A dream of the sea
Since childhood, I wanted to be a sailor. I loved the sea. We travelled to Crimea in 2006-2008, to Simferopol, Sevastopol, Yevpatoria. As a kid, I would look at the horizon, see ships and tell my father: “I will grow up and go to work on a ship. I just haven’t decided yet whether it will be a military one or not.”
When I turned 18, we went to the Marinesk Academy in Odesa. But the tuition fee there was so high that my parents could not afford it. I said right away that I wanted to join the marines or the Navy. At least something related to the sea.
I went to the military enlistment office myself. I thought: “I have to serve, because I must be a man.” My grandfather fought, and my uncle fought in Afghanistan. I had such an environment. I grew up almost without my father because he had always been abroad. He wanted us to have a nice house, a car so that we wouldn’t need anything. He would come home for a month and leave for six months. My father served in the military. He has 12 children – nine boys and three girls. And all the boys served in the army. Since childhood, I was told: “When you grow up, you will go to serve”. But I wanted to be a sailor. I wanted to make money on it. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t go to sea as a sailor, but I could go as a military man, then I would be a military man.
I had a plan to do my compulsory military service and then go as a cook on a ship, and I even went to a school to study to be a cook. I thought I would have a few trips to sea after my military service, and this would help me in the future.
When I came to the military commissariat office, I got to the regional commission. I passed it, and in two weeks I had to be packed and ready to leave.
We were about 600-700 people at a distribution centre in Kozyatyn. We had “buyers” coming to us (to choose soldiers from different branches of the military). I saw men in blue uniforms and thought I should join them. But I almost got into the guard company. But when the men in blue uniforms came in again and said they were representatives of the Navy, I exhaled.
In the 198th training centre in Mykolaiv – I realised that I wanted to join the Marines. We had a petty officer who I didn’t like for his physique – he was thin, and I saw a healthy guy in a Marine beret and realised that I needed to go where he was. Since childhood I have been engaged in MMA – mixed martial arts, I love to fight. And we were told that on the ship we would only wash the deck with our things, and we would not go to the training grounds, we would not shoot.
Eventually I managed to get into the 35th Marine Brigade, 8th Battalion. I served for a year and a half, and then the full-scale war started.
About half a year before the start of the full-scale war, we were in Oleshky Sands, which is 290-300 kilometres from Crimea. Brigades were starting to go on combat duty near Crimea. And it was already becoming clear that it was not just for fun.
We started to work much harder. Before that, it was nothing, but here the commander was driving us hard. He also said: “Believe it or not, you will still be in the military service, and the war will begin. Not like the one in 2014-2016, but more brutal.”
I liked the way they were training us. It was hard, but I liked it. The commander did not let us relax. We were running around with body armour and a machine gun in the heat of the sand, and then he would order us to take off our shirts, We were wet with sweat and heat, and he would hit us in the chest and we would fall into the sand. We were not allowed to shake ourselves off. The commander said: “You have to be warriors. You have to pass the tests perfectly.” Our commander was killed in the war – Serhii Mykolaiovych Derduha (on June 3, 2022, during offensive operations in the Mykolaiv region, as a result of a clash with the enemy, he received numerous shrapnel gunshot wounds incompatible with life).
The oath of a marine is also very difficult to take. But you have to earn the beret.
Then we were in Henichesk for a while and eventually returned to the POD, where we began our regular service again. At the end of January 2022, the commander gathered us together and said directly to us: “The Belarusians have started training. Together with the russians. There will be an offensive. I’m telling you, it’s 100% certain. There will be an offensive in mid-February or late February.”
On the night of February 24, we were all raised on a combat alert, but everyone was walking around so quietly, laughing, it seemed like maybe it was a drill. We had been loading he Ural with ammunition until 4 a.m., and then we were told: “Guys, well done, go to bed. We are leaving tomorrow morning for training, everything is fine.”
I also called my friend, a border guard who serves in Chernihiv, and said: “You were also alerted, I hear your voice is not sleepy anymore, as if you woke up earlier.” And he replied: “I hear russian tanks coming towards us.” I tried to calm him down, saying that I was sure there would be no war.
He hung up the phone, just put my head on the pillow, and the first missile hit the international airport in Odesa… We all got up and got going, and we were doing everything much faster than loading the Ural.
I found out that Oleshky Sands had been occupied. Very quickly. The Sumy region had been occupied, Kyiv had been encircled and Kherson had been taken… I was shocked.
We heard explosions, we heard shelling, but it seemed to be somewhere far away. And then my brother-in-arms said: “Look!” We turned around and there were 14 Russian landing ships lined up and firing at Odesa. And they are coming towards us.
I counted that there were 300 servicemen and 25 pieces of equipment in one ship, and moreover, there were not newly-mobilised soldiers, but real marines who knew how to fight.
Our howitzers and Grads were shooting at them. At first, it seemed that they did not cause any damage to the ships. And then one went up in smoke, the other went up in smoke, and they all went over the horizon. We watched the sea, the russian ships, for five days. They were trying to scare us, coming and going. So we fought by the sea for two more months. We shot down several russian boats. And then we moved to Mykolaiv region. I was in an assault company. In total, I had 17 assaults.
Then we were told that we were being transferred to Kherson. I was glad because I really didn’t want to go to Donetsk. I realized that the guys had been standing still in the Donetsk region for eight years, and Kherson was a newly occupied, difficult area. I wanted to get this city back as soon as possible.
Fighting for the south
On May 27, we launched a counteroffensive. We were met with a very harsh response. The petty officer’s legs were blown off and he was killed, The commander was hit in the back by shrapnel while he was going to get a first aid kit for the petty officer. Another petty officer went to the Ural and was hit and was also killed. We hadn’t even started the battle yet, and we already had such losses. We were digging in under very heavy fire. And the Ingulets River was under very heavy fire. A lot of our men were killed there. A lot. In the village of Velyke Artakove, they were shooting at us so precisely that they could hit a moving IFV. I am sure that there were traitors among locals, because the russians were very prepared, with well-tuned mortars.
We decided to drive straight towards them so that they would have to retreat because if a mortar works at a distance of five kilometres and they are shooting at us from it, if we approach, they will have to retreat a little bit to get us. The best defence is offence. I was acting as a platoon commander at the time.
On the way, we were heavily shelled. A 120-mm mine hit us – one guy lost his head, the other lost his arms. They both died immediately. And in a counteroffensive, no one comes back for anyone – if you fall from an infantry fighting vehicle, no one will not pick you up. Twenty people will not come back for you.
Under this fire, we rapidly got into one village. Aside from the russians. Because our artillery was working, mortars and tanks were buzzing, both ours and theirs, they did not hear us and did not know that we were coming at them. We destroyed a lot of them then. Then our guys took another village. But in Andriivka, our battalion was defeated. And we were taking our dead and wounded out in groups under shellings. That’s when Stasik, my best friend, with whom we were friends in the army, was killed- a mine shank hit him right in the middle of his body armour.
When you are transporting wounded and dead comrades, you have to keep a certain amount of cool mind. There is no time to think about how sorry you are for them all. You only think about how to evacuate more guys. I realized then that if we waited there until nightfall, the Russians would attack us and crush us with their equipment. I realized that we had to get our guys out quickly. Although, we did not manage to take them all out…
When we returned for the third group of wounded, we were hit by an infantry fighting vehicle, so we decided to hide the MTLB in the landing and wait for the shelling to stop. We had to cover our tank. I said to my other friend Chava: “Go see where the tank is”. I took a step and that was it…
I got wounded
I fell and immediately wanted to get up, but I felt that I had no support in one leg. I stepped on two “Lepestoks” at once, and one of them went off by inertia. It also cut me with shrapnel pretty badly. I was smiling, but I guess it was a state of shock. It hurt a lot – not immediately, but it hurt so much that I begged the doctor to give me some painkillers to pass out. I was lying there for 4.5 hours with my leg torn off.
Five months before I was wounded, my girlfriend had a dream that I was at demobilization in such good shape, lifting my trousers, and I had a prosthesis. And on the day of injury, at the same time as my leg was blown off, from 12:00 to 14:00, a bird flew into my girlfriend’s window and pecked her right leg.
I was six kilometres away from the fighting when I lost my leg, and the ambulance that was supposed to evacuate me was hit by a shell and was torn apart. I got into another one.
For an hour and a half, I was being taken across a pontoon bridge. My leg was torn off so badly that my fingers were just hanging on the tendon. We were riding on an infantry fighting vehicle, over all the hills, my leg was flying and those fingers were dangling and constantly hurt. So I just cut them off.
All my life I was afraid of stepping on a mine. During my engineering work in the army, I thought that stepping on a mine was the worst thing to happen in life. “Chava”, who I was with from the first day of service, was afraid of snipers and was killed by a sniper. I don’t know how it works.
At two o’clock in the morning, when I was brought there, I wanted to call home, but I realized that my mom and girlfriend were sleeping. And they knew during the day because when I passed out, Chava called and told them. The next morning at the hospital, I asked the nurse to call my mom and tell her that my leg had been blown off because I couldn’t tell her myself. I realized that it would be hard for my mom and she might start crying. But she did not cry. My mom works in Vinnytsia City Council, and she is a fighter. My whole family is like that. My mom called all her friends and two ambulances came to take me away, not just one.
And my girlfriend was very worried during the time I was at war, she lost a lot of weight. She said: “I’m so glad your face is not cut.”
I had no idea about prostheses. I saw guys who walked on them, but I didn’t know how to walk on a prosthesis when you don’t have a leg, I thought It would probably still rub somewhere. But my prosthesis fit me perfectly.
I was very annoyed to ride in a wheelchair, that I could not stand on my leg, and that I had to wait for the prosthesis. But my family was with me, and they bought me a dog, a Cane Corso. And he became my rehabilitation therapist. My mom would wheel me around in a wheelchair, the dog would walk beside me, and then I would sit on the grass and play with him. I realised that I needed to do something to keep myself from being depressed. And when the prosthesis was fitted, I walked with the dog every day.
My girlfriend suggested that I go to the United States for prosthetics because I don’t like the kind of prosthesis they make in Ukraine. The American prosthesis fit perfectly. For half a year I could not feel my leg, and then I was able to walk on the prosthesis right away. And I walk in such a way that you cannot tell I am wearing a prosthesis. Although, phantom pains do not go away. Especially when the weather changes – the heel has sharp pain, my fingers itch, it hurts.
I spent three weeks in America. We travelled around the states and met with the Ukrainian diaspora. It helped a lot to change the environment and distract myself from the war and air raids. One day, the air raid alert that was in Vinnytsia at the time went off on my phone, and I was about to go to the shelter when someone said to me: “Come on, we’re in America”. Or at 23:00 I felt like there was a curfew… But there was no such thing.
When people say that you are the youngest member of the national team, how do you react?
Many people say: “You’re 21 years old, you’re still a boy.” We have a situation in our country now where you can be a kid at 40, and a man at 20. Age means nothing in our country now.
I have just become a father, and I don’t think it’s too early. I’ve been out and about, I don’t need clubs or parties anymore. It’s great to hang out with friends, but I’m happy at home. I have become very domestic.
What kind of character do you have?
I’ve been doing MMA (mixed martial arts ) since I was a kid. I would always used to come home with a broken face. I have a very hot temper. But now I have changed, my priorities have changed.
What questions from journalists annoy you?
How many people have you killed? It makes me so angry! I can just get up and leave if they ask me that. Or when they ask: “Have you ever killed at all?” No, I was at war just sitting in a trench, waiting for the missile to hit me.
I can tell you about one very terrible incident in the war. It’s hard for me, but I’m telling it so that our society knows what a ruzzia is like. When we went to the Kherson region with the guys, in one village, 80 per cent of the houses were broken. We heard screaming in one of them. We approached and saw a little boy, maybe two years old, covered in blood. His family was lying next to him: a sister, a brother, they must have been twins, and his parents – all dead.
You say that many guys have PTSD but what about you?
The last time I had a meltdown was when I went to my wife’s maternity ward. I smelled the blood and was overwhelmed. I know the smell of blood very well, I took out the guys who were bleeding. I remembered all the guys, the killed children…
I was not allowed to be present during my wife gave birth. Doctors said that since I was a military man, I did not need to see it, because it could break me down at some point.
I often smell gunpowder when there is no gunpowder nearby. It’s sometimes as if I would “turn off” but my mother told me that I said some terrible things about the war. I did not remember that.
I was very confused by the sound of the air raid alarm. When I first came home and heard it, I didn’t know what to do or where to run. In war, there is no alarm. I don’t want to die from a missile. It’s cool to die in a battle, but it’s a terrible thing to die at home from a missile..
Do you have many friends?
After the war, my perception of people in general changed a lot, some of my friends who said that even before the war started, they would be fighting. And they are still not in the army. I stopped wasting time on these people. My two best friends from childhood are at war. They are all I need.
What conclusion did you draw from your participation in the battles?
In war, nothing is decided by rank, I swear. Some lieutenants and captains were hiding in cellars, while conscripts boldly went out and bravely went into battle.
What is the correct way to say – lost a leg or had a leg blown off?
“I f***ed up my leg.”
What are you most proud of?
A soldier cannot be proud of his actions. I was just doing my job. Apart from the war, I don’t know. I am proud of my child. We gave birth to a beautiful daughter.
Why do you participate in the Invictus Games?
I am very fond of sports. I also want to defend my country, but I can’t do it now. But I have to do something for my country. So I came to the Invictus Games to represent Ukraine well. And also for rehabilitation.
I looked at other countries and realized that in their Invictus Games, veterans who have been in this status for a long time participate, and not guys who were wounded six months ago in our country.