By the time the Amtrak railcar glided into Washington DC's Union Station, almost two days had elapsed since I'd left Kyiv for my mission to the United States and nearly three since I'd left my unit's position in the field.
Exhaustion had long since eclipsed the curious anticipation and focused energy I'd carried with me during the initial stages of my first trip back to the United States, and outside Ukraine, in more than nine months.
As other travelers disembarked onto the train platform, dispersing into the night, I wearily dragged my oversized luggage across the ornate floors of the historic railway depot, less concerned with the following morning's critical meetings than with finding some restful sleep.
Then, stepping into the brisk air, an image just beyond the lanes of curbside traffic appeared. This visage flooded my being with immense energy. It brought to the fore all the reasons why Ukraine as a nation was battling so desperately to overcome the fascism of the Russian invaders.
The sight was the majestic US Capitol.
Not having traveled to Union Station before, seeing this symbol of democracy in the distance was a surprise containing equal parts awe-inspiring reverence and humbling gratitude.
And so, for the first time, but not the last, on my trip representing the Armed Forces of Ukraine in front of US policymakers and thought leaders, that building came to represent all that is good with a democratically elected government. This Republic, known as the United States, embodies many of the reasons why Ukraine was fighting valiantly and successfully against the tyrannical and dictatorial forces of the Russian Federation.
Much has been brought up about polarization in American politics, the gulf between political parties, and the idea that communication and comity are dead in today’s world of electoral conflict, yet the most stunning aspect of my journey to the heart of democracy was finding proof of life relating to the existence of bipartisanship.
Shared values revealed themselves in many of the conversations surrounding Ukraine which took place during my trip. The fervor some lawmakers displayed in their commitment to helping the Ukrainian people vanquish war criminal Vladimir Putin transcended party affiliation. Watching as the world’s greatest deliberative body acknowledged something greater than partisan tribalism galvanized a patriotic zeal in me that had been latent since the waning days of Donald Trump’s failed presidency.
I attended a hearing of the Helsinki Commission, one focused on the heroic efforts of non-governmental organizations during the full-scale Russian invasion. Incoming Republican Chairman Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) invoked the benefits of bipartisanship on multiple occasions, while the outgoing chair of the bicameral committee, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) did the same. Buttressed by the spectacle of Ukraine’s fight for liberation and hunger for liberty, these two respected officials have backed up their words with months of action on behalf of global freedom.
This theme of functioning, reliable legislative bodies continued for the remainder of the week. I had the opportunity to sit down with the newly re-elected Democratic Congresswoman from Alaska, Mary Peltola. We discussed the unique needs of Alaskans as a world war was waged only miles from her state. Peltola was focused on topics such as protecting Alaska’s western borders and alleviating the suffering of Ukrainians, and not whether her office would have to work with Republicans to get something passed. The reason for that is simple. In Washington, DC, support for Ukraine is popular and rooted in fundamental values that are important to all voters regardless of affiliation.
On another occasion, I sat down with a staff member who represented the office of a well-respected GOP Senator with significant seniority. Despite having previously met the Senator, I still understood the sensitive nature of my visit to his office on behalf of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, especially when coupled with the fact that I’m an openly transgender female. However, despite suggestions to the contrary by those who heard about my appointment, the meeting was productive and focused solely on how all those seeking freedom across the globe would be able to work together to achieve it. This Senator and his staff are true friends of humanity.
By the time my meetings concluded, I had met with nearly 20 different offices across the House and Senate, along with an assortment of NGOs and think tanks. The reality of what I found on my trip to Washington was wholly different than what has been spread by the polarized media and self-dealing special interest groups. Robust debate, pointed questions, and fiduciary responsibility to the voters are all part of the process. But when that process leads to success, as it has when it comes to Ukraine when multiple branches of government come together to vanquish foreign enemies, then all sides can be in agreement that the system simply works as advertised; in the United States, a system illuminated by the torch of liberty and inspired by the sacrifice, hard work, and memory of our greatest generation still shines.