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Dmytro Kozak: “When the injured go in for sports, they seem to be reborn”

A child of the military

I was a good child. I did well at school.  As a child, I played chess. And, as they say: “Those who play chess are more disciplined”. It was true about me. I also grew up in a military family – both my mom and dad are military. So I was doing well with the discipline. 

I was born in Sevastopol. My father was serving there at the time, he was the commander of a company of climbers in the Crimea. It was a special forces company at the time. After that, my father was transferred to Lviv.

In the morning, I was the first one to go to kindergarten. And from the kindergarten, I was either the last one to leave or the soldiers would take me home. There was a time when the soldiers all wore gas masks. And those were my toys. My parents have a photo somewhere where I’m about 5-6 years old, and I’m wearing a helmet, body armour and have a baton. I was running around with gas masks. These were my toys and I liked them. 

Since my childhood, I have only wanted to become a military. Because I lived in such an environment, watched such movies, and listened only to such music. I didn’t see anything else at all. But I was dreaming of the Special Forces because I watched demonstrations of how the special forces performed and practised various seizures and attacks on posts.

My father was once transferred to Uzhhorod for a while. I spent the whole summer with him in the barracks. I liked it. Until a certain point. Until I began to realise that, unfortunately, there were no supplies for the military. I went to my father’s unit in Lviv, which used to be large, with a lot of equipment and cars, and the unit was shrinking and the equipment was disappearing right before my eyes. And I did not understand why. My father devoted his life to the military, as a  lot of my family members did, but it seemed to me that someone was deliberately destroying the unit.

The Maidan

When the Maidan started, I wasn’t there all the time because I was a student, I was studying in Zolochiv college. But I used to go there on weekends. One day I arrived and saw that there was no change and I even thought I would not come again because there was no point. 

I fully supported the position of the people on the Maidan, but I decided that I would study, get an education, and move on. When the peaceful march began on February 18, I was in class. I saw the news on my phone about the riots and the first deaths. I watched the video, and it felt like the war had started. They were shooting, everything was exploding. And I thought that now everyone should definitely go to the Maidan. One hundred per cent.

I finished my classes, went to the resistance headquarters in Zolochiv, and said that in my opinion all men should go to the Maidan, and that I was ready to go, I wanted to. But since I was 17 years old, they refused to take me.  I explained that I could be useful, I could do something, I could shoot. I insisted that we were fighting for the future of our country there. But they didn’t accept me. I went home, had lunch, and decided to try again. I went to the headquarters again to ask. There were two buses with 10 people each, and they couldn’t find enough people to go to Kyiv. Finally, they agreed to take me with them. 

When I arrived at the Maidan on the night of 18-19, the activists met us and mentally prepared us for the worst. They said: “A person may fall, the snipers are working, everything is on fire, they are shooting. Be prepared for the fact that you may not come back.”

But I was so motivated then, that I didn’t care about what would happen. My parents did not know that I was on the Maidan. 

All day on February 19 and the night of February 19-20, I was at the very front of the barricades. I saw Berkut and units in black uniforms from time to time. They were coming out and shooting with traumatic weapons.

On the morning of February 20, I took a nap for a while, and when I woke up, I saw that there were a lot  more people on the Maidan. I saw the internal troops leaving and running away. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening, I thought maybe they were retreating and the government was changing.

But people were running. I ran to Instytutska Street, to the bridge. There were no more soldiers there. Suddenly, a guy fell in front of me. At first, I did not understand what was happening, I saw that his legs were filling up with water, so I thought. I thought it was the water cannon working. Then I realised it was blood.

We were running up and down along Instytutska Street, pulling out the wounded, hiding, covering them. I was one of the first to go further up the bridge. They threw a lot of grenades at us.

The Berkut officers were very angry. When given a command – they were ready to beat to the last. 

One day I was standing near the October Palace and a bullet hit a man in the head right near me. We were standing next to each other and there was not even a meter between us. He fell down and had a fountain of blood coming out of his forehead. Someone tried to help him, but I realised that there was nothing we could do. There were rivers of blood on the Maidan at that time.

After a while, when the shooting was over, I passed out. Nothing hit me, but as it turned out, it was the consequences of grenade explosions. In addition to severe contusion, all my airways were severely burned by gas grenades. And my spine was damaged.

After a long treatment in Lviv, I was sent to Slovakia. Psychologically, I felt much worse then than I do now. It was very hard for me. Any memories of the Maidan, the song “Plyve Kacha”, the Heavenly Hundred, immediately made me burst into tears, panic, and I had nervous fits. It was a hard time for me at the time. The first two or three years.

I worked with psychologists, but in the end, I was prescribed strong pills.

I got over all my traumas thanks to table tennis. In 2018-2019, I started playing. I don’t know whether It distracted me, but after that, I didn’t have any spine problems. It all started when there was a table tennis competition among combatants in Lviv. I participated and lost, but I liked it, I started playing for myself and noticed that my back issues had improved significantly. I realised that I even needed it for myself.

When you are constantly being told about the war and then you go, shoot a bow or swim in the pool, you forget about this war. Even for a few seconds, but you forget. You have to find a kind of sport that you like and through which you will rehabilitate. 

The beginning of the war

For Maidan, I was given a combatant’s certificate because I really had a combat injury and it was confirmed. It is called “injured participant of the Revolution of Dignity”. When the occupation of Crimea and the war in the east began, I wanted to go. My birthday is in August, I would have  turned 18 and would be able to go to war. It was calling me, I felt I had to.

My dad was already retired at the time, but he said: “Listen, I’m a professional soldier, I’m going to get drafted back and go to war, and you help your mom with your younger brother and sister.” And so it happened. 

I had health problems after the Maidan: blood pressure and my back would sometimes hurt so badly that I had to take crutches and undergo treatment again.

I did not go to serve in the army because of health problems. And I don’t know if I wanted to serve anymore. Since childhood, I dreamed of it, and then I realised that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the conditions of the army.  

I entered the Polytechnic University to study accounting. Then I studied at UCU for a little while as I wanted to gain more knowledge. I worked at a large agricultural enterprise, first as an accountant, then as a chief accountant, and then as a deputy director. I had a quick jump up the career ladder. At the age of 21, I was already one of the managers at the enterprise, with about a thousand employees. I was also an assistant to a deputy of the Lviv City Council.

Agricultural work is a job where you wake up at sunrise and have to leave at five in the morning and arrive home at 10-11 p.m. And for the first year, I almost didn’t see my child at all.  At some point, I wanted to change my occupation, so I quit my job. I wanted to be self-employed.

A full-scale war

When the full-scale war started, I immediately called my father. At that time he was already in the Territorial defence, the Lviv 103rd Brigade. He told me to stay at home, not to go anywhere, to be with my children. I replied that it was not serious. My wife can stay with children and men have to go to war. For a few days, my father promised to get me somewhere, and then he said that the unit was full and I was not enrolled. 

I had to look for another way to join the army. I found the “Carpathian Sich” unit, and I had previously made arrangements with them. But I said that I had no combat experience, eventhough I knew how to use weapons. They told me to wait a day or two. 

I found out about the possibility to join the National Guard in Lviv. On February 28, I went to the unit. In the evening I went to the training the next day I received a bulletproof vest, helmet, weapons, grenades, and ammunition. For some time I was still in the Lviv region. We were training, and preparing. At first, we were supposed to be a reserve for defence of Kyiv. We never went there because the russians retreated. And then we were sent to the east.

We were in the direction of Maryinka-Avdiivka. The unit was scattered. I was wounded in the village of Pavlivka near Vuhledar. We had already been in such battles there that we thought there was no way back. The only thing that was nice was when we came out alive… (not all of us, unfortunately), and int the news we heard that in Pavlivka our troops defeated a famous 155th russian Marine Brigade. When you’re shooting somewhere, you don’t feel whether you’re a cool soldier or not. And when they talk about it in the news later, you think: “Wow, we fought some good battles”.

After the Invictus Games, I plan to go on and fight those f**kers until the end. A lot of guys were in crazy fights that are  hard to imagine, many of them were really lucky to survive. I also survived, I was lucky more than once. And this luck will surely end sooner or later. There were moments when I thought: “Let a shell just hit me. I can’t take it. I don’t have the strength anymore”. But somehow at the last moment, that strength came from somewhere. 

Different things happened – artillery and aeroplanes were shootand ing at us, Grad rockets were hiting our positions. Once a shell fell right next to us, but did not explode. Unfortunately, there were some people left there because we were leaving so fast that we couldn’t even pull their bodies out. But they definitely died. 

Our confrontation is so heroic that probably no one could ever imagine. When guys are ready to give their lives for the future, they are ready to give everything.

We went to certain positions and very few people got back from there. I asked one of them: “Are you going to go there again?” He said: “Yes, I will.” I asked him, “Why?” He said: “We need to substitute the guys.”

As long as there are guys and girls like this, we will continue to fight, and we will not only fight,  but we will win. And I hope there will be more patriots like them.



What character trait are you most proud of? 

Before I got married, I was very punctual. I thought it was a good trait. But then I had children, and I started to fall behind very often. When I was alone, I could only rely on myself, I could never let myself be late.

What is the biggest support in your life? 

I get a lot of pleasure and joy when I communicate with children. I have two daughters, one is five years old and the youngest is two and a half. I often remember and think about them. This supports me and inspires me to do better and make some changes in my life. 

I went to war for the sake of the future of our country, for the sake of the future of our children in this country. I had this point of view from the very beginning.

Did the Maidan events affect you psychologically more than the war?

I was mentally and physically ready for the war. But when I first arrived at our position, we were immediately shelled. They were hitting us, and I was laughing, thinking: “Dmytro, you’re a loser, you’ve just arrived, and you’re going to get killed without even firing a single shot.” 

What are you afraid of?

I’m probably afraid of something. But it depends on the situation. To say that I am not afraid is to lie. I am afraid of being a prisoner of war. Perhaps, dying is not as scary as being captured. Although, maybe if I got there, it wouldn’t be so scary.

What is rehabilitative for you, besides sports?

Communication. With anyone. The main thing is that it is pleasant to communicate. It should be good to just sit, chat, and drink coffee and tea. In fact, it’s a great rehabilitation. 

How do you like to relax?

Well, sports has become a way to relax for me. Playing tennis, swimming, going to the sauna, lying in the jacuzzi. And I enjoy spending time with my kids. 

Do you see victory?

I see it, but the only problem is that I don’t see when it will happen. At the moment I don’t see the end in sight. It seems to me that there are more and more shells flying and they seem neverending.

What do you do when youn feel down?

I have pills that I take when I feel down. Now I don’t get so overwhelmed, as I used to. When I feel down I mostly want to be alone. I don’t become aggressive, the aggression disappears. 

Is it important for you to feel the gratitude for your service from the civilians?

Yes, it is. It’s nice. It’s nice when people thank you sincerely. By the way, you can tell when they are sincere and when they are not.

Why do you participate in the Invictus Games?

I was not accepted at the front line, because of my injuries and contusions. They said, I would be knocked out somewhere at the wrong time, and it would put me and other guys in at risk. They made me stay and serve in the Lviv region. I was upset, but decided to use that time to get ready, to lose weight. And then I saw an announcement about the Invictus Games. At first, I wasn’t sure if I needed it, because there are guys who are already veterans who need rehabilitation. I am still an active duty military, I still have to fight. But when I saw table tennis, I decided to try it. 

When I came to the Invictus Games, I saw those strong guys competing. Nothing can break them. The fact that they have no limbs and are seriously injured did not break them at all. It seems to me that they have become even stronger, even more resistant. I was inspired by the sitting volleyball competition. When the guys are playing, they feel as if they were born again. I think these guys should be seen all over Ukraine and all over the world. They should tell their story to everyone. From the outside, I see that they have found their second self through sports.

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