Marco Levytsky NP-UN National Affairs Editor
Mriya Aid, a charitable organization created by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and other concerned volunteers to provide non-lethal military equipment, humanitarian aid and medical equipment for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, says it is devastated by an Ottawa Citizen article which stated it “is facing allegations of mismanagement and providing Ukrainian troops with inadequate equipment”.
The 4,000-word article by David Pugliese appeared online on January 31 and was printed on the front page of the Citizen’s hard copy newspaper on February 4.
This has resulted in “Twitter attacks directed against Mriya Aid and other reputable organizations and individuals helping Ukraine,” the organization said on its website February 1 (www.mriyaaid.org/about/formal-response).
“Our response to defamatory aspersions and falsehoods against us is guided by our insistence on respectful communication. The article published in the Ottawa Citizen provided a platform to amplify the voices of those wishing to undermine Mriya Aid’s integrity and impact, and to do so in a deeply disrespectful manner. We spent a significant amount of time working to provide clear, transparent responses. Much of this unfortunately did not make it into the article,” it stated.
Mriya Aid’s Chairperson Col. Melanie Lake told New Pathway – Ukrainian News that she had warned Pugliese about the credibility of his primary source, Walter Lekh, a Ukrainian doctor in the United States, on numerous occasions but he showed no interest in following up with due diligence.
Lake describes Lekh as a misogynist who especially likes to discredit professional women. “The attacks always had the same characteristics of attacking the women’s credibility and character with accusations of somehow profiting from the conflict,” she says.
“Mriya Aid encouraged Pugliese to investigate concerns raised by women who said they were harassed by Walter Lekh, but he did not request any contact information for the five specific cases of harassment we mentioned. We have no indication that Pugliese nor the Ottawa Citizen attempted to follow up on these claims, but instead, amplified the voice of Walter Lekh contributing directly to his attempts to discredit Mriya Aid and me personally. Multiple women have endured reputational harm, emotional stress and suffering related to the online conduct of Walter,” she added.
“Lieutenant Colonel Melanie Lake is one of a long series of Operation Unifier commanders who came to know and respect the Ukrainian soldiers and commanders who trained with the Canadian Forces,” Canada’s former Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Waschuk told NP-UN. “With full-scale aggression coming only months after her tour ended, she naturally felt the urge to apply her expertise and experience in helping equip Ukrainians to defend and prevail. It’s deeply unfair that someone of Col. Lake’s integrity and dedication should be dragged into newspaper smears and social media sniping.”
Medical supply donations collected by Firefighters without Borders for shipment
In a statement prepared for NP-UN, Mriya’s Board of Directors state that when Mriya Aid was formed, Walter Lekh was involved with a group of volunteers to run a Twitter space called “The Walter Report”. In late April early May, when the Walter Report decided to start promoting Mriya Aid they decided that there needed to be a clear separation between themselves and the Walter Report, so that the Walter Report could have the freedom of expression that is needed, while volunteers of Mriya Aid could continue to comply with Conflict of Interest guidelines that governed active officers of the Canadian Armed Forces.
1000 military grade CAT tourniquets from CTOMS arrived in Sept distributed to Help the Front, NGU and Task Force Group Soledar
Volunteers in Mriya Aid later learned that over time a majority of volunteers in the Walter Report became concerned with the conduct and actions of Lekh. Thus, a majority of volunteers in the Walter Report left and created the Mriya Report. This angered Lekh who began to accuse Mriya Aid of incompetence. “Walter Lekh pursued a particularly vicious smear campaign in social media to discredit and undermine Mriya Aid and the Mriya Report,” Mriya Directors say.
In their statement, Board members addressed several of the allegations raised in the Citizen’s story.
They are as follows:
Pallets of medical equipment
In his story Pugliese referred to the case of ten pallets of medical supplies that went missing for a time.
According to the statement, early in the shipment operation, Mriya Aid conducted two test shipments of pallets with equipment of a lower value to confirm the reliability of the delivery chain. One test shipment went to the Ukrainian Non-Government Organization (NGO) Help the Front and a second one went through the government line (to Lviv State Regional Administration warehouse). Both of the test pallets arrived without issue, giving us confidence in our supply chain to send the 10 medical pallets.
Shortly after, Mriya Aid shipped 10 pallets of donated medical supplies. Since these items were donated, they were of minimal commercial value. Those 10 pallets were misdirected by the courier from LOT Airlines (transporting the equipment from Warsaw to Rzeszów by road instead of by air which was the planned routing), delivering them to the wrong warehouse. It took several weeks to track down the pallets but eventually they reached the intended consignee in Ukraine and were distributed. Mriya Aid has not experienced this kind of situation with any of the other shipments by air and sea container that Mriya Aid has sent to Ukraine.
According to the statement, Pugliese’s summary of the issue with the Night vision optics (NVGs) leaves out important details and information, which help to explain what happened and why. Without that additional information it appears that Mriya Aid acted in an untoward and self-dealing manner with sufficient care for the soldiers on the front line.
Night vision optics (NVGs) were one of several lines of equipment that Mriya Aid decided to focus on. The other lines were ISR drones, medical kits, first-responder and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) equipment. It is difficult to source high-quality night vision optics in the spring and summer. NVGs manufactured in the United States were controlled and not readily available for purchase and export by consumers and non-governmental agencies. NVGs manufactured in Israel were not available for export to Ukraine. NVGs made in Canada required very lengthy export control procedures.
In procuring the NVGs, Mriya Aid worked with Mitchell Leedham through his company AusCan Tactical. Lake knew him from earlier efforts to evacuate families from Afghanistan. Leedham had a supplier in Hong Kong that manufactured NVGs. He indicated that the manufacturer could ship the NVGs to Poland directly so that an NGO could transport them from there to Ukraine. There were several advantages of doing so: 1) the shipment could take place without delay as it would not be subject to Canadian or US export control procedures; 2) the procurement would be less expensive because the NVGs would not be subject to 13% Canada/Ontario HST, as would be the case if the NVGs were shipped to Canada first; and 3) the cost of shipping would be less.
Melanie Lake discussing joint cooperation with women of Land Force Command
Mriya Aid accepted Leedham’s idea, and proceeded to buy 30 Gen 3 PVS-14 NVGs. One additional NVG was paid for by a support group in Britain. The 31 NVGs were shipped by the manufacturer in Hong Kong directly to Poland by FedEx, thus could not be inspected before arrival. They were not labeled with the make, model or serial number. The NVGs arrived without operation manuals and some without the purpose-specific batteries. Most concerning was the fact that some of the NVGs did not appear to be the Gen 3 version. Rather, a number of them appeared to be a cheaper Gen 2 version, in terms of their specification.
Mriya Aid contacted each unit and the intermediaries involved in the distribution of the NVGs immediately upon learning of problems. Mriya Aid was not able to get replacements from Leedham and his supplier, nor did either agree to refund any of the funds paid for the NVGs. Mriya Aid immediately acknowledged and apologized for the problems with a posting on Twitter on August 3rd. An after-action review was conducted to improve practises for future procurement and an NGO alliance was formed to share lessons learned, best practices and supplier reviews.
As a result of the problems with the NVGs and the inability of Mriya Aid to receive timely and appropriate remediation from Leedham and the manufacturer they stopped working with him. The 31 NVGs represent less than 2% of the supplies, equipment and aid that Mriya Aid has procured and collected and shipped to Ukraine. This has been the only issue with equipment quality from Mriya Aid. “Although it has been made to seem like a very large issue, feedback from the units we were able to reach directly does not support this being a major problem,” say the Board members.
As a result of the Citizen article, questions have been raised about a spontaneous fundraiser that was conducted on the Walter Report with a goal of raising US$20,000 to purchase tourniquets for the Hospitallers a Ukrainian volunteer medical battalion that has been providing first aid and evacuating wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the war zone since 2014. To date they have saved 2750 Ukrainian soldiers. The allegation is that the tourniquets were never delivered, and there is no information on what Mriya Aid did with the money raised.
Melanie Lake with soldiers of 54 Mech Bde, OC East in Summer 21
According to the Board statement, Mriya Aid has made three large deliveries of battlefield medical kits and tourniquets.
The first shipment was for 1,175 IFAK medical kits: Volunteer and board member Alex Bakus and his wife funded the kits. Each one included a pouch, a SOF-T Tourniquet (Gen 5) a ChitoSAM hemostatic bandage, an Olaes Modular Bandage and a Trauma Shears. The cost was approximately C$125,000.
The second shipment was for 1,000 C-A-T tourniquets: On July 29th, Mriya Aid purchased 1,000 C-A-T tourniquets, for about C$35,000. This purchase corresponds with fundraising run by Mriya Aid, including during an interview with Kateryna Halushka on the Walter Report. There was a delay between the fundraiser and purchase because the tourniquets were not in stock. Originally, Mriya Aid intended to deliver the tourniquets to the Hospitallers for distribution to frontline soldiers. However, when the tourniquets arrived in early September, there was no longer communication with the Hospitallers.
The Third Shipment was for 1,205 C-A-T Tourniquets: In December, Mriya Aid purchased another 1,205 C-A-T tourniquets for about $41,000 CAD. These tourniquets have just been received, and are currently on their way to be distributed to frontline units by NGO Leleka Foundation and directly to 2 NGU units.
In his article Pugliese devotes considerable space to the case of Christina Katrakis a Ukrainian American who made a deal with Leedham to supply military equipment, but not all the gear had been received. Because Mriya Aid had also made a purchase from AUSCAN Tactical and its owner, Mitch Leedham was a volunteer with Mriya Aid, Katrakis decided that Mriya Aid should be responsible for all of her transactions with AUSCAN Tactical and Mriya Aid should pay the costs associated with remedying issues she had with AUSCAN Tactical.
Board members explain that Katrakis commenced her business dealings with AUSCAN Tactical well before Mriya Aid existed, ordering several items directly from AUSCAN Tactical (helmets, radios, vests, NVGs, etc.). Mriya Aid was not involved with those transactions nor with Katrakis until Mriya Aid had x66 protective vests donated by Toronto Police and began investigating possible end users. Leedham had mistakenly promised them to Katrakis in separate conversations between the both of them, so Mriya Aid agreed to send them to her with the advisement and warning that they were not suited for use on the frontlines. Mriya Aid successfully delivered these vests to Christina Katrakis’ organization and were received by Roman Couldlie, her husband and co-worker.
Code of Conduct and Ethics
In the online response posted on their website Mriya Aid members say they are governed by a strong Code of Conduct and Ethics. “We strive to work with partners who conduct themselves in the same manner (respectfully and professionally), and do not tolerate any form of personal slights against anyone. We act with integrity and honesty. Support is appreciated, inappropriate behaviour is not accepted, and harassment is never tolerated.”
“Despite the misrepresentations of Mriya Aid this week in the public domain, we are proceeding as usual with our aid programs in step with our mission to procure and deliver medical aid, non-lethal tactical gear & humanitarian aid to units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
The online response closes with the following:
“It is a shame that the author of the article did not highlight any positive aspects of Mriya Aid and its volunteers who work tirelessly and selflessly to help Ukraine. The unbalanced presentation of facts as well as the bias, misrepresentation and accusations made against us will not lead to the results hoped for by those making them. On the contrary – we will continue to apply lessons learned, to grow stronger, and to double our efforts in face of the obstacles we encounter; despite the unwarranted and unfounded attacks we endure. We are proud to be working with many partnering organizations across the globe and in Ukraine who see the outcomes and impact of our work as well as the quality, rigor and integrity on which it is founded. The Mriya Aid team is grateful for the support of our donors and all who truly work in a focused and positive manner for a Ukrainian Victory.”
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