Father of Deceased U.S. War Hero Continues His Son’s Mission in Ukraine

Valentina Lavrinenko, a 60-year-old woman, is struggling to hold back tears as she attempts to warm up a pot of Ukrainian borscht on a small gas stove in her daughter’s apartment in Kharkiv. This city in eastern Ukraine is currently under constant bombardment from Russian bombs, leading to frequent power outages.

It has been more than a year and a half since the passing of Skyler Gregg, an American volunteer in the Ukrainian army, at the front line. The city of Kupiansk, where Valentina resided with her husband Viktor, had endured seven months of Russian occupation until the Ukrainian Army drove them away in September 2022.

Valentina couldn’t help but reminisce about the arrival of the young American, who seemed to appear like a knight on a white horse. She will never forget his infectious smile and genuine kindness. Skyler, hailing from Washington state, played a pivotal role in reuniting Valentina and Viktor with their long-lost children through Starlink in 2022, following their liberation. The experience touched Valentina deeply, melting her heart.

“He was incredibly kind,” said Valentina, recalling her encounter with Skyler. “I shared pictures of my family, and he shared his own. Despite the language barrier, we found a way to communicate.” Valentina went on to mention the hospitality she extended to Skyler, saying, “I offered him coffee, tea, soup, and cookies. I even gave him a pair of socks.”

During their conversation, the 23-year-old American, who tragically lost his life in an artillery attack two months later, expressed his heartfelt desire to assist the people of Ukraine. To illustrate his commitment, Skyler revealed the visible scars on his hands, a reminder of the injuries he sustained just a few months prior. Witnessing his physical reminders of sacrifice moved Valentina to tears.

Valentina, who shared a special bond with Skyler, recalls their interaction with fondness. “I advised him to return home, but he understood my concern and yet, he disagreed. With a smile on his face, he expressed his dissent,” Valentina reminisces. “In response, I assured him that I would keep him in my prayers.”

“He became like a son to me,” she adds warmly.

Valentina Lavrinenko expresses her eternal gratitude towards Skyler for his selfless act of coming all the way from America to help liberate her. It is truly difficult for her to comprehend the kindness and bravery exhibited by someone who was willing to go to such lengths to assist her.

Making Connections

When the Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine in 2022, Skyler defied his father’s wishes and left his home in the U.S. to join the International Legion of the Ukrainian Army, even though he had no previous military background. Despite Steve Gregg’s attempts to dissuade his son, Skyler remained determined.

I first encountered Skyler at a hospital in the summer of 2022, where he was being treated for injuries sustained from a Russian drone attack on the front line. His right arm and leg were both bandaged.

Skyler’s enthusiasm to get back to the frontline was unwavering, despite the challenges he had faced.

“I haven’t completed my mission yet,” he stated while in the hospital, just before joining the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September. It was during this operation that he played a crucial role in freeing Valentina’s family.”

Since Skyler’s passing, his father has been grappling with personal struggles. The tragic loss of his son has led him down a path of sorrow and despair. Steve had been contemplating seeking professional help, including counseling and the potential use of antidepressant medication, to cope with his overwhelming emotions. However, it was during this challenging time that he fortuitously crossed paths with Valentina.

A Special Bond

After being liberated in 2022, Skyler and his unit decided to settle down in a house near Valentina and Viktor. Valentina kindly offered to cook for Skyler and assist him in any way possible.

Valentina, with tears streaming down her face, expressed disbelief upon hearing of his passing. She described him as a remarkable individual who always sought the best for others. Valentina admired his courage and dedication, noting that he went above and beyond what most Ukrainians would do.

On Steve’s wall, there used to be a Ukrainian flag and a photo of Skyler with Valentina.

Valentina proudly displays a water bottle and towel gifted to her by Skyler, an emotional gesture that touched her deeply. As she recounts their final meeting in Kupiansk, tears well up in her eyes, as if she had a premonition that it would be their last encounter. Despite her heartfelt pleas, Valentina’s attempts to persuade the young American to return home to Steve and his mother proved futile.

Valentina expressed her concern for Skyler, urging him to prioritize his well-being. She fondly recalls their interaction, mentioning how Skyler maintained a cheerful demeanor throughout their conversation. Valentina reassured him that she would always be available whenever he required her support.

Steve, aged 58, expresses his gratitude towards Valentina for being there for his son, Skyler, when he was unable to. He acknowledges that Valentina played a crucial role in saying goodbye to Skyler, adding that he has not only lost his son but also gained another family. Steve believes that this experience has given him a new sense of purpose in life.

Steve, a divorced man with a daughter, has taken the initiative to sponsor Valentinas’s family through the Uniting for Ukraine program. This program offers an opportunity for Ukrainians seeking refuge from the war to come to the United States, provided they have a sponsor.

“It’s comforting for me to be able to provide assistance to them,” Steve expresses. “The war is an absolute tragedy. It’s filled with cruelty and suffering. It’s a complete nightmare. There’s nothing positive about it. I feel compelled to take action.”

Steve, a former engineer, recounts how Skyler has always had a strong desire to assist others and make a positive impact on the world, often without fully considering the potential repercussions. Having overcome his own battle with cancer a few years ago, Steve is now in remission and actively seeking employment to ensure he can provide better support for Valentina’s family in the event they immigrate to the United States.

“I’m currently making an effort to communicate in Skyler’s language and approach situations the way he would,” Steve shared. “While not everyone may fully grasp my intentions, it’s something I’m genuinely committed to.”

According to Steve, he acknowledges that he and Skyler have distinct personalities. However, the tragic loss of his son has profoundly impacted Steve, prompting him to adopt some of Skyler’s admirable qualities.

New Futures

Valentina’s daughter, Irina, reflects on the impact Skyler had on her mother while they were in Kharkiv. Despite the Russian forces being just five miles away, Valentina’s husband, Steve, remains in Kupiansk to take care of their home. Steve is determined to provide his family with a chance to seek shelter from the Russian missiles in the safety of the United States.

Irina expresses her father’s strong desire to go to America, a dream he has had since before the war. However, both Irina and her mother feel apprehensive about the challenges they may face, such as the language barrier and leaving Ukraine behind.

According to Valentina, the passing of Skyler has created a unique connection between her and Steve.

She holds onto the hope that even if they never make it to the U.S., they will have the chance to meet one day. She envisions inviting him to Ukraine after the war, where she can show him their hometown and share stories of her memorable encounters with Skyler.

Steve emphasizes the significant impact of maintaining a connection with the Lavrinenko family.

Steve, who hopes to travel to Ukraine in the future, expresses a deep sense of purpose in his life. He is determined to figure everything out and is ready to assist those who come his way in learning English and finding employment.

“This Ukrainian family has been a true blessing in my life. They have helped me overcome my depression and rediscover the purpose in my life,” he expresses gratefully. “I will forever cherish the impact they have had on me.”

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MBS Staff
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