Operation Sleepout: Air Force vet raises awareness and aid for Ukraine by sleeping outdoors
When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Mark J. Lindquist wanted to help in any way he could.
Many of us have been avoiding the outdoors this month as bitter and deadly wind chills have persisted during the holiday season. But one man has been embracing it in order to raise awareness of a fight for freedom across the globe.
At the beginning of 2022, Mark J. Lindquist was preparing to run for Minnesota’s 7th District Congressional seat. He says he was brushing up on historical documents about freedom in America when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th – and as an Air Force veteran, he felt called to lace up his boots and do something.
"I'm 41 years old, I run a business, I'm never married, no kids - and this happened in Ukraine. I just felt compelled to use the skills that I have, having had training from the American military to go and help in any way I can. Who knows better how to operate in a foreign country better than a military member? That's our job."
Lindquist suspended his campaign and jumped into action. He says his Air Force training was related to intelligence, so he had no combat experience. And, he’s been retired from the military for ten years. But that didn’t stop him from heading overseas in early April, and raising his right hand once again – this time, with the Ukrainian flag on his arm.
Lindquist says he’s in good company, fighting alongside Ukrainians, Americans and veterans from hundreds of other countries around the world – all united in a cause to defend freedom at home, and globally.
He says on the ground in Ukraine, he’s been focused on figuring out what the soldiers need most, and how to get it to them.
"Moving medical supplies, establishing logistical supply line. I tested probably 25 different little supply chains - from medical supplies from China, medication from Romania, from the UK, from Canada and America, on ships, in planes, in boxes, in vans, in cars - we tried to figure out the fastest ways to get aid in around the world. After ten months, we've figured that out."
When winter arrived in Ukraine, Lindquist identified another need: winter gear. He says soldiers in the trenches are not well equipped to withstand the cold temperatures, but civilians are struggling too as they try to survive with no power.
"The least we could do is bring them some winter coats, a generator to keep them warm since they don't have power anymore. The mission will change as time goes on, but for now - it's connecting people who live in frigid temperatures like Fargo, North Dakota and the Upper Midwest with folks that desperately need something to keep them warm this winter, and that's about as humane as you can possibly get."
Before he returned to the Fargo-Moorhead area in November, Lindquist says he asked a Ukrainian general how he could help. That general told him to ask Americans not to forget about them. This inspired Lindquist to raise awareness of Ukraine’s battle against Russia AND the harsh conditions of winter by sleeping outside. He called it “Operation Sleepout,” and figured he could leverage the sheer shock of the notion to raise some donations to bring back to Ukraine. He grabbed a tent, some sleeping bags and some coats, and started looking for places to host him at night. He spent his first night outside December 16th.
"Broadway Square, the Fargo Park Board allowed me to do that; Junkyard, Livewire Productions, we've been over at Whale of a Wash Car Wash, I slept in somebody's backyard over Christmas, I went down to Ortonville, my hometown to sleep at the bait shop. Later this week I'll be at Atonement Church, and then at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds, and I'll invite everybody over there for a bonfire and a little clothes-sorting party on New Years Eve, and be done!"
In the last couple of weeks, Lindquist has faced some of the harshest conditions a North Dakota/Minnesota winter has to offer. But he says the difference is that he has everything he needs to survive, while his buddies in Ukraine do not.
"You don't know what cold is until you lay in a trench when you're wet for five months. You don't know how cold it is when you don't have the proper winter weather gear because it's just too large of a task to outfit a million new military members in the course of ten months. So some of these guys don't have the right gear to survive 15 degree nights when they're wet; there's enough supply on planet earth to help these people, it's just sitting in the wrong spot."
Lindquist says he thought he’d be able to bring some winter coats back to Ukraine in a few duffel bags, but the response to his campaign has overwhelmed him. As of the middle of this week, he’s received three truckloads of donations – along with tens of thousands of dollars to help him get those supplies back to Ukraine.
"We're raising $20,000 specifically because I got ahold of a hundred thousand donated coats that are sitting in a warehouse in Fargo, North Dakota right now ready to be put on three shipping containers to get over there. They were collected by an NGO that sends clothes to Africa, but in his area of operations, they don't need winter gear because they're close to the equator. So he's got a hundred thousand coats sitting there, and all we need to do is sponsor the shipping for it. It's been very encouraging to see people respond all over the region."
Once he wraps up Operation Sleepout, Lindquist says he may keep the momentum going and see if he can raise even more money and supplies for Ukraine by sleeping outside in other areas of the country.
And as he remembers his promise to that Ukrainian general, he’s hoping to inspire Americans to remember how precious freedom really is.
"I wear a t-shirt as the Ukrainians do that says, 'I'm Ukrainian,' because it's a spirit. Of course I'm not a Ukrainian citizen, but at heart - I want to be like a Ukrainian, because they're leading the way I think people should lead. Americans could take some cues from them about what it means to live in a free society and defend freedom like we did 246 years ago."
Lindquist says anyone can get involved in his efforts to help Ukraine by visiting his website, www.markjlindquist.com.