NEW ORLEANS — A few weeks ago, New Orleans police officer Harrison Paluska heard the call from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to help defend Ukraine from Russian invaders, and he couldn’t look the other way.
“I'm hoping to just do my part, whatever they need me to do,” Paluska, 24, said. “I got my body armor, I got my helmet, I got my uniforms, my medical kits, all that kind of stuff.”
Zelenskyy made another emotional plea directly to Congress this week for additional U.S. help, saying “the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world to keep the planet alive, to keep justice in history.”
Paluska studied history in college and has family and friends living in some of Ukraine’s hardest-hit cities. So Zelenskyy’s call to arms was personal to him.
“To see a war where it is almost like it was in 1939, 1940, where it's a country's liberty and its attempt to go past the corruption and all the Soviet occupation and move past that, I think, is something that's attractive to a lot of people,” he said. “I think that it's a war for a lot of people that is good versus evil. I think a lot of people see Vladimir Putin for essentially a war criminal or a tyrant.”
The baby-faced redhead from Grand Rapids, Mich., has resigned from the Police Department and was packing up his apartment Wednesday, so he can head to Michigan to see his family on Friday and leave for the front next week.
Paluska spent two years as a beat cop on night watch in the 6th Police District, responding to shootings and armed conflict in some of New Orleans’ most crime-riddled neighborhoods, such as Central City.
He spent four years before that serving in the volunteer Michigan State Defense Force, supporting the Michigan National Guard.
He knows none of it amounts to warfare training, but he thinks the experience will help him.
“I don't think anything compares to combat, especially from a modern combat standpoint,” he said. “There's just no way to know. But I think that component of it, as well as that stress management where it's like, you're going to a call to someone with a gun or someone with an open line, is getting beat by their spouse or something like that. You get that adrenaline and you just got to be able to control that.”
Paluska made contact with the international Georgian Legion fighting in Ukraine. He plans to fly to Warsaw, Poland, to meet up with his contacts, who will take him to the Ukrainian border and then on to Lviv, the major city in western Ukraine.
He said it's his belief in democracy and freedom that’s spurring him on. That’s earned him the admiration of fellow police officers in New Orleans, who are taking to social media to offer prayers and encouragement.
He said he hopes his friends don’t join the fight, especially those who have families to feed. Still, he said, the expressions of love and support from his friends and former colleagues have been overwhelming.
“The offers I've gotten for donations of body armor, money, MREs, medical equipment, all of that kind of thing - especially since I've only been here about two years - blow me away,” he said. “Like, the brotherhood that this city, this department has, especially since it's gotten smaller, you definitely cling to each other, and you want to see the best for each other.”
For Paluska, the best would be nothing less than a free Ukraine.
“This war is wholly unnecessary,” he said. “But the issue is, now that it's here, what are you going to do about it? What are you willing to do about it?”