Valentyna Benson sits at the table in her stepdaughter Melinda Casper’s kitchen in Ellsworth, communicating with her American family through a mixture of limited English, hand gestures and a …
Valentyna Benson sits at the table in her stepdaughter Melinda Casper’s kitchen in Ellsworth, communicating with her American family through a mixture of limited English, hand gestures and a translation app. While there may be a language barrier, the love in the room is palpable.
Valentyna, a native of Ukraine, was visiting her son and daughter in her homeland when Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. For months her husband and stepchildren in the United States sat in front of the television watching as all hell broke loose, wondering if they’d get to hug Valentyna again. She communicated with them through FaceTime, texts and calls, sometimes hiding in a basement as sirens blasted through the air.
Casper admits when her dad Tom first told her he had met a Ukrainian woman on a dating app, she thought he was crazy. He calls their story “lucky lovers.” After communicating for several months, they married in December 2015.
Benson was drawn to Valentyna in part because she understands farm life. They live on his family farm near Roberts. Valentyna grew up in a village in Ukraine where her family had 10-15 acres on which to raise food and animals.
“Her mother worked on a collective farm while she was growing up, under the Communist regime,” Tom said. “She worked taking care of calves.”
When Valentyna married the first time, she moved to a military town and worked at Space Agency of Ukraine. Through the translation app, she explained that she answered calls in transmissions to unite commanders and subordinates. They monitored media signals, protected nuclear equipment and worked with seismographs.
“This equipment was installed in the deep ground,” Valentyna said. “My boss said that we were listening to the breath of the earth.”
Valentyna lived in the military garrison for 20 years, where she raised daughter Katya and son Andrew. She stayed home with them when they were small but went to work as they grew up.
After moving to Wisconsin, she visited Ukraine each year from November to March and spent time with her mother, who lived in a village north of the military garrison.
“She would bring her mother to her residence in the summer, put in a garden, then when Valentyna would go there in November, she would move her with her to the garrison,” Tom explained.
Valentyna’s mother died in December 2022, a rough time of loss half a world away. She opted to stay in Ukraine with her daughter for awhile longer, even though Tom warned her of the impending war.
“I asked her, aren’t you watching the news?” Tom said. “You’ve got Russians on your borders.”
Casper thinks Valentyna was desensitized to the danger, since Russia was always a lurking threat.
“When I was in Ukraine and I talked to Tom, he said there would be a war, but I hoped that it would pass and nothing would happen,” Valentyna said. “I didn’t believe it until the last day that the war would begin and I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life. I slept. My son was alarmed and he went to work in a military unit. He called me and said that the war had started.
“It was early in the morning and it was still dark outside. I just didn’t know where to go, what to do. I finally waited for it to be light outside and then I went to the military garrison to see where people were going.”
Valentyna’s home is still standing, despite four attacks on the city.
“I sat and bawled on the couch because I couldn’t do anything,” said Casper, who is a special education coordinator at Ellsworth Community School District.
Valentyna said in her town, men set up militias to try to protect the town from the Russian military.
The city of Horodok was attacked with missiles just after Valentyna left to go to her daughter’s home in Radomyshl’, 50 miles outside of Kyiv. She packed nothing but a bag and stayed with Katya and her two daughters for about two weeks before they determined they had to flee the country.
Casper tried to get them to leave immediately. A friend of her college roommate lives in Poland and offered his assistance. Valentyna said they covered the windows with blankets, used flashlights and hid in the dark with helicopter blades beating constantly overhead.
“We knew for the children we have to go,” Valentyna said. “After awhile I found out there was a whole unit coming in our direction.”
Tom said her mother’s house was shot up, but the Russians changed direction because of the Ukrainian bomber plane defense.
“They had a plan to come and attack Kyiv from the west (from Belarus),” Tom said. “They got turned around.”
Casper continued to communicate with her friend’s friend, Bart, in Poland.
“He said if they could get to the border that he would be there with a car to take them to a house he had available,” Casper said. “I was in a panic because when they were ready to go there, there was no fuel. All the gas stations were out of fuel.”
“It was very hard to get fuel at gas stations,” Valentyna said. “There was nowhere to go. They gave us 5 liters and then we collected as much as we can from friends.”
While driving, they continued to run into empty gas stations. Luckily, they found some gasoline near one town though the price was very high.
Katya’s husband remained in Radomyshl’ with the town militia while Valentyna, Katya and her two girls made it the Polish border, where Bart met them and whisked them to Bielsko-Biala.
“Katya’s husband was part of the civilian hometown militia,” Valentyna said. “And his brother went into territorial defense. Now my son-in-law’s brother is lying in the hospital with a wound. He was given a summons and he went to war. Then they came under strong shelling and they wounded him with shrapnel.
Andrew has been wounded a couple of times. He’s had two concussions.”
Tom explained that her son Andrew was in a Russian trench when he was attacked by a Russian grenade. Another time he was on the other side of a wall when an artillery round went off; the blast knocked him off his feet. Right now, he is home on a two-week leave.
Return to Wisconsin
In May 2022, Valentyna had to return to the United States due to her green card. Katya returned to Ukraine to be with her husband since the Russians had been driven from their region. Casper and her son Raleigh went with Tom to the airport to fetch Valentyna, a reunion a long time coming.
“When I saw her coming through with her baggage cart, I was crying,” Casper said. “She has really changed the landscape of our family experience. The thought of that changing was very scary.”
Tom said Valentyna is always taking care of everyone. Leaving her children and grandchildren in Ukraine was heart wrenching.
“That’s the hardest thing now, is worrying about the family,” Tom said. “Groceries are incredibly expensive. We send dried food, toys, clothes.”
Since she can’t be in Ukraine with them, Valentyna has made it her mission to find ways to help them financially. She raises a large garden and sells fresh fruit and vegetables, along with homemade breads, sauerkrauts, pickles and fruit desserts at her farmstand and the Baldwin Farmers Market. She also crafts intricate ribbons, hair clips and bows to sell at the Ukrainian Festival in Minneapolis.
“She is really crafty and really resourceful,” Casper said. “All of her recipes are her family recipes. She’ll take a lot of those earnings and share them back home with family and friends. She knows more people than I do and I grew up around here.”
Tom said in reality, Valentyna can help her children better financially from here, because the dollar goes so much further in Ukraine. She talks to Katya every day and Andrew checks in at least once a week. But Valentyna finds it hard to put into words her strong faith that she’ll be reunited with them again.
“I don’t know how to explain it correctly. It’s inside,” Valentyna said. “It’s all feelings that are impossible to tell them into words, how I say, just to believe and from this faith there is a very big power inside that gives energy for everything else. Faith gives strength and energy. I just know that there will be no other way. Ukraine will win, because Ukraine brings light and good to this world.”
Casper said it’s difficult living in a state of uncertainty for so long, but Valentyna does so with fortitude.
“I will hug and kiss them tight. I don’t make any plans for the future, as they say, I need to live at the time that is, yes I want to see them very much,” Valentyna said. “I want to see the children, I want to be with them, I want to play with my granddaughters as well.
“Many people in Ukraine say that their lives are divided into before and after and I have the same thing. I only wish that everyone is alive and healthy, that everyone can have a normal life and that this war ends faster.”
In the summer months, you can visit Valentyna’s farmstand at 1482 County Road N, Roberts. You can find her and her goods this winter at the Baldwin Winter Market. Upcoming dates are Dec. 16, Jan. 13, Feb. 10, March 16, April 13, and May 11.