Dead U.S. War Hero’s Dad Is Finishing His Son’s Mission in Ukraine

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Steve Gregg/Valentina Lavrinenko
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Steve Gregg/Valentina Lavrinenko

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Valentina Lavrinenko, 60, is fighting back tears while trying to heat some Ukrainian borscht over a small gas stove at her daughter’s apartment in Kharkiv. The city in eastern Ukraine is being pounded by Russian bombs daily, resulting in frequent power cuts.

It has been over a year and a half since Skyler Gregg, an American volunteer in the Ukrainian army, died at the front line. The nearby city of Kupiansk, where Valentina used to live with her husband Viktor, had been under Russian occupation for seven months until the Ukrainian Army sent the Russians fleeing in September 2022.

She recalled the young American arriving almost like a knight on a white horse. His Colgate smile and kind soul are impossible for her to forget. Skyler, from Washington state, helped Valentina and Viktor reconnect with their daughter and son via Starlink in 2022 after the liberation. It melted Valentina's heart.

“He was so kind. I showed Skyler photos of my family, and he showed photos of his. He didn’t speak Ukrainian, but somehow, we managed to communicate,” Valentina told The Daily Beast, ”I gave him coffee, tea, soup, and cookies. I even gave him some socks.”

The 23-year-old American, who died in an artillery attack about two months later, told Valentina about his wish to help the Ukrainians. Skyler showed Valentina the scars on his hands from being wounded a few months before. It made her cry.

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“I told him that he should go home. He understood me but disagreed. He just smiled,” says Valentina, who had a special bond with Skyler, “So, I told him that I will pray for him.”

“He almost became like a son for me,” she adds.

Valentina Lavrinenko.

Valentina Lavrinenko says she forever thanks Skyler. She finds it hard to understand that someone would come from America to help liberate her.

Stefan Weichert

Making Connections

When the Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border in 2022, Skyler snuck out of his father’s house in the U.S. to join the International Legion of the Ukrainian Army despite having no prior military experience. Steve Gregg tried to talk his son out of it but he failed.

The Daily Beast first met Skyler at a hospital in the summer of 2022 after a Russian drone at the front line had wounded him. He had bandages on his right arm and leg.

“I felt heat in my arm. Dogs around were just screaming. It rang in my ears, and I ran to an outdoor bathroom and shut the door. I was trying to hold my arm together,” Skyler said about the attack, where one French volunteer fighter died and another got wounded.

Despite his ordeal, Skyler was eager to return to the frontline.

“I have not finished what I came to do,” he said in the hospital before taking part in the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September. That was when he helped liberate Valentina’s family.

Since Skyler’s death, his father has been fighting his own battles. The loss of his son has sent him on the path towards depression. Steve was considering counseling and the possibility of taking antidepressants when he managed to connect with Valentina.

He had received her contact from another foreign soldier in Ukraine, who told him about the special bond between Valentina and Skyler. Steve wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to get in touch.

The first time he spoke to Valentina, Steve showed a photo of Skyler with a Ukrainian flag hanging on his wall. It made Valentina burst into tears. Since then, Steve has been frequently texting with Valentina and her daughter, Irina.

Irina and Valentina outside their apartment in Kharkiv. They

Irina and Valentina outside their apartment in Kharkiv. They are uncertain about going to the U.S. They say it is difficult to leave one's own country.

Stefan Weichert

A Special Bond

After the liberation in 2022, Skyler and his unit moved into a house close to Valentina and Viktor. She would continue to cook for Skyler and help out whenever she could.

“When I heard that he died, I just couldn’t believe it. He was such a good boy. He wanted all the best for us. He did much more than many Ukrainians are doing. He was not afraid of anything,” Valentina says, while tears are running down her cheeks.

A photo of Skyler with Valentina.

Steve used to have a Ukrainian flag and a photo of Skyler with Valentina hanging on his wall.

Steve Gregg

She shows The Daily Beast a water bottle and towel that she got from Skyler. Valentina gave him some small presents. She couldn’t stop crying when she saw Skyler the last time in Kupiansk as if she knew it would be the last. Again, Valentina tried to convince the young American to go home to Steve and his mother, but she couldn’t get through to him.

“I told him to take care of himself. And don’t forget about me,” Valentina says, adding that Skyler kept smiling at her, “I will be here if you need me. I told Skyler that.”

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Steve, 58, who only had sporadic contact with Skyler once he had arrived in Ukraine said: “I am just so grateful to Valentina. That she could be there for Skyler when I could not. It is like she was the one who was able to say goodbye to Skyler… I have lost my son, but I have gotten another family. I have gotten a new meaning in my life this way.”

Steve, who is divorced and also has a daughter, has started the process of sponsoring Valentinas’s family to come to the U.S. through the Uniting for Ukraine program. The program allows Ukrainians fleeing the war to come to the U.S. if they have a sponsor.

“It helps me to know that I can help them,” says Steve. “The war is just so awful. It’s evil. Its hell. It is just awful in every way. I need to do something.”

Steve, who used to be an engineer, says that Skyler always wanted to help people and embrace the world without considering the consequences. Steve, who had to quit working when he got diagnosed with cancer a few years back, is now cancer-free and starting to look for jobs so that he can better take care of Valentina’s family if they arrive in the U.S.

“I am trying now to speak Skyler’s language. Do what he would do,” says Steve, “Not everyone understands me, but it is something that I really want to do.”

Steve Gregg.

Steve says that he is much different from Skyler, but his son's death has taught him to be more like his son.

Steve Gregg

New Futures

Back in Kharkiv, Valentina’s daughter, Irina, says that Skyler left a unique mark on her mother. Her father is still in Kupiansk caring for the house despite the Russians being only five miles away. Steve is desperate to give them the opportunity to hide from the Russian missiles in the safety of the U.S.

“My father really wants to go to America. It is something that he had been dreaming about even before the war. But my mom and I are scared,” says Irina, worrying about the language barrier and saying goodbye to Ukraine.

Valentina says that Skyler’s death has forged a special bond between her and Steve.

Even if they don’t make it to the U.S., she hopes that they will meet one day. She will invite him to Ukraine after the war to show him where they lived and tell stories about her meetings with Skyler.

Steve explains that simply being in contact with the Lavrinenko family means a lot.

“This has all given me a sense of purpose in my life, and I am trying to figure everything out. But if they do come, I will do everything to help them learn English and find a job,” says Steve, who also would like to travel to Ukraine in the future.

“You know, this Ukrainian family is like a gift to me. All of this has saved me from depression. I had lost the ‘why’ in my life. I have gotten it back,” he says. “I will always be grateful for that.”

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