Through cancer and trips to war, White family marches on

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L: a sunflower planted in front of a bombed building in Kharkiv, Ukraine. R: Forrest celebrates with his sister, Finley, and parents, Nicole and Bo White, after he was declared cancer free. Photos courtesy of Nicole and Bo White.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

The train leaves the Polish station heading east at 8:30 a.m. on a rainy April 9. The carriages are packed with women and children who waited patiently for hours in a line that wrapped around the station and into a nearby neighborhood. The cold dampness pierces their clothing, but they are anxious to visit and spend Easter in Ukraine with their husbands, fathers, and sons who they haven’t seen in many months.

The train soon crosses the border. Soldiers hop on and ride to the next stop while checking passports and documents. The passengers are returning to their embattled nation that for nearly 14 months has withstood the Russian invaders. These rails, so central to the Ukrainian war experience, have carried diplomats, generals, presidents, and many supplies into Kyiv, and during the early months of the war they took millions of refugees in the other direction.

On this Easter Sunday, the train is carrying North Carolina Speaker of the House Tim Moore (Republican) and his escort, Leelanau County resident Bo White who knows these rails and roads into Ukraine. A former Air Force pararescueman, Bo has done contract work for the State Department and several humanitarian nonprofits since he officially left the U.S. military, this is his fourth trip to Ukraine since the war began on Feb. 24, 2022.

Bo White helps evacuate wounded Fox reporter Benjamin Hall.

Most famously, he and a former Special Forces buddy helped rescue critically wounded Fox News reporter Benjamin Hall from a Ukrainian hospital in mid-March 2022 and evacuate him to Poland, from where he was airlifted to a U.S. Army hospital in Germany. Hall recently told his story in a best-selling book titled Saved: A War Reporter’s Mission to Make it Home. Traveling in a vehicle that came under fire outside Kyiv, Hall was the only survivor of an attack that killed a Fox photojournalist and a Ukrainian journalist. He lost a leg, both feet, and the function of one hand and one eye. Fox aired a special documentary last month about Hall’s ordeal and survival.

Bo has helped save many less well-known people, too. He has worked with Save Our Allies—a nonprofit which helps rescue and serve Americans and allies in war-torn environments, and which helped extract thousands from Kabul when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021. Bo and others helped evacuate an elderly woman with Multiple Sclerosis from her apartment in Kyiv. As the Russians threatened to encircle the Ukrainian capital in the early days of the war, the woman’s caretaker abandoned her. She lacked medication and was probably going to die. Her family in Texas contacted Save Our Allies, and Bo, who was already in the country, responded to the distress call. It took them two days to find her.

“She was like a whole new person,” once she received her meds in Poland, following a harrowing 25-hour car ride through checkpoints and bomb-cratered roads, Bo said. “During the trip it was like she was going to murder us. Then she became the sweetest, kindest, most gracious lady!”

Ukrainian refugees on the move.

During those early weeks of the war, when it looked like the Russians might seize Kyiv and much of the country, Ukraine’s prolific rail network carried millions of refugees to safety in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. It was the largest and fastest unfolding refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Women and children under age 18 crossed borders while the men stayed to defend their country. Bo recalled being embraced “with a death grip and tears” by many he helped, both Ukrainian soldiers and civilians fleeing to Poland.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more sincere gratitude for work we were voluntarily doing in my whole life, including during my active military duty,” said Bo, whose resume of missions includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Horn of Africa.

 

Crazy, but honest

There were strange experiences, too, while navigating a foreign culture while under siege. On one trip, Bo and his friend hopped into a car early in the morning in western Ukraine with Viktor, a military chaplain who White described as an “old crusty Soviet who’s been around a long time. He eats cigarettes and Coca-Cola for breakfast.” They had been told that Viktor spoke English, but the only expression he knew was “God is good.” During the long ride into Kyiv, they tried to small talk with Viktor and ask where he was from. “God is good,” was all he offered. The chaplain helped the Americans on several missions, “getting supplies in and people out.”

A Ukrainian tank.

At a checkpoint in downtown Kyiv, Viktor suddenly hopped out of the car and disappeared. “Oh great, we’re going to get bombed,” thought Bo. Everything around them look closed and abandoned. Viktor descended into a basement and reemerged three minutes later with croissants, Cokes and cigarettes. “Cool, man,” Bo thought.

“The crazy thing was that people just did what had to be done, in ways that only a resilient person can.”

Bo also had to navigate fears that those claiming to be American volunteers were actually Russian spies—allegations potentially spread by the Kremlin’s propaganda network to undercut U.S. support for the Ukrainian side. On several occasions during the war’s first weeks, Bo and his friends were held at gunpoint while their bags and vehicles were ripped apart at checkpoints.

“We had to be very intentional. We weren’t carrying any military stuff,” he said. “Early on this was a dangerous place to go without a weapon or body armor, but the danger was actually greater to go in with it, because you’d look suspicious. So we opted not to (bring anything), and that paid off.

“What kind of idiot would go here carrying no weapon, no body armor, and no medical supplies?” Bo asked rhetorically. “You either have to be crazy, or you are who you say you are.”

A checkpoint in Ukraine.

Bo experienced plenty of warzones before, in the Middle East and Africa, but never one in an industrial, developed city—”like we were in downtown Chicago.” He described riding in a vehicle on a three-lane highway west of Kyiv and watching a tank that had just engaged with Russians barrel through the median. Ten seconds later fighter jets and missiles flew overhead. He saw huge blockades made of city buses smashed together to stop the invaders from coming in.

“It was brilliant but also terrible because it stops people from leaving,” said Bo. “From a military strategy point of view, this was a fascinating case study on so many fronts.”

 

Forrest battles cancer

Bo White’s handshake is a vice grip, but his wife Nicole is just as strong. Together they own Dune Bird Winery, which opened on M-22 north of Leland in late 2021. Nicole, who grew up in Montana, is a licensed real estate agent with Venture Properties, ran a skincare business with Rodan & Fields, and was previously the online editor at Traverse Magazine. When she married Bo 15 years ago, Nicole knew she had signed up for a life together with a military guy who would occasionally leave her and go to dangerous places.

“I had just enough of an idea that I couldn’t dictate terms,” she said. “That lifestyle we led as a young married couple set the stage early on for when our son got a crazy diagnosis that could have easily taken his life.”

After a 3.5-year battle, Forrest White is cancer free.

In December 2017, Bo was in Afghanistan for what Nicole described as “one of the most dangerous missions of his career,” and Nicole took their son Forrest, 4, and daughter Finley, 1, back to Montana to spend the holidays with her family. Forrest caught a bad cold and she took him to the hospital. A week before Christmas he was diagnosed with leukemia. An oncologist told Nicole that “if a fluke cold had not brought you in, your son would have died, and you would have been able to do nothing about it.”

Bo left Afghanistan immediately and rejoined the family at a children’s hospital in Spokane, Washington, where they spent five weeks of hell, pumping experimental steroids and chemotherapy drugs into Forrest. The 28-day induction period was unlike any their oncologist had ever experienced, he told Nicole. The 4-year-old’s strength and resilience and ability to withstand the drugs was remarkable.

“They pummeled him way more than adults because their systems are purer and because they can handle it,” said Nicole. But after 28 days Forrest had gained nearly 15 pounds, and his body was so weak that his mother had to hold him up to go to the bathroom. “He would wake up throughout the clock screaming, in terror, with ‘roid rage’.”

Concerned about Forrest’s organs failing, the doctors would stop after a month and let his body recover before hammering it again. His immune system was shot, and yet months later the leukemia had not left his bloodstream. The trick was not just to get rid of it, but to keep it gone. Nicole was told that in the 1960s a kid with Forrest’s diagnosis would have been dead within three months.

Back in Leelanau County, in the hangar house in Bohemian Valley, which Bo and Nicole had built as their dream house, Forrest continued to battle cancer. It seemed that every single week posed a new, horrible challenge. Once he developed white ulcers in his mouth and was in so much pain that he wouldn’t eat or drink for five days. Their visits to Munson Hospital’s Cowell Cancer Center in Traverse City were frequent, and Nicole estimated they took an ambulance at least six times from Munson to Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. All the while, Bo would leave for weeks at a time on dangerous missions overseas.

Forrest’s nightmare continued for three and a half years until May 2021, when the team of doctors pronounced him cancer free. The 7.5-year-old was honored at Devos, and on May 25 he got to ring a ceremonial bell, run through a big banner, and celebrate at an outdoor pig roast with 100 friends and family at the Whites’ new home, the land on M-22 north of Leland which would open later that year as Dune Bird Winery.

“Our life as a military family going through cancer—it teaches you what to pay attention to, what to value, and what to let go,” said Nicole. She and Bo both consider themselves deeply Christian. They owe their resilience in part to their faith. Nicole concedes that here in rural northern Michigan she misses having a military community around her. She struggles when people around her learn of Bo deploying or Forrest’s chemotherapy and tell her, ‘I don’t know how you do that.’

Downtown Kyiv, early in the war, as the Russians approached.

“You don’t have a choice,” she tells herself. “What else are you gonna do? Your son is diagnosed with cancer: are you gonna walk away? … Ukraine gets attacked. Are you gonna walk away? Or are you gonna rise to the occasion?

I’ve always been grateful that I can appreciate my husband, my family, and my life as a gift. It’s not guaranteed. A lot of us pretend that we can be safe. But I’ve never been able to pretend that. I’m grateful for what I have.”

The year 2021 stood out for the White family, and not just because Forrest was diagnosed as cancer-free and because Dune Bird Winery opened in November and instantly became a popular destination in northern Leelanau County—both for wine tasting and for espresso seekers. (Dune Bird was so popular early in 2023 that it ran out of wine and had to close for two months.) It was also the first year of Bo and Nicole’s marriage when he didn’t deploy overseas. The family aspired to make enough money with the winery that he wouldn’t have to leave them.

Then on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which instantly became the largest European war in 77 years. The calls for Bo’s help came immediately, and he hopped on a plane four days later.

“In one sense Daddy being in and out is all they’ve ever known,” Nicole described how their children reacted to Bo’s most recent deployments. “But 2021 was a year of everyone settling into each other, then to say goodbye to Daddy again was harder. We had to learn it all over again, and do our separate thing again.

“We talk about Daddy helping people,” she added. “We go back and forth on whether Facetime is helpful or hurtful (for the kids). Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it throws things all off.”

 

Political support for Ukraine

In the beginning, Ukraine needed medical supplies, aid, and weapons, and vulnerable people like the woman with MS needed help getting out of the country. Now the mission of Bo and other volunteers with prior U.S. military experience is different. What Ukraine needs now is continued political support from the West.

Cars smashed together to create a roadblock to stop the Russians.

“In a war zone you have to adapt and understand how to help people. My role now is different than what it was early on,” said Bo. “We’re still pushing supplies, but the bigger thing is to help inform a narrative that the people of Ukraine are in a humanitarian crisis. My best use right now is carrying a representative [like North Carolina’s Tim Moore] who can engage with military and government officials in Kyiv, and show Ukrainian leaders that they’re not forgotten about, that we’ve still got their backs.”

Bo conceded that he didn’t like the “war tourism feeling, but unfortunately it’s also a necessary part of keeping the efforts, in our case the humanitarian side, at the forefront of people’s minds and in the narrative back home.”

As the packed train rumbled east toward Kyiv, Bo looked out the window and saw towns pass by that resembled relics of the Soviet Union—buildings with grey, bland, harsh surfaces, stone and cracked cement exposing brick with virtually no color. Once in a while he saw cobblestone streets with touches of modern amenities, including street lights, small grocery stores and coffee shops that sell baked goods and cigarettes. Everyone here seemed to smoke. And everyone seemed to have too much luggage, with strollers and worn bags stuffed with what looked like their entire belongings. Yet the line of people boarding the train at the station was calm and organized, unlike anything Bo had experienced in such a large group. Nobody cut in line, nobody spoke loudly. He perceived a somber, unspoken unity.

Bo and State Rep. Moore sat in car 8. They had brought plenty of snacks for the 10-hour ride to Kyiv, but Bo wanted to stretch his legs and walked forward eight cars to buy a hot dog in the onboard cafe. He waited 20 minutes in line for “basically a gas station hot dog, but it was delicious,” he said. Instead of a bun, the Ukrainians use a baguette with a hole on one end and the hot dog in the middle, kind of like a corn dog. Bo survived on these hot dogs and energy bars during his earlier trips to Ukraine.

“They’re not healthy but they fit our ‘eat, sleep and pee whenever you can’ strategy. You never know when it’ll be your last chance.”

During the trip, Bo didn’t hear a single child cry, a person laugh, or any boisterous conversation. During his walk through the train he didn’t see a single smile. “I don’t think it’s all about the war,” he said. “It’s cultural, too. This is a beautiful people, rich with tradition and whose expression is different than ours. They’re more matter of fact. No frills. They are stoic, confident and boasting an underlying pride. They are the toughest people I have ever met.”

Back at his seat in car 8, a mother with red dyed hair, along with her eight-year-old son, sitting behind Bo and Rep. Moore made sandwiches and filled the air with the smell of cold cut sausage, a common aroma in Ukraine.

Bo later met Ana, a Ukrainian woman in her late 20s who switched seats so the State House Speaker’s party could sit together. Bo learned that she was a journalist in Kyiv when the war broke out and fled to Germany. She hadn’t seen her husband since March 2, 2022, and she was traveling home to spend five days with him.

“It made me so emotional,” said Bo. “I slipped her $100 and told her to please treat her husband to a nice meal in town. She cried and thanked us. It was all I could do and it felt so trivial and small, but I felt so moved to say and do something for her to know we support her and hear her.”