Life Changing Events – When God Watches Out For You

Life changing events – When God watches out for you, you may not get what you want, but you will have what you need. 

It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean. Tony Robbins

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In 1985, I was stationed at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, when I heard a news report that a Ukrainian sailor, named Miroslav Medvid, had jumped his Russian ship and tried to defect to the United States. Yet, instead of rescuing the desperate man and granting him political asylum, our government returned him to the Soviets – not once, but twice!  Ronald Reagan was president at the time, so I was not the only one who did not understand. After all, were we not the generation of Radio Free Europe? Had we not witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall and those who tried to flee over it, shot? Vietnam? Were we not the Bastian of Freedom? Did Ronald Reagan not refer to the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire?” So why on earth would we fail to give sanctuary to anyone who could find the courage to flee a Communist state?

Over the years, I wondered about the fate of the brave young sailor. Was he executed or sent to a gulag in Siberia? Would his family suffer? Perhaps he was given a lobotomy! After all, I had attended the Language Institute in Monterrey, Ca., where most of my Russian language instructors were refugees from the era of Stalin. One teacher, we called babushka (grandmother) left Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Most of them were pretty old and the stories they told us were often hard to sit through. So of course my imagination was prepared for the worst. Yet, life goes on and like everyone else, I had to release that concern, but I never really forgot about Miroslav Medvid. 

Then just a few months ago, I met a man who was there and witnessed the entire heartbreaking event. At the time, Mike (not his real name) served as a Border Patrol agent and said that they were forbidden from giving assistance to the struggling man, but worse, they were forced to return him to his shipmates. As a result, the memory of a man who had risked his life for freedom, only to be sent back to face a hostile unknown, had placed a burden on his heart that bothered him up until the day that we met. Now I can update this story and yes, it ends happily but with a surprise. I can only hope that Mike will somehow stumble across this article and enjoy a deep sigh of relief, because miracles do happen.

On Oct. 24, 1985, a Russian grain ship, the Marshal Koniev, docked near New Orleans, when suddenly a young merchant marine from the Ukraine jumped his ship and swam as hard and fast as he could for the Louisiana shore near Belle Chasse. He made it and was soon taken into custody by the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The sailor could speak no English, but through a Ukrainian interpreter, he pleaded for political asylum and told American officials that he did not want to return to the Soviet Union. After all, had he not heard that America was,

The land of the free and the home of the brave? 

So imagine his surprise, when after the interview, the INS agents in charge, immediately gave orders that the young sailor be returned to his ship! Launch pilot Raymond Guthrie later told investigators,

I felt sorry for the seaman. He was kicking and screaming and didn’t want to go back.

At the time, Miroslav Medvid was just 25 years old and as a would be defector, he had no doubts about what to expect if the Soviets got their hands on him again. So when the launch reached the Soviet ship, he dove back into the water for what many thought was a second attempt at liberty. This time, he put up a struggle and passed out. Again he was returned to the freighter and over the next 10 days, his case created heated debate in Washington, Moscow and American living rooms all across the country. At the time, Jesse Helms did what he could to keep Miroslav Medvid, on U.S. soil, but it did not work out.

It was not until many years later that the Ukrainian sailor  returned to the United States to thank Sen. Helms for the efforts made on his behalf and through a Ukrainian translator filled in the interesting details of what actually happened that put all speculation to rest.

Through two different publications I put together a complete picture of just what happened, because one news story had more to offer than the other,

In an article published by the Washington Post, by George Gedda, Medvid explained that the second time he jumped ship it was not for any hope of freedom in the United States, but rather a suicide attempt. With no hope for a future back home in the Soviet Union, he had tried to end his life in the ship’s propeller, but fellow seamen rescued him. Once back on board, he tried to slash his wrists, but again failed.

The next thing I clearly remember is waking up in a small room, by that time we were already in the open sea.

If that was Medvid’s first most lucid memory after being returned to his ship, it does verify suspicions raised at the time, by State Department doctors, that he appeared to have been heavily drugged.  American psychiatrists also reported that he had indicated concern about the status of his family, if he remained in the United States. Though expectation that KGB agents and other state security officials were likely involved to coerce the poor man, the matter was settled when Medvid signed a statement in Russian and English, that he wanted to return to the USSR. So regardless of protests from members of Congress and Ukrainian-American groups, the White House dropped the case and the Marshal Koniev returned to Russia.

Years later in 2001, the West discovered the fate of the young merchant marine. One article in the Chicago Tribune reported that Medvid remembered,

Nothing about those interviews or what happened to him after he was returned to the Soviet freighter, nor could he explain scars on his wrists. Colin McMahon, 1 Jul, 2001, Chicago Tribune

This is a very different claim from the one given months earlier to Sen. Jesse Helms, when Miroslav Medvid finally visited the United States. The Washington Post reported that as a captive on the return trip home, he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and heard the voice of God instruct him,

You belong at home, my son.

Perhaps it was only the voices of Haldol or Thorazine that he heard, but does it really matter?

So what happened?

According to the Washington Post, upon his return to the Ukraine, Miroslav Medvid was sent to a mental hospital and placed in a ward with convicted murderers. There psychiatric abuse with mind altering drugs was attempted, but God was watching out for him. A sympathetic nurse protected him by pricking his finger with the needle after injecting the drug into a mattress. Nevertheless, he was still subjected to periodic interrogations by the KGB secret police and had to endure electric shock treatments.

Yet, Miroslav Medvid managed to survive, was returned to his parents and after working in a coal mine for a few years, was allowed to attend the Greek Orthodox seminary in Odessa. From there, he continued his studies at a Greek Catholic seminary in Lviv, which was reopened after decades of Soviet policy was reversed and the Catholic Church once again allowed to operate legally. All of this reform was on the table at the time that he tried to defect to the U.S. in 1985. At that time. The United States and the Soviet Union were working to ‘kiss and make up’ their differences under the able leaderships of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, but how could he have known? That a young and desperate sailor had once tried to grind himself in a ship’s propeller must have been a memory that he prefers to forget.

Today Father Medvid is a Greek Catholic priest with a wife and children in western Ukraine. Yes, Greek Catholic priests are allowed to marry. Perhaps he changed his mind about such public exposure, because he decided it prudent to protect his family from any wild stories of his past. Also, unlike his meeting with Sen. Helms, where though dressed in full clerical garb, he was just a visitor in a far distant land, the interview for the Chicago Tribune took place in his home village of Tsevatazyu, where he leads celebration of the Byzantine liturgy.

At one time Miroslav Medvid thought that his destiny was to be in the United States, but he was turned away and paid a high price for the chance he took. Yet, he survived and since 2001, he has faithfully led a small Christian community and his life has been filled with purpose and joy! However, the freedom and sovereign independence that citizens of the Ukraine briefly experienced after the fall of the old Soviet Union, has been threatened in recent years as  the Russians, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, move in to reclaim dominance of the region. The stressed Ukrainians now need their clerics more than ever and this gives new meaning to the haunting message,

You belong at home, my son.

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Ex-Soviet Seaman Tells of Ordeal