While interviewing Pine View graduate and war correspondent Nolan Peterson, he turned his camera around to show the cars outside his window in Kyiv, Ukraine, and commented that the occasional pulse of artillery or boom of missile strikes might not be audible through Zoom. He described how the tranquility of sunset at the Dnipro River in Kyiv was punctuated by the sharp, stuttered sounds of rifles, how couples out on evening walks watched clouds of smoke rise from explosions in the distance.
“It’s always more powerful to see the impact of a war on civilian life,” said Peterson, currently a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. “War destroys and disrupts people’s dreams and desires and their families.” people and to talk to them, as they are in their hometown, watching a battle – it just really reinforces the overall tragedy of what’s going on here. ”
When Peterson graduated from Pine View in 2000, he never imagined himself becoming a frontline reporter in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Focused on fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot, he attended the US Air Force Academy.
According to Peterson, he wanted to experience the thrill of adventure but didn’t necessarily want to go to war. However, after the Sept. 11 attacks, his perspective changed and he served as a US Air Force Special Operations pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Having been to war as a combatant, you lose any romantic idea of what war is. You don’t look at it as an adventure, you look at it more as a tragedy, ”Peterson said. “I’d say that most people who have been to war, whether as a pilot or soldier or sailor, end up becoming the most anti-war people in their lives, because they see firsthand the tragedy in the horror of war.”
When Peterson returned home, he realized that people in the relatively isolated US had the privilege of remaining ignorant about “some of the darker parts of humanity” and pursued his desire to bring more accurate accounts of the world to Americans through journalism.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict existed long before the Feb. 24 invasion, and Peterson has been in Ukraine covering it since 2014.
‘Their story matters’
Peterson spent eight days embedded at the frontlines with the Ukrainian military in 2015. During that time, he met Vasiliy, a soldier in his 50s who would throw his body over Peterson’s whenever snipers started to shoot at them.
“It was really very moving that he would do that, that he was willing to basically die to protect me because he was so grateful that an American was out there telling his story, his war,” Peterson said.
He also met a 19-year-old soldier named Daniel, who spoke fluent English. The two quickly became friends and when Peterson left the frontlines, they stayed in touch, lightheartedly making plans for Daniel to visit the US one day. Soon after, Daniel suffered a severe head injury and returned home for a few weeks to recover. On the day he left for war once again, his mother begged him not to go.
“Mom, I gotta go back. It’s my duty, ”he said.
Two weeks later, Daniel was killed in battle.
A couple of years after Daniel’s death, Peterson and his wife, Lilya, visited Daniel’s parents.
“Just the power of being there, telling somebody’s story, showing them that their story matters. It meant the world to them, ”he said. “If there’s one lesson I’ve learned through all my war reporting, my time in Ukraine, it’s that telling somebody’s story makes them feel like they’re not forgotten, and that what they’re doing is not in vain… To me, that makes it worth it. ”
Peterson’s storytelling has touched audiences across the globe, including Pine View social studies teacher Scott Wolfinger, who taught Peterson 25 years ago.
“I’m very proud of what he’s gone on and done,” Wolfinger said. “Here we are, we have a Pine View student in the middle of the highest and most tense global situation, and he’s able to tell us what’s going on. I followed him on Twitter, and I was able to find out information before CNN, early on. ”
According to Wolfinger, Peterson has humanized the war, whether it’s posting a photo of himself with his cat, Luna, in a bomb shelter, sharing stories of citizen soldiers, or tweeting about hearing bombs go off.
“We know that, despite what Russia is saying, this is still going on – they’re still targeting civilians – and it’s because of people like Nolan,” Wolfinger said. “We need reporters in this day and age. We need people who will tell the truth to the public. ”
Journalistic training taught Peterson the importance of objectivity, but also the conflict between objectivity and truth.
“When the Russian point of view is a bold-faced lie, you can’t include that as an alternative viewpoint, because it’s just not true,” he said. “I think that journalists, in essence, need to have the courage to call out these lies for what they are. To do that, I believe it requires you to be here and to see these things first-person. ”
In a March 9 article, Peterson detailed the experiences of Ukrainian soldiers in a hospital in Poltava, about 150km west of Kharkiv. Some of those soldiers were volunteers who had no prior military experience and the injuries they suffered would affect the rest of their lives.
One 24-year-old man, who had been shot in the stomach and now needed to use a colostomy bag, kept asking the doctor, “When am I going to be good enough to go back with my soldiers? To get back to the war? ”
In the early days of the war, Peterson visited a train station and saw families bidding farewell. Many of the men stayed behind to fight, sending away their wives and children. He said the sounds of artillery and nearby explosions accented gut-wrenching goodbyes in front of overloaded trains, with husbands and wives kissing each other while tears streamed down their faces.
“It just feels like a scene from ‘Schindler’s List’ or something, you know?” he said. “It’s just really, really tough to observe.”
Having lived in Ukraine for the past eight years, Peterson has also experienced the effects of war on his own life. He met his wife Lilya in Ukraine and his in-laws live next to Kyiv. He said it’s particularly challenging as a war reporter to balance the safety of his family with his job.
“It’s emotional,” he said. “I won’t lie, I cried. Sometimes, particularly because a lot of the soldiers I wrote about are friends of mine, who didn’t want to be soldiers again, and they had to go back to war. So, for me, it’s a very personal story. ”
‘A turning point in history’
Some of the foreign fighters Peterson has conversed with are Americans who arrived to fight on the frontlines solely because they believe in what Ukraine is fighting for. He said that these soldiers and their motivations are reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer during the Spanish Civil War. “If we win here, we will win everywhere,” Hemingway wrote.
“I’ve always believed that Ukraine’s struggle since 2014 has been a turning point in history where the future of democracy was going to be decided,” Peterson said. “To now see how Ukraine’s cause has influenced people around the world, it’s like I’ve had this secret inside of me for eight years that I’ve suddenly shared with the whole world.”
Currently, despite Russian officials’ claims that their military would scale back its attacks on Kyiv, Ukrainian troops are uncovering the aftermath of mass destruction and the killing of civilians in the surrounding suburbs. According to Peterson, Ukrainian citizens are optimistic about winning the war, but the main concern remains to be how much suffering Russia will continue to inflict on Ukraine.
“The brutality and savagery of what Russia has done to civilians in places like Kharkiv, Mariupol, the outskirts of Kyiv, is unfathomable,” Peterson said.
For those in the capital city, the momentum of life carries on through the threat of war – children run around in bomb shelters as their parents listen to the Ukrainian national anthem on their phones or watch speeches by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. However, there remains the fear of random missile attacks, especially after an estimated 300 civilians were confirmed dead in a theater bombing in Mariupol.
“You stand there and you get that little chill down your spine. The hair stands up in the back of your neck. You just think, God, I hope a missile doesn’t come hit at this time, ”Peterson said. “Even at night, I’d be lying there and hear the air raid sirens go off… A missile doesn’t care what your nationality is, who you are, how much experience you have in war zones, how careful you have been. It’s just a matter of fate. “
In the past month, Peterson has talked to a number of civilians whose homes were hit by missiles. He describes their reactions as enraged and incredulous, and he believes that the deliberate but random targeting of civilian areas is contradictory to Russia’s objective.
“It’s a nonsensical, absolutely moronic war plan because all they’re doing is just further pushing Ukraine away from Russia,” Peterson said. “The more civilians that are targeted by Russia, the deeper their hatred grows.
“This is not a lightning strike. This is not a hurricane that you just lament the bad chances of that happening. They have somebody to blame for their misfortune, and it’s Putin.”
Moving forward, Peterson hopes that his first-hand accounts in Ukraine can combat propaganda from Russia and inform international audiences of the realities of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
“In the last eight years, I have to admit, there were many times when I thought,‘ Why am I still in Ukraine? What am I still doing here? ‘”He said. “Now I look back, and I’m so thankful that I stayed because I have a chance to report on this war and help tell this story.”
Felicity Chang is a junior at Pine View School and Editor-in-Chief of PVTorch.com, an online student-run publication serving the Pine View community. She was one of four finalists for the Florida Scholastic Press Association’s 2021 Emerging Young Journalist award.