Ukraine’s invisible wounds

By Santiago de la Presilla

During my trip to Ukraine’s eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, I got the chance to talk via Skype with Roman Torgovitsky, the CEO of Wounded Warrior Ukraine, an organisation which provides psychological rehabilitation and support to a network of trained Ukrainian veterans, many of whom are now dealing with with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“It’s a peer-to-peer support concept” Torgovitsky explained, “we are a US-based organization that creates a network of Ukrainian veterans who have been through war and have gone through our training. [The training] teaches them to overcome their own trauma while also helping their fellow veterans and soldiers.”

(Wounded Warrior Ukraine)
(Wounded Warrior Ukraine)

The ongoing conflict in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, which escalated in April 2013, has now taken at least 6,832 lives and left 17,000 injured, according to the latest UN statistics. The figures for the number of Ukrainian soldiers now suffering from PTSD, however, is not so clear cut due to lack of government attention to the issue.

One soldier, Alexey Chaban, a Lieutenant in the 17th Tank Brigade of the Ukrainian army, spoke of his anger towards the government’s failure to help veterans deal with PTSD

“I don’t think they give a fuck. Volunteers offer help to the families of soldiers in combat, but that’s it.”

Volunteers can be very helpful – a dentist in Dnipropetrovsk even offered Chaban a free lifelong dental subscription – but the Ukrainian government has very little experience in dealing with the influx of soldiers returning from the war-torn East.

Indeed, Torgovitsky says that this situation is far more complex than simply arranging appointments with psychiatrists for suffering veterans.

IMG_1133 (1)
(Wounded Warrior Ukraine)

“The major issue that veterans face, is that as a result of the war shock they change and often times don’t want to deal with psychotherapists or psychiatrists. As a result, they feel alienated from their families and friends because they have changed, while family and friends don’t really understand what actually happened to them”.

Most importantly, Torgovitsky stressed that it tends to be easier for veterans to connect with and relate to the experiences of other soldiers, rather than those of a psychotherapist.

A Sustainable System

“The Wounded Warriors Ukraine project is entirely volunteer-based and unpaid on the US side of things. But our Ukrainian team is getting paid. This is one of the core concepts of moving away from the volunteer activity into more sustainable job-based activity, where people can actually make a living,” explained Torgovitsky.

(Wounded Warrior Ukraine)
(Wounded Warrior Ukraine)

Recalling his personal experiences, Torgovitsky described how the idea of his organisation was born out of the this need for sustainability.

“When I was involved in raising funds for the injured on Maidan, I realized that it wasn’t sustainable because you can’t always bring specialist people from outside the country to help with the rehabilitation process. That’s exactly why the focus of our organization is to help Ukrainians build up their rehab capacity.”

The Army vs. Volunteer Battalion Divide

According to Ukrainian internet TV station Hromadske TV, there are approximately 50 volunteer battalions that play a role in “Ukraine’s territorial defence” and donations for such battalions are collected regularly by busy volunteers across Ukraine. 

Volunteer soldiers from the Aidar battalion (Francesca Ebel)
Volunteer soldiers from the Aidar battalion
(Francesca Ebel)

When asked whether volunteer fighters with less training and combat experience than members of the professional Ukrainian military are more likely to suffer from PTSD, Torgovitsky pointed out that PTSD “is a subjective experience more than a scientifically-based fact.”

He added, “many volunteer soldiers really understand why they are fighting and why they decided to go to the frontlines and put their lives in danger. That is why they are a lot more open to getting trained: it helps when people understand why they have to go through a great deal of suffering. On some level they may be less likely to get PTSD than the professional soldiers, but it always depends on the severity of the trauma they have suffered.”

Cultural Differences

Ever since the first Wounded Warrior Ukraine counselling sessions, there have been Danish veterans who served in Afghanistan working with the Ukrainian soldiers. In spite of the vast differences between the Ukrainian and Afghanistan wars, one can’t avoid drawing comparisons between the two.

All wars have significant psychological effects on both soldiers and civilians, however Torgovitsky believes there are marked differences between these two conflicts:

“The intensity of [the Ukrainian] war is different than in Afghanistan. From my understanding, many US soldiers were not involved in this sort of day-to-day shelling or day-to-day intensive engagements.

“I talked to a couple of US journalists who visited the frontlines and they were amazed. They described the Ukraine conflict as a World War II type scenario. By that I mean tank battles, constant artillery and constant engagement.”

IMG_1211 (1)

Cultural distinctions also play a part, with Ukrainians and Russians sharing a very complex, often controversial, and deep-seated history.

It is easier to dehumanize someone from a different culture,” Torgovitsky said when speaking about NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. “When you’re fighting in Iraq as a Westerner, I suppose it’s really easy to dissociate [yourself] from the people you’re fighting.”

Although Nationalism and patriotism in Ukraine have certainly been sharply on the rise since the beginning of this conflict, Torgovitsky stressed that maintaining a connection with other human beings, on all sides, is closely related to the reduction of PTSD.

This is not always easy. During our interview, Lieutenant Chaban spoke of his feelings rift between nations that he believes Russia is fuelling.

“I think the Russian government has prepared its nation to hate Ukraine and it has worked – they want to destroy us.”

Ukrainian Independence Day Parade (Francesca Ebel)
Ukrainian Independence Day Parade
(Francesca Ebel)

Whether he is right or not, neighbouring countries must maintain a dialogue of some sort, and this is especially important for those countries with so much shared history.

Since the Russian government fully denies the presence of its troops in Ukraine, there are not any known government or volunteer organizations that specialise in the mental health issues of pro-Russian rebels or Russian soldiers that have fought in the Donbas. Although Russian nationals such as Torgovitsky are making individual donations to the Wounded Warrior Ukraine organization, he said that no big names in Russia have supported the organisation’s efforts.

“Even though we were born out of Maidan, on a human level [the organisation] will always be open to work with Russian soldiers in order to work on their own trauma. I think this is the path to reconciliation, bringing people together.” 

(Editor’s note: Solider featured in cover image is an unnamed man serving in the Kharkiv Volunteer Battalion)


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