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Vitalii Borodavka: “I wanted to be a special military man”

Children’s dreams

Since childhood I dreamed of joining the military, I liked everything military. But I wanted to be not just a military man, but… a special one. A special forces officer. I looked at the Ukrainian special forces of the SBU, Alpha, which was then called “Berkut”. But my parents were against it. There was no military in the family. I was sent to study at the Kharkiv Institute of Banking. But I did everything I could to avoid studying there – I skipped classes, and I was indifferent to my studies.

 In 2013, I wrote an application for a sabbatical. And I received a call-up for military service. My father said: “You have to choose between conscription and entering the Academy of Internal Troops”. So I entered the Academy of Internal Troops.

 During the interview, the colonel in charge of educational work recommended the Faculty of Management, saying that it would be easier for me after banking. And he had a picture on his wall of guys in a boat with machine guns, painted, wearing bandanas. “No,” I said, “I want to go there!” He sent me to the command and staff faculty.

 I went to school. Four years. By order, I was sent to serve in Zaporizhzhya, in a convoy. I realised that this was not my thing at all. It was not what I wanted.

 My brother is a professional MMA athlete. And he always encouraged me to do sports. I did judo. And it was easy for me to prepare for joining Omega. Although it was hard to pass the physical training, I was beaten up a lot. First, you run three kilometres, then a hundred metres. Then you have to do 20 pull-ups, 60 push-ups, 90 sit-ups, 80 press-ups. And then three more rounds of boxing with different people. I passed all this and got into the squad. Then the rotations began in the Joint Forces Operation area, and I became a combat group commander.

 In the war

 We were based in Rubizhne, and the first rotation was to Stanytsia Luhanska and Zolote. The second one was to Mariupol.

 On the eve of the full-scale war, on February 23, I told my parents and wife to pack their things because the war was about to start. They did not believe me.

 I didn’t know for sure, but it seemed logical to me. Because on  February 21, we accompanied the russian ambassadors from Kharkiv to the border. Our documents were taken to Dnipro. The 92nd Brigade moved to the border. These were clear signs that something was going to happen.

 On the 24th, at 4 a.m., my wife woke me up, I opened the window and heard Grads hitting. In our unit, we had a special word that the commander invented in case of war. He had to write it in all the chats so that everyone understood, it was “Wisconsin” – I hate this word.

 My wife said to me: “You’re a bit crazy. Everyone is running around in a panic, and you’re choosing the cap you’re going to take to war.” And I just have a fetish with caps. This cap is still with me everywhere.

 On 24 February, the 92nd Brigade was the first to move towards Tsyrkuny, it was supposed to secure the crossroads to prevent the russians from entering the town. But we ran into a russian checkpoint that was already there. The commander told us to go for reinforcements. We were chill, driving without any panic, as special forces should. We approached a checkpoint, and it turned out to be the enemy’s checkpoint, there was a battle going on and we just dived in. Our APCs turned around and fought. Then one APC’s gun jammed and had to leave, and two APCs remained – we were moving in one group. Eventually, the russians retreated. We had one serious injury – a gunshot wound to the stomach. The man survived, but he had his kidney removed later. 

Then a VOG ( grenade launcher munition) fell near my leg. It didn’t hit me with shrapnel, but I had a contusion. Later people from the 92nd brigade asked us: “Who were those tough guys who just burst right into the battle ?” And we said: “Well, that was us”.

 At first, it was hard to believe that this was happening in Kharkiv. Even after the first battle, there was no realisation. The russians were on the outskirts: Kharkiv Tractor Plant, Mala Rohan, “Wind Rose”, from the direction of Tsyrkuny, Dergachi, Pyatykhatky. The city was already in a semi-encirclement. We still had an exit to Pisochyn and the way through Merefa to Dnipro.

 Then they started bombing the city from planes, Grads, Peonies – everything was flying, it was impossible to drive around the city. Once we were guarding the bridge on Dergach to prevent the russians from trying to enter the city again. They wanted to bomb the bridge, and we were right under it. They launched nine FABs (250kg aviation bombs) at us. That was scary.

 I had a guy sitting in an APC screaming that his legs had been blown off, and I looked at him and saw that his legs were still there. Everyone was really scared at that time. Earlier, an old lady came to the bridge and was walking around. At first, we told her to leave, telling her there was a curfew and that it was war. Right after she left, we were bombed. Eventually, we detained her and discovered that she had a residence permit in Makiyivka and information on her phone that she was passing on to the russians.

 But despite such people, I don’t know what the russians were hoping for. They would not have taken a city of a million people with the forces they had. They thought we would meet them with arms wide open, but it turned out differently.

On March 1, we were clearing the village of Zhukovsky, got out of the armoured vehicle, and a woman looked at me with anger and asked: “Who are you for?” I said: “Myself”. She asked again: “Who are you for? Glory to Ukraine!” I answered: “Glory to the heroes!”. She went on again: “Putin?” I said: “F***k!”. She turned around and left. It was unexpected for me that civilians would act like that.

I realised that the russians would not take Kharkiv when the 93rd Brigade came in after they had liberated the Sumy region.

Once we went to Ternova, which is in the direction of Staryi Saltov. We had to do some additional reconnaissance because the next day there was going to be an assault. There were several groups there, but when the territorial defence withdrew, three russian tanks drove out and started to shoot right at us. Before the war, I thought that a tank was not a big deal. But it turned out that everything was scary, both planes and tanks. It hit us so close that I felt my hair was almost burning, it even curled. I was lucky that the shrapnel didn’t hit me, though it hurt the guy next to me. I just got a few small pieces. We had some wounded soldiers, but everyone survived and managed to get out.

 After Ternova, I was sent to the hospital for rehabilitation because of my shell shock and the shrapnel. And I did not go on the next mission. Another commander was assigned to the group. He was supposed to lead the infantry to an observation post in a plant. And he decided to search the 500 metres of the plant. The group stumbled upon a russian observation post, and they got wounded, but not very seriously. That commander called for an evacuation to a point 50 metres closer than the agreed before and the vehicle hit a russian cone shell. The Cougar did a flip in the air. Two guys were seriously injured and one was killed, he was my good friend. It knocked me down. It was very difficult. I decided to leave the group.


 In October I was transferred and now I am an instructor in Kyiv.

 The basic training course for special operations units used to last three months, but now it has been reduced to one. And when you try to explain that we have to fit everything into one month, and the group still feels relaxed, it makes me angry and I start training them much harder and more ruthlessly.

 There was a situation when we had to practise ambushing and counter-ambush actions. They were acting stupid and it made me angry. I told them via radio: “You’re all wounded, both legs, crawl on your hands”. They must have crawled on their hands for about a kilometre, all dirty and wet. I expect that someday I will receive a review saying that the instructor was torturing people. But they keep writing: “Top instructor” after each course.

 I do not follow the fate of these guys. I don’t even ask their names. Anyway, it’s easy to get attached to a person even after a month of training, but I try not to do that. Because a lot of friends get killed later.

 But teaching is not my thing. Although, of course, my wife is calmer now. I will never forget how we had a task to take three villages. There was no communication with me for probably eight days, in general. When I returned, I called my wife, and her first words were: “Are you freaking crazy, you jerk?” And those words made me laugh.



How did the war change you?

I became more patient and calm about many things. My values have changed because a lot of my friends have been killed. You realise that you can change and buy a lot of things, and these are not the things you should get upset about. You can get upset when you are given a task to go behind enemy lines for 10 kilometres and take three villages having just three groups of people, and you have no evacuation and no artillery, only NLAW and RPGs. You realise that if you get wounded, no one will be able even to physically carry you if a heavy battle starts there. My wife is impressed by my patience.

 Now I don’t put things off for later. For example, why wait for a holiday if you can buy flowers for your wife anytime?

 What are you afraid of?

Planes. When I hear our plane flying, it makes me sick. Planes are a nightmare. 

I was trained to go out and clear the building… And there I was, running like a mouse from the bombs dropped from the planes, from Grads and rockets. In general, I am afraid of heights.

 Who supports you in the most difficult moments?

My wife. She is my saviour. Alina persuaded me to go to a therapist and do yoga. I am a rebel in life, but I followed her advice. There was a time when I became very aggressive.

 What kind of gratitude would you like to see for the military from civilians?

In general, I am ashamed to say that I am a military man. I feel embarrassed. It’s my wife who tells everyone I’m a soldier. But she is proud of me. And I’m feeling shy. I don’t know what gratitude should be like, but it should not be intrusive. So as not to embarrass the person.

 After the war, who do you see yourself as?

I would like to have my own rehabilitation centre. After the war, we will still have a lot of problems, so the military will need to be helped to overcome the consequences of the war. And every rehabilitation centre should have a comprehensive approach to services and there must be sports for sure.

 Why do you want to take part in the  Invictus Games?

If it wasn’t for my wife, I probably wouldn’t have applied for the competition. I told her that I was embarrassed to go – I have both legs and arms, my head is working fine, and other guys have serious injuries. But then I found out that the participants were being divided into appropriate categories. So now I think every soldier should give it a try.

I started doing sports again to get the negative energy out. Because you get overwhelmed, you can’t sleep, you get angry. And when you do sports, you let it go.


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