Home Part of States Newsroom
As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine


As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine

Jun 05, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Paul Hammel
As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine
Ukrainians from across Nebraska join with State Sen. Tom Brewer (holding the flag on the right) outside the Nebraska State Capitol in support of LB 199 on Feb. 14, 2023. To Brewer's left is Noah Philson of Elmwood, who helped Brewer in his travels to Ukraine in 2022. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

LINCOLN — Nebraska state senators headed home last week after a particularly brutal and bitter 2023 session.

But one lawmaker isn’t packing up his office — he has packed his bag for a return trip to the war front in Ukraine.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a decorated military veteran nearing his 65th birthday, has gone to the war-ravaged country twice before.

As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

But the old soldier in him can’t stay away. And he figures he can help.

“You go through life and you have skills, and things you’ve learned. And you want to use those skills until you physically can’t anymore,” Brewer said. 

“In my case, it just happens that after almost 37 years in uniform, that’s what I know.”

‘They need help … to win’

“They need help if they’re going to be able to win the war,” he added.

Brewer, 64, has battled leukemia and sickening chemo treatments in recent years and has a bad back that leaves him with a stiff walk. In addition, he underwent sinus surgery in December.

He visited Ukraine twice last year, in June and October, but the retired Army colonel believes that visits from an American to the battlefield helps boost the morale of the scrappy Ukrainians. And, as a veteran of firefights in Afghanistan, he thinks he can help them.

“I was of less value to them (last year) when they were using Russian equipment. Now, they’re using systems I know,” he said. “I know the Bradley (fighting vehicle), I know the Abrams (tank), I know the Stryker (armored vehicle) ….”

The scorched shell of an apartment building in eastern Ukraine. (Courtesy of Tom Brewer)

 “You can actually come and advise, and help them learn how to better win the war quicker,” Brewer said.

Observers can also, he said, see if the U.S. “invested right” — in the right armaments sent to the conflict.

That can’t happen, Brewer said, if one rides the specially armored train that transports dignitaries and cargo to Kyiv and then you “stop, shake a few hands, take some pics, and get back on the train.”

‘You’re at risk’

“If you go forward, you’re at risk,” he said, “but if you want to understand what’s going on, you have to go there to see it.”

Brewer left Nebraska Saturday and was expected to travel into Ukraine on Sunday.

He will once again be distributing Bibles to wounded soldiers, and he was given some personal items by Ukrainian refugees in Texas recently to return to loved ones who remain in the country. He will meet with  Ukraine’s minister of intelligence — an official who has helped facilitate his interpreter and travels — and a deputy minister of defense.

Radios among cargo

“We’re not ruling out the chance to meet President Zelenskyy,” Brewer added.

He is also bringing speech-secure radios, which will allow Ukrainian troops to communicate with each other without betraying their location to the Russians, who continue to bombard the front with artillery fire.

As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine
Ukrainian pothole. (Courtesy of State Sen. Tom Brewer)

During Brewer’s last visit, he escaped injury when some artillery fire missed his vehicle or failed to detonate nearby

This trip will be more dangerous, he said. The Russians have learned how to counter some of the Ukrainian forces’ “playbook.” And soon — perhaps as they arrive — “probably between 50,000 and 75,000 Ukrainians are going to smash into 50,000 to 75,000 Russians with thousands of armored vehicles.

“It will be World War II type battle,” Brewer said.

Is there a risk of igniting another world war? Or prompting a nuclear strike from President Putin?

Bringing iodine, other precautions

To the first question, Brewer doesn’t think so — Russia won’t risk engaging NATO, he said.

But, he said, he can’t rule out that Putin might use a tactical nuclear bomb if the war goes badly for his troops. Brewer said Russia would not tolerate losing its main naval base at Sevastopol, on the Crimea Peninsula, which Putin annexed in 2014.

“He’d rather see it a smoking hole,” Brewer said.

Because of that, he is bringing iodine and taking other precautions in the event of a nuclear attack.

As Nebraska state senators head home, one heads to the battlefield in Ukraine
State Sen. Tom Brewer joins with a Ukrainian family that received a new temporary home in Moshchun, Ukraine. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

The senator said he admires the “passion” of the Ukrainians and how they remind him of people in Nebraska and Iowa.

They’re common people, in an agricultural region with weather and terrain much like the Midwest, he said.

The fight for Ukraine, Brewer said, reminds him of the Americans during their war of independence from England in 1775 — facing a bigger country with more military might.

 But, Brewer said, like the outgunned American forces of the 1770s, the Ukrainians have something to fight for. 

 “They’re hungry to get their country back and their lives back,” he said. “And I think they’re willing to die to do it.”

Brewer said the Russian prisoners of war that he’s seen were conscripts, or prison inmates released to fight at the front.

 “I don’t know how you motivate a solider like that to risk their life and do the hard stuff,” he said.

Department of State advisory

The official U.S. Department of State advisory on Ukraine — of which Brewer is well aware — says not to travel there due to “active armed conflict.”

“The security situation in Ukraine remains unpredictable,” the advisory states. “U.S. citizens in Ukraine should stay vigilant and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness. Know the location of your closest shelter or protected space.”

In the past, Brewer has said he has provided reports on his trips to U.S. officials.