was kind of head-scratching," he said. "I'm thinking, 'What does that mean?' " When she later told him she would have to fly back to the United States, he knew. 

"It was a shock," he said. "I was worried. But it was tempered by the fact that she was already in Berlin, not in the Ukraine." 

His worries were further tempered by his mother's worldliness and experience. "There wasn't a time when I was concerned that she was going to get shot at a protest or something like that," Jonathan said. "She's got the savviness not to get herself in that kind of situation." 

Friend Stefanie Feldman, 68, said she kept up with Walton's Ukraine experience through her blog, emails and Skype. "By the time Peggy got to Berlin, I was very worried," she said. "Things were getting really hot over there … and when she told me she couldn't go back [to Ukraine], I was very relieved." 

Feldman, a clinical social worker who lives in Columbia and runs a bereavement support group with Walton, knows that her friend is disappointed she had to leave Ukraine. 

"I can understand how she feels," Feldman said. "Peggy is very passionate about everything she wants to do. She put an awful lot of passion and energy into her teaching at the institute. I so admire what she did — especially doing it at the age that we are. 

"But I told her that, as a friend, I was very glad she had to come back." 

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