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Volodymyr Tovkis: “In a coma, I did not see the light at the end of the tunnel, I saw pink Mercedes”

Temper and war

I was in the military before it became mainstream. I was born in the Kirovohrad region, did my military service in the 25th Airborne Brigade in 2008-2009, I even have a parachute jump. When I was discharged, I stayed at home for a year and then got a job in Kyiv at the State Protection Department.

Back then people used to consider the army unnecessary, the state security department was more or less at a decent level. In terms of salaries. I had a pretty good future there. But in 2014, I realised that I was a military man, there was a war in the country, and I was sitting in the government quarter and not taking part in it at all. I was trained. And we were taken to one combat coordination to another when were finally told: “You are not going anywhere, you will stay here”. Perhaps, my type of personality played a role. As in my childhood, I had to try something new.

Upon completion of the contract, I signed a new one with the National Guard in 2017. I was in charge of 20-22 people. I was a deputy platoon commander. In about 4-5 months, we had our first rotation to the Svitlodarsk bulge. Later I got slightly wounded on the right flank, along the front line. And the first rotation was just to the Svitlodarsk area – we were shooting with the enemy through the reservoir.

We had short rotations of two months. At that time, the enemy’s IPSO was quite actively spreading information that the National Guard was on the third line and had too much equipment. But each unit has its own purpose. Some units of the National Guard had to protect public order. Our Rapid Response Brigade had artillery, and tanks and performed tasks exactly like an infantry brigade of the Armed Forces. We did what we could and acted according to the orders.

Perhaps, until I experienced my first missile attack, I did not fully realise that I was at war. Because at that time, in 2017, we had a positional war, there were no such active phases then. We just knew where our enemy was and understood more or less what to expect from them.

They (pro-Russian separatists, Russians) withdrew from their positions, came around from the forest and fired and SPG-9 at us from the flank.

At the time, we were collecting firewood – the guys were carrying it and preparing it, and I was cutting it with a chainsaw. And it was so uncomfortable that I took off my bulletproof vest and helmet,  despite the safety measures. Suddenly  I saw the guys falling down. They heard the shot, but I didn’t hear it because of the saw.

I fell down too and I was lying there and thinking: “I’m the commander at this position, I need to organise observation, find out where the shelling is coming from, whether we will be outflanked or whether it’s a distraction-free manoeuvre.” I realised that I had to crawl to my bulletproof vest and helmet. I had my assault rifle on me, but the bulletproof vest and helmet were a couple of metres away. That was the first time I realised I was at war.

I went to the front at a fairly mature age, so I understood that I could be wounded, killed, or captured. I thought, for example, that captivity would not happen… As they say: “Fast feet are not afraid of captivity”. And I thought that my injury would be very lightl. I thought I was being very careful. I wouldn’t peek out from a trench if it wasn’t necessary. I believed that everything would be grouped and that I would be able to run into some gap or to a dugout during a mortar attack…


I was wounded in Novoluhanske on September 25, 2019, a month after my birthday.

I didn’t remember that day, but when my comrades and I got together and started to recall where we had gone the day before, and what we did two days earlier, everything started to form a logical chain. There was also a moment when I was calling my wife and a fellow soldier said: “Say “hello” to her”. I said: “But she doesn’t know you”. And he said again: “Just say “hello” from Gary”. Then I remembered this conversation word for word and it made another puzzle in my memory.

Our reconnaissance platoon was sent to reinforce the infantry company because the Svitlodarsk bulge was one of the hottest areas of the frontline. The distance to the enemy was 100-160 metres. But we had better technical capabilities to conduct more active surveillance and we had more experience, as many people in our unit had been fighting since 2014. I remember this day until the moment I looked through the thermal monocular, saw some movement, crouched down and tried to get my weapon. And then that was it. I lost consciousness and fell into a coma. 

Most likely, it was a reconnaissance-sabotage group, because the 9 mm. calibre of the weapon was not typical for a sniper. But it pierced my head.

As far as I understand, my colleagues worked according to the protocol and evacuated me as quickly as possible when the situation allowed.

They always tell at war: “Dig, dig!”. We had trenches, but they were narrow. They were fresh and not yet prepared. Our unit was in new positions that previously held by the enemy. When I was carried out, I weighed 90 kilograms, and it was a bit difficult to carry me in those narrow trenches. The guys carried me on the open terrain.  There were several shots, but they managed to carry me about 400 metres.

Oleksandr Marchenko, a neurosurgeon at Mechnikov Hospital, wrote a post about me on Facebook: “He could not breathe on his own, his heart was almost not beating, his blood pressure was close to zero, he was in a deep coma, there was no pupil reaction to light. […] The scale of the injury was impressive. The bullet entered under the right eye, shattered the walls of the maxillary sinus, flew through the right hemisphere of the brain, pierced the occipital bone and stopped under the skin.” The first statement from Mechnikov said: “vegetative state”.

Although I had been in the military long before I was injured, I was not interested in the topic of injuries. I had little information about different injuries. It is only now that I know what the cerebral, shrapnel, gunshot wounds are…


I was in a coma for 11 days. And the first thing I saw, or rather heard, when I came out of it was my wife (who was my girlfirend then) coming in, and the chief doctor of the Mechnikov Dnipro Regional Hospital, Serhii Ryzhenko, leaning over me and saying: “Volodymyr, can you hear us? If you can hear us, blink.” I blinked once. And then I communicated with my eyes: if you heard them I had to blink once, if I didn’t – I didn’t blink, I would blink once for  “yes” and twice for  “no”.

People in a coma often have their throats cut and a tracheostomy inserted so that the ventilator goes straight into their lungs, therefore they cannot speak.

Ihor Halushka and I (in 2017, in the village of Maryinka, Donetsk region, the soldier received a perforating bullet wound to the head while saving the life of his colleague. In 2022, he won a gold medal at the Invictus Games), then laughed that his head looked like a deflated ball. Like a dent in a ball. Now I have a titanium plate in my head, but back then it was just a dent – a quarter of my head was missing. The right hemisphere of my brain, which is responsible for the left side of my body, was damaged. My left leg and left arm were paralysed.

At first, it all seemed like a dream. But gradually I had to accept reality. My brain was covered only by skin at first, and I could touch it and feel the cortex with my fingers. Then it was covered with a titanium plate.

They say that during a coma people see the light at the end of the tunnel. There was no such thing. There were two pink Mercedes. I just remember driving them, choosing discs and tyres in the shop. It was like a dream, but a very realistic one. When I came out of my coma and could speak , I was transferred to the central hospital of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A friend, whom I helped to choose a BMW earlier, came to visit me so I asked him: “Well, how’s the car?” He said: “It’s fine, it’s running, something broke.” I said: “When I get out of the hospital, I’ll take you for a ride in my Mercedes”. My father was standing nearby, thinking that maybe I was out of my mind and asked: “What Mercedes? You have a BMW”. I said: “I know, you have to make discs for BMWs. How are my Mercedes? I brought them home before the rotation”. Everything seemed so real and those pink Mercedes too.


For three months I did not accept what had happened to me. I didn’t understand how it happened.

There was even a failed suicide attempt. But it was a funny one. When I was in hospital in Kyiv, I could neither get out of bed nor turn over. I was taken care of almost 100%. I told my wife: “Katya, I’m so sick of it, I’m going to throw myself out of the window.” And she calmly answered: “It’s the first floor”, and then added: “And there are nets on the windows”. And I realised that the plan would fail, so I had to live.

I don’t think about it anymore because I appreciate the work of those who saved my life. Starting with the guys who carried me out, to the doctors, to my family, who endured everything. When I had a blood transfusion, Dnipro announced a blood donation day then. That is, a lot of work has been done to save my life, so I can’t just do that.

My wife and I also had a situation called “How I was dragged to the registry office”. I love and respect Kateryna, but the incident was ridiculous. It was three months after my injury. We were getting married in the October Palace. And there were 10 steps to climb. I was walking very, very slowly, holding my wife’s hand while walking. And the guard said a brilliant phrase: “I’ve been working here for a long time, but I’ve never seen a man being dragged to the registry office like that.” And I just couldn’t walk.

My recovery from the injury was very emotionally intense. When I started walking, especially up the stairs, I almost cried. I was very afraid that I would not be able to walk up and down the stairs. But the rehabilitation therapist was helping me. In general, I became more emotional after my injury. Sometimes I might be teary or sometimes aggressive.

I have been undergoing rehabilitation in Ukraine – at the Kyiv Regional Hospital, the Modrychi Rehabilitation Centre and Next Step since 2019 and until now. I go there with Tryboi (Dmytro Tryboi is an ATO veteran. He was a scout in the 95th Brigade, and in 2017 he was seriously wounded in the head by a sniper. He was in a coma for five days and had a poor prognosis from doctors. But he survived. He learnt to speak and walk again.) We meet up, go together and, in addition to the classes there, we also play a psychological support role. Now there are a lot of veterans with brain injuries. And they guys see the result and the positive changes that can be made. We share our own experience with them and tell them how we deal with certain situations.

This is how the story of Ihor Halushka inspired me once.

My friends came to me and told me that there was a guy from Azov with a similar injury. His right side of the body was also paralysed, and he could not speak. By then he had already started to perform somewhere, probably at the Games of Heroes or the Invictus Games, and I was shown a video. I was really interested in his story. I can say that I even studied it in detail and this information was a small ray of hope.

Veterans and society

Society is not ready to accept veterans yet. Before the full-scale war, many people thought that the military were just going to the east to shoot or take a break from their wives and household duties. At that time, the war simply did not affect everyone. Now we don’t need help, we need understanding.

I had an illustrative story with a backpack. Once, in the early stages of rehabilitation, when my arm was not yet working, I was going by bus and was holding my backpack behind me. Someone made a remark to me like “You are supposed to take off your backpack in public transport”. I replied that I knew that, but I needed to hold on, and I couldn’t hold the backpack with my other hand.

The situation started to escalate and I had to show the scars and explain why I wasn’t able to take off my backpack. Then they calmed down. But it was humiliating.

Another thing is respect. Recently, there was a funeral ceremony in Lviv, and men of military age were drinking beer and laughing in a cafe nearby. And while people were bowing down and paying their respects to the deceased, the atmosphere in the café was completely different. It looked as if “we have more power, and whoever wants to fight we it’s their choice”. It shouldn’t be like that.

Veterans are more cautious about new relationships. For example, we slept in the same sleeping bag with our brothers-in-arms and trusted each other. Now it’s harder to trust a stranger. 

I like that now I’m working in the military circle. I was dismissed from military service and taken on a civilian position as an instructor in a military unit. My work is more theoretical because it is difficult for me to show how to dig a trench or hold a weapon in practice, I need to use both hands. As the joke goes: “Those who could not find a way in life, became teachers”. 



What were you like as a child?

I don’t have any brothers or sisters so I’m used to being a single child, and a single grandson. The favourite one. As a child, I was very active and restless. Probably, I tried everything possible – running, crawling, swimming, jumping, and playing musical instruments. Now one of my sports is archery. When I was a kid, any branch with a string on it turned into a bow. Even when my parents forbade me to do something as a child, I still wanted to try it. They told me that I shouldn’t climb the neighbour’s cherry tree, but I wanted to, I was a kid, so I did. Once, I stole a neighbour’s strawberries through the fence posts, which a child’s hand could easily get through.

What annoys you?

When people tell me what to do and how. I know my condition, I know my capabilities. Especially when they say do this, or do that, but I simply cannot do it.

What kind of help do you accept?

For example, the help from my wife is rehabilitative. Parents are naturally protective of their children. Sometimes it turns into hyper-protection, which has a bad effect on rehabilitation – if you can’t do it, they will do it for you. A wife is wiser in this regard, she goes: “Come and take it. If you want it – try. In any case, you will try, and whether it works out or not – we will draw conclusions.

Such support also helps me morally, as it gives me an understanding that I can do it myself and I don’t need to be served all the time.

What period was emotionally difficult for you?

When I was lying there and you didn’t know what would happen to you next – would I stay in bed or would I be able to walk? We really have little information about such injuries. For example, a stroke is somewhat similar in its consequences. However, we should understand that a wound to the head with a difference of a millimetre to the right or left makes it a completely different injury. I learnt about the consequences of a stroke.

It’s very difficult emotionally, I’ll tell you in detail: when your mother or father takes your genital and puts it in a urinal because you can’t hold it with one hand, and you need help to pee. When you are 29 years old and you need help to go to the toilet or to be spoon-fed, it’s a real pain.

Who gave you the most strength and motivation?

I always had one of my parents with me. Katia was always there. The brigade authorities came quite often, the National Guard came, and colleagues from the State Protection Department. Even those people came with whom I thought I hadn’t had the best relations. I never felt abandoned or forgotten. Such general support helped me. Such support does great things.

How can people thank veterans?

For example, when the selection for the Invictus Games team took place in Lviv, it was a closed event(for safety measures), but in peaceful Ukraine, I would like people to respect such veteran events and initiatives. I would like people to come to the competitions and show support.

We have to change, though, we are always complaining. Instead, we have to look after ourselves and keep order. Remember not only your rights but also your responsibilities.

Do you see the victory?

I can see Ukraine’s victory, but I am more afraid of what may come after it. As the saying goes: “Moscow lice are not as bad as our own nits.”

What are you most proud of?

This is a difficult question. Now I like the fact that I can motivate people with similar injuries.

What did the war teach you?

That there are reliable people – comrades who have carried me out under fire.

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

To try and prove that I can do something new. And I wanted to try to work not only with a rehabilitation therapist but also with a coach, to be more active. I want to restore my life as much as I can and make it as it had been before the injury. My circle of friends and acquaintances has increased here.

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