Alex Curtis, 38, a North Haven lobsterman, is preparing to make his fourth aid trip to Ukraine in November. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The panel van crept forward, slipping past the craters, land mines, and unexploded shells that lined the remains of the country road.

The men inside outfitted with body armor and helmets, listened through an open window for the familiar thunder of artillery. They had put their cell phones in airplane mode so Russian forces couldn’t pinpoint their movements. Still, they knew the air around them could erupt into fire at any moment.

In a world that made sense, Alex Curtis would not have been worried about being blown up on the front lines of a war in Ukraine, more than 4,500 miles away from his tiny island home off the Maine coast. In a world that made sense, he would still be on North Haven, playing with his two young sons and readying his lobster boat for the summer haul. Instead, he was inching toward the small town of Bohoyavlenka, risking everything to shuttle food, medicine, and other supplies to people whose homes had become a battlefield.

“The need was insane over there,” said Curtis, 38, who this fall will load up on tourniquets and first aid kits once again to make his fourth journey to Ukraine. “You just felt like this is life or death. Because it was.”

In an unprecedented turn, thousands of civilian volunteers unaffiliated with any military force or major nonprofit have made themselves key cogs in Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, said Elizabeth Dunn, an Indiana University professor who studies refugees and forced migration. As the general public has slowly lost interest in donating their time and money to the war effort, the work of people like Curtis has become even more valuable.

“What he’s doing is unspeakably dangerous,” Dunn said. “I would say it’s both irresponsible and completely necessary.”



Even compared with the rest of Maine, North Haven is largely insulated from the tremors of international conflict and European geopolitics.

Boasting only about 400 full-time residents, largely fishermen and farmers, and a summer community of artists, actors, and writers, the island has two faces – both idyllic.

“Nothing changes a whole lot, even though everything changes all the time,” said Barney Hallowell, Curtis’ former teacher and principal at the K-12 North Haven Community School.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Curtis became obsessed with the conflict tearing apart a nation half a world away – a nation he has no personal connection to. He’d long been interested in history, and he had been tracking the political turmoil in Eastern Europe since Russia annexed a portion of Ukraine in 2014.

But what really stuck in his head were the images of young parents grieving the deaths of their children. That could just as easily be him and his wife, he thought. Those could just as easily be his kids.


“It hit me hard,” Curtis said. “I’d like to think that if something like that happened here and we were desperate for help, that people would come and help.”

As millions of refugees fled their homes, Curtis, a volunteer firefighter with the North Haven Fire Department, decided to find a way to do something. But the major international nonprofits normally responsible for delivering humanitarian aid were slow to get up to speed, according to Dunn.

Individuals on the internet, unburdened by the weight of massive bureaucracies, proved to be nimble. Facebook became a key meeting place for military veterans, healthcare professionals, and anyone else looking to help. After researching ways to help, Curtis devised a plan.

On March 24, 2022 – one month to the day after Russian forces launched their attack on Ukraine – he filled two 50-pound duffel bags with as many medical supplies as he could carry, boarded a plane in Boston, and set out for the Polish border.

As word of Curtis’ trip circulated around North Haven, many island residents thought he was crazy, Hallowell said.

“Everybody was sort of saying, ‘How can he do that? He’s got a wife and two kids, and he’s putting his life at risk,’ ” he said. “I still don’t think the people in North Haven by and large understand what Alex has done and is doing.”


But they’ve also helped fund his missions. He’s raised roughly $40,000 for supplies so far, mostly bought in the U.S., where he says the quality is better. 

Curtis’ wife, Laura Serino, 39, bristles when people tell her that her husband is crazy. She trusts that he will make choices to keep himself out of harm’s way. And aren’t spouses supposed to support each other when they’re passionate about something? Especially when that passion is helping people in desperate circumstances.

“Alex isn’t the first husband and dad to go into a dangerous situation. He won’t be the last,” Serino said.

Though the couple’s kids, who are 6 and 2, are too young now to really understand the work their dad is doing, Serino said she hopes someday to use it as a lesson: “I need to pay attention to the events going on in this world. I need to look outside my own microcosm and see how I can help in this world.”

Alex Curtis, left, and Michael Holly shuttle supplies to villages on the front line of the war during Curtis’ trip to Ukraine this spring. Photo courtesy of Alex Curtis


Curtis initially thought he would spend six weeks in the spring of 2022 camping on the Polish border, handing out medical supplies and offering help to whichever aid group could use him. But one month into the war, the landscape in Ukraine already was shifting. The military had succeeded in pushing back the Russian line, and many who had fled Ukraine turned around and came home.


He took a bus across the border in late March and set up shop in Lviv, a city of 700,000 in western Ukraine, then decided he needed to push to Kyiv, which Russian troops had vacated just days before.

After a brief trip to Maine to raise money, restock supplies, and map out a plan for getting to the Ukrainian capital, Curtis once again flew into Warsaw on April 20. He and another volunteer from Colorado he had connected with online caught a ride to the border in the back of a van.

For six hours, they rode in darkness, snuggled between duffel bags packed with tourniquets, chest seals, and first aid kits. When officials wouldn’t let the vehicle into the country because of a paperwork issue, the volunteers humped the supplies over the border on foot, passing tent cities silhouetted against the night sky. 

Curtis had seen destruction up close before. But no house fire could have prepared him for Kyiv, where he was introduced to the real consequences of war.

Russia Ukraine Undeclared War Analysis

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press, file

Across Ukraine, he saw the remnants of blown-up bridges and burned-out tanks abandoned by the side of the highway. He saw bullet casings and splotches of blood soaked into the ground, unofficial monuments to battles from the prior weeks. Mostly, he saw soldiers – some preparing to pursue Russian forces east, others readying for a new attack on the city.

He also met a different kind of threat: the war tourist.


Despite what the skeptics on North Haven said, Curtis did not see himself as a glory hunter or a risk-taker – at least not more of a risk-taker than any other firefighter or commercial fisherman. But in Ukraine, he said, he was surrounded by people who were there for the wrong reasons.

“Video game soldiers” had signed up en masse to join the foreign legion only to discover their experience playing Call of Duty had not prepared them for real war. Other “G.I. Joe types” seemed a little too hungry for combat. Then there were the grifters – those who used aid as a front for war profiteering.

Michael Holly carries several French horns to the TAME van as part of the group’s effort to rescue and preserve the contents of a community center and theater in the Ukrainian town of Bohoyavlenka. Photo courtesy of Alex Curtis

Curtis linked up with a group that helped him distribute medical supplies and forge connections with government officials and other aid groups. He grew especially close with another member of the group Curtis connected with online, Michael Holly, a British psychiatric nurse who took out a loan to buy an ambulance and then drove it to Ukraine in the early days of the war. 

The pair were similar in the ways that mattered. Both had wives and kids waiting for them at home. Both shared a distaste for those who turned images of war refugees into “reality TV horror porn” for social media clout. And both cared about doing their work as safely as possible.

“Alex is literally one of three, four people that I’ve met that I’d happily ride with. His moral compass is good, and that’s everything,” Holly said. “For us, it’s about service.”

In May 2022, Curtis returned home to his family and his lobster boat. But already, he and Holly were planning their next trip – this time under the banner of their own nongovernmental organization.



Before Curtis returned to Ukraine in March 2023, he and Holly created TAME, which stands for “tactical and medical evacuation” and is essentially just the two men. But the small size is the point, Curtis said.

While traditional aid groups have since gotten organized in Ukraine, they’ve remained ineffectual compared with unaffiliated volunteers and smaller nonprofits, said Dunn, a researcher from Indiana University.

On the ground, TAME operates less like a discreet organization and more like a flexible pair, able to temporarily link up with whatever other small teams and individuals best suit the mission at hand.

During the trip this spring, that meant joining forces with a U.S. Air Force veteran and setting up a safe house barely 10 miles from the Russian line. In the mornings, the trio would set out in their van for one of several tiny villages at the edge of the front. Ukrainians would help them map out land mines surrounding the town in case things went wrong and they had to flee.

Ideally, these towns would fall within what they called the “gray zone” – the area between Russian and Ukrainian artillery. In the eye of the storm, the volunteers watched shells fly overhead from both directions and felt the ground shake beneath them.


“It creates this little area where you’re about as safe as you can be,” Curtis said. “But obviously, you’re still not safe.”

Holly and Curtis originally saw themselves evacuating villagers who had been trapped by the fighting and shuttling them deeper into Ukrainian territory. But by the time Curtis got there, the people who remained were there by choice. Many were older people who had stayed to guard the family home and livestock. Others had nowhere to go. With every trip, the volunteers tried to persuade people to leave with them. Few took them up on the offer.

Curtis and his companions instead brought in sustenance. They used a system of translation flashcards – neither he nor Holly speak Russian or Ukrainian – to ask each resident what their household needed. Some asked for basic comforts like coffee, ibuprofen, and toothpaste, but also specific tools and prescriptions the Ukrainians had been forced for months to go without.

One man, who had undergone open heart surgery the year before, had gone without his medication for months. In Bohoyavlenka, where the grocery store had been reduced to a hole in the ground, Curtis met an old man who could not eat solid foods because his dentures were broken.

Russia Ukraine War

Ten-year-old Khrystyna hugs her grandmother Liubov as they take cover at the basement of their house during shelling in Bohoyavlenka, Ukraine, on April 9. Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press, file

The team made their lists quickly, then drove back west. They’d come back the next morning, their van stocked with supplies. Between Holly’s medical background and their network of connections, they knew where to track down specific items, like the exact heart medication the man recovering from surgery needed. They found someone who could repair dentures and hooked the villager up with a ride to his free appointment.

The volunteers sometimes accepted an invitation to stay in town for an hour. They could tell, Curtis said, how much it meant to the villagers to be able to offer them a cup of coffee or some cookies, even if the two groups couldn’t much understand each other. But it was dangerous in the gray zone, and they never stayed long.


Soon they were back in their van, watching for mines near the road and listening for bombs dropping from the air.


Curtis, who has been home since mid-April, is planning and raising money for his fourth trip to Ukraine. This time, TAME will focus on aiding front-line doctors and surgeons.

He hopes TAME will arrive in the first week of November and stay until the week before Christmas. But that will depend on how many supplies the group can afford to buy.

It’s become more difficult to raise money over the past year, Curtis said. At first, the affluent summer community on North Haven was eager to listen and donate money to the cause. But as the months have dragged on, Ukraine has been easier to ignore in Maine and across the country, despite casualties totaling more than half a million, Dunn said.

“Every volunteer I have talked to says that they, too, are fighting the war,” Dunn said. “For many volunteers, it’s amazing how starkly morally clear this is.”


That clarity drives Curtis and Holly while their families wait for them to come home. Holly has recorded “black box videos” for loved ones in the event of his death, where he tries to explain why staying in England is not an option for him.

Curtis tries to explain his decision in several ways: Doesn’t he have a responsibility to help as a young, healthy man with first-responder training? Wouldn’t he want someone to help him if North Haven were under fire? Is what he’s doing really so different from what firefighters do every day?

Ultimately, he understands that it’s a decision that can only be felt, not explained.

“Some people get it, and some people don’t,” he said. “I’ve just learned to accept that.”

Curtis’ wife, Laura Serino, bristles when people tell her that her husband is crazy. “Alex isn’t the first husband and dad to go into a dangerous situation. He won’t be the last,” she said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

Serino, Curtis’ wife, is not thinking about the day her husband will depart again, leaving her to care for the kids while she balances her own job. She said she’s mostly too busy to worry about him, though she admits that might just be a form of self-preservation. The family sets aside time for frequent FaceTime calls, which are often crushed by Holly and other volunteers eager to see a friendly face.

When Curtis pitched his first trip, he promised Serino that he would remain in Poland, a helpful pair of hands hundreds of miles from the fighting. Now he promises her only that he’ll never enter a situation that he doesn’t think he can handle. As capable as he is, he understands that no one is truly safe.

It’s only when Curtis returns and begins to recount his missions that the anxiety creeps in. When Serino watches videos of Curtis barely flinching as shells shake the ground beneath him, the danger becomes real.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story