A Honeymoon in Ukraine

Newly married Sacramento couple travels to the front lines of a war zone.

PUBLISHED DEC 15, 2023 12:27 P.M.
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JP Reese (left) and Dawn Davidson (right) celebrated their union with a honeymoon spent serving others.

JP Reese (left) and Dawn Davidson (right) celebrated their union with a honeymoon spent serving others.   Photos courtesy Dawn Davidson and JP Reese

Dawn Davidson and JP Reese were trying to figure out where they wanted to go on their honeymoon.

Hawaii was a quick no for the couple, who live in Sacramento. Fiji seemed a little more exotic and potentially okay. But in the time leading up to their Oct. 14 wedding, Davidson had an epiphany that she shared with Reese.

“I told him one night, ‘You’re gonna think it’s really, really dumb, but the only place I really want to go and spend my money is Ukraine,’” Davidson says. “And that was like the first time I saw his eyes light up like, ‘Oh my God. Yes. Let’s go.’ He didn’t even have a passport.”

Man in a truck filled with packages
With contributions from friends and strangers,
the couple purchased $5,000 worth of goods.

It led to a unique honeymoon, just days after their wedding: Traveling to a war zone where Davidson and Reese, who are both nurses, could distribute supplies to Ukrainian soldiers as humanitarian aid.

Why Ukraine?

Except for time he’d served in the military, including a stint in the US Navy during the first Persian Gulf War, the 56-year-old Reese had never been out of the country. It was a different story for Davidson, who is in her late 40s, and spent eight years living in Ukraine after high school. She first arrived in Kyiv at 18 as a missionary for YWAM, or Youth With a Mission. That international organization operates relief programs in more than 100 countries, and sends “mercy ministry” teams “to follow Jesus’ example of compassion to those in need.”

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wanted to help people,” Davidson says.

Table in a house covered with supplies
‘Seven bags of medical
supplies for two people
with no paperwork
was awkward.’

Reese and Davidson met each other eight years ago and worked together for five years at a Sacramento-area home health agency. After deciding to have their honeymoon in Ukraine, they decided to have their wedding be their fundraiser. Instead of registering for gifts at Wayfair, where they could get tony home goods, Reese and Davidson created an account where guests could purchase items for individual first aid kits, or IFAKs, which include tourniquets, chest-decompression needles, splints and the like. They wound up with enough contributions from friends and strangers alike to purchase $5,000 worth of medical supplies to bring on their trip.

Traveling with the supplies created some logistical hurdles during their travels. “Going into Poland with seven bags of medical supplies for two people with no paperwork was awkward,” Reese says.

Still, they ultimately got through without problems and embarked on a 14-hour bus ride from Gdansk for their first stop in Ukraine, the western city of Lviv.

Life in Ukraine

In Lviv, which Davidson and Reese reached around Oct. 20, they found a city seemingly less touched by war with Russia than other parts of the country. While later parts of their trip included some difficult moments, they treated their first two nights in the city as a normal honeymoon, staying in a Best Western hotel.

“Lviv was an incredible, incredible city, full of life at the time we were there,” Reese says. “People were out on the streets. There were people singing on balconies, playing guitars. There were street performers; people walking around, drinking coffee, sitting out in front of bars and restaurants enjoying people’s company.”

There was also no artillery shelling while they were in the city, though they had taken precautions. While checking into their hotel, staff informed them of the bomb shelter in the basement.

From Lviv, they traveled on to Ternopil, meeting up with a contact from YWAM and loading a van full of gear. Their destination, aside from a quick stop in Kyiv where they dropped off a generator, was Slovyansk, where they stayed in a church basement and spent five days traveling around and distributing supplies to battalions in the area.

Couple in front of a missile embedded in the ground
‘We had an alternative
experience that was
just as valuable.’

“We would go into these villages and there’d be all these blown-up houses and then a few people who are still raking their yards, trying to keep it all nice,” Davidson says. “Then there would be six or seven houses in a few-block radius that had five soldiers in this house, four soldiers in this house, six soldiers in this house.”

Reese and Davidson are trained as wound nurses who can attend to people who’ve suffered physical trauma. Because they didn’t have clearance to administer first aid in hospitals as nurses on this trip, as they had hoped, they instead focused on spending 10 to 15 hours each day traveling to distribute supplies to soldiers—and getting to know them.

Every place they went, Davidson and Reese would hang out with the men they met, drinking coffee and tea. Visits could last for hours, with Davidson able to speak fluent Russian and some Ukrainian, and some of the soldiers able to speak English.

“It was hours and hours of just sitting around, talking, them showing us pictures of their kids and telling us why they’re doing this,” Davidson says. “And it was just such a beautiful thing.”

It resonated with Reese, too. “It may not have been our original plan that happened,” Reese says, “but we had an alternative experience that was just as valuable.”

Away from their families and children, the men of the battalions Reese and Davidson visited focused on tasks that ranged from the grim duties of war to more lighthearted chores such as caring for puppies that stayed in the houses where they were camped.

Reese and Davidson met people from various backgrounds, including a professor of math and science who was teaching troops about artillery.

“Artillery is entirely math,” Reese says. “It’s all about distance and trajectory.”

The man stated that he’d been fighting since 2014 and had a bounty on his head, since the Russian government considered him too knowledgable.

Each unit that Davidson and Reese visited had taken losses. But they encountered people who were resigned to keep fighting, such as a man who went the woods at night to kill enemy combatants with drones. The man told Reese that he had no choice. “He’s like, ‘If they go home, I can go home,’” the soldier told Reese, “but they’re not going home.”

Reese gets it. “This is their fight for freedom,” he says. “If they quit fighting, their country dies.”

The End of the Trip—and Plans to Return

After their time in Slovyansk, Reese and Davidson made their way back to Kyiv, where the conventional part of their honeymoon was set to resume. But traveling through a torrential downpour on the drive to Kyiv with their handlers exhausted, Reese says, was the only time he felt fear on the trip.

Three men standing together
‘This is their fight for freedom. If they quit fighting, their country dies.’

Back in Kyiv, Davidson commenced showing Reese her favorite places. And while they weren’t doing humanitarian work, they still found time to connect with local people, such as a woman who’d lost several male members of her family in battle in a short time.

“She was just weeping and Dawn was able to break some ice and talk to her briefly,” Reese says.

Unlike the lighter atmosphere of Lviv at the beginning of their trip, Reese and Davidson found in Kyiv a people who were clearly living through a war. They also were in a depleted city, with maybe a million and a half residents instead of a few million during non-wartime. This was evidenced when they boarded a subway during rush hour and Reese complained about it being crowded.

“I’m like, ‘This is nothing,’” Davidson says, recalling that when she lived there, the subway cars of Kyiv were packed solid.

Kyiv marked the end of their trip, with a 20-hour bus ride back to Gdansk followed by a flight home around early November.

Davidson and Reese already are planning another trip to Ukraine, for Reese’s 57th birthday in May. They might even bring Davidson’s two teenage sons, though they won’t bring them to any dicey areas.

They also have advice for anyone who embarks on a similar journey as the one they took for their honeymoon.

“Nothing will go as planned,” Reese says. “Plan your trip, and plan for it all to go sideways a little. And it will—and be okay with it because it’s all gonna be okay.”

Word sculpture with letters painted the colors of the Ukrainian flag

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