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Ukraine’s Donbas war veterans fight invisible foe of post-combat stress

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Vasyl Bondar, 42, spent nearly nine months in the frontline town of Shyrokyne in Donetsk Oblast in a marine unit during his yearlong tour of duty.

Courtesy of Vasyl Bondar

Vasyl Bondar, 42, spent nearly nine months in the frontline town of Shyrokyne in Donetsk Oblast in a marine unit during his yearlong tour of duty.

KYIV – Vasyl Bondar faced a new foe when he came home from a tour of duty in a Ukrainian naval forces unit that included nearly nine months in the frontline Donetsk Oblast town of Shyrokyne where he often faced shelling from Russian-led forces.

Returning to civilian life in November 2016, the 42-year-old native Kyivan started fighting an enemy that was at once invisible and elusive.

“I was sleeping only two to four hours a day, my hearing became supersensitive and my sight greatly deteriorated,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly. “My state of mind was ruined.”

The former marine noticed other changes, or what psychologists say are post-trauma symptoms that are prevalent among war veterans.

“You see, over there [on the front] we turned into ‘animals’… I had this feeling that I was surrounded by enemies back home… my head was spinning 360 degrees… I felt uneasy with strangers standing behind me in lines,” Mr. Bondar related.

Initially, he took steps to overcome these conditions and acclimatize alone. He would, for example, force himself to buy cheap items at grocery stores just to grow accustomed to standing in lines again.

Then a former colleague told him about Wounded Warrior Ukraine, a project founded by Dr. Roman Torgovitsky, a Harvard-trained biomedical scientist. She told the war veteran that the Bostonian’s team helped with sleep deprivation and promoted mental well-being through seminars run by other combatants and trained psychologists.

In Ukraine, few veterans also are willing to admit that war trauma has affected them. Statistics show, however, that post-combat stress is taking a toll on combatants.

Some 500 veterans have committed suicide since the war started in April 2014 through mid-June 2017, according to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. That figure doesn’t include suicides while in service.

One of them was 22-year-old Andriy Horban. In February 2015, the National Guardsman hanged himself in his parents’ apartment in Kyiv four months after returning from the frontlines.

In a country where psychiatry is stigmatized because it was used as a form of oppression during Soviet times, peer-to-peer counseling is an effective way to gain the trust of veterans.

Former combatants who attend the Wounded War seminars first go through a group session with peer counselors for “veterans to understand what the heck happened to them and how they have changed,” said Dr. Torgovitsky, 41, a native Muscovite who emigrated in 1993 and is the son of Jewish parents. “If we don’t do this now, we’ll have less suicides in five to 10 years.”

Ukraine had caught his attention in January 2014 when he was visiting St. Petersburg, Russia. Suspicious of biased Russian media coverage of the Maidan Revolution that eventually saw ex-President Viktor Yanukovych flee Ukraine due to mass protests against his corrupt rule, the Bostonian decided to do an on-the-ground survey himself.

“I [then] had the desire to assist people who were protesting against corruption,” he said, adding that he started raising funds for medicine before returning to the U.S.

He also emphasized that what his group does is to help people recognize their symptoms and that it is not a replacement for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a more serious condition that requires professional medical treatment.

Once a level of trust is established, psychologists work with veterans as well to help them “self-regulate,” the Harvard Ph.D. said. The overall goal is to mitigate trauma that often leads to depression, divorce and suicide, or self-medication via alcohol and drug use.

Because veterans are exposed to extremely dangerous events, whether it is braving sub-zero temperatures in trenches or intense firefights and torrential shelling, their basic needs shut down while in survival mode, Dr. Torgovitsky said.

“It’s not about comfort, it’s not about sleep, about food… then when you get back [home] you lose connection with satisfying basic physiological needs… sensing what your body is asking you for,” he said.

Amid emotional burnout, veterans find it difficult communicating and finding common conversational topics with family, relatives and friends.

“They [combatants] start questioning many human life and personal values… Many become much more honest, which makes it harder to re-enter society, which is somewhat corrupt,” Dr. Torgovitsky noted.

Once he was back in the U.S., the Bostonian devised the Soma System to help with sleep, because he himself had trouble sleeping after experiencing trauma collaborating with Israeli and Palestinian medical personnel in the ongoing conflict between the two nations.

When all else failed, the biomedical scientist invented a system that involves breathing and body exercises combined with the use of tools like massage balls and foam rollers. The overall approach is to ease muscle tension and aches to reach a state of relaxation.

‘Protecting their country’

Dr. Torgovitsky then came back to Ukraine in the second half of February 2014, right when the mass shootings of protesters on the Maidan started. He hasn’t been home in the last year and a half, and he’s worked pro bono for the group he established ever since.

“I subsequently wanted to help people who were protecting their country,” he said of his reason for staying and commenting on how he foresaw the need to address post-combat stress when Russia’s unprovoked war started.

Since the group’s formal establishment in 2015, at least 2,900 people have been counseled and about $250,000 has been raised, mostly from private donors in North America and with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

[Donations to Wounded Warrior Ukraine, a project of Healing War Scars Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in the U.S. by Dr. Torgovitsky, can be made via the website https://healingwarscars.org/.]
Dr. Roman Torgovitsky (left), head of Wounded Warrior Ukraine, assists a Donbas war veteran during a physical exercise as part of a rehabilitation program that is funded by the 1+1 Ukrainian television channel.

1+1 Press Service

Dr. Roman Torgovitsky (left), head of Wounded Warrior Ukraine, assists a Donbas war veteran during a physical exercise as part of a rehabilitation program that is funded by the 1+1 Ukrainian television channel.

Another beneficiary is Andriy Synyakov, a 57-year-old former telecommunications manager from Russian-occupied Antratsyt in Luhansk Oblast. He currently lives in Kharkiv with his wife.

An invading Russian group calling itself a “Kozak” unit held Mr. Synyakov in captivity for two weeks in the summer of 2014. They imprisoned him for voicing pro-Ukrainian views and displeasure with the occupying Russian-led forces.

He was forced to sit in painful positions while tightly handcuffed in a basement cell. The Russians beat him, knocking two of his teeth out and bruising his ribs. Mr. Synyakov also endured a mock execution on August 2, 2014.

He managed to escape after his cell door was opened when another Russian group started disputing possession of a weapons cache stored in an automobile on the premises.

Afterward Mr. Synyakov couldn’t fall asleep, waking up every 15 minutes.

“I often couldn’t even sit or lie down,” Mr. Synyakov said by telephone. “This lasted for nine months, and local psychologists couldn’t help.”

Then a psychiatrist told him that a Wounded Warrior team was in town to give training to people who had undergone stress, shock or torture. During this session, Dr. Torgovitsky helped the former prisoner raise his arm above his shoulder, which he also couldn’t do. He started using the Soma System that he says reduced muscle spasms when he tried putting shoes on. His sleep also improved.

“I now feel more well-balanced,” Mr. Synyakov said. “I still have trouble on the specific dates that were most traumatic, like when the mock execution happened.”

He now is a peer trainer and has delivered seven sessions so far – the most recent in Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine. He also gives individual training sessions in Kharkiv and takes turns operating a hotline for veterans.

While there are other groups like the League of Officers that has so far trained over 6,000 veterans in partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s clear the government needs to do more for the nearly 200,000 war veterans.

“Although what we’re [and others] are doing can be scaled up… An integrated government system is needed to treat veterans. PTSD will collapse on society, on civilians who are ignoring this unless intervention happens,” Dr. Torgovitsky warned. “We’re only a small part of the rehabilitation paradigm.”

An additional project under way targets veterans who lost limbs. Conducted jointly with the 1+1 Ukrainian television channel, it is a multi-media project that tells the stories of and “humanizes” people who lost an extremity, the Bostonian explained.

“People tend to be fearful of disabled people, there is stigma – also a leftover of Soviet times. Facilities in Ukraine aren’t prepared for people with restricted movement,” he added, noting that the group also has trained others exposed to war trauma, like journalists, medics and chaplains.

Perhaps more importantly, Dr. Torgovitsky’s upcoming project aims to target military units right before they are discharged from the front.

Such units are stationed at a military base away from the frontline for up to a month before being discharged. This offers Dr. Torgovitsky’s team an opportunity to provide “intensive decompression” to mitigate reverse culture shock.

The advantage of working with single and not combined military units is that “they know each other, there is built-in trust, they’ve been through hell together, and as a group you could take them from A to B,” he said.

Again, his approach will only work, Dr. Torgovitsky said, if the soldiers practice what they are shown.

“A person needs to want to do this for themselves to save themselves,” added Mr. Synakov, the former prisoner. “It requires self-discipline, the desire needs to be there… we can’t save or help everyone.”

As for Mr. Bondar, the former marine, he said he’ll attend the next session in Kyiv on September 16.

“The folks at Wounded Warrior are professionals,” he said. “After the first session I left the office as if I flew away on wings… I felt a huge load off my back with a crystal clear mind.”

Asked whether he would like to become a peer trainer, Mr. Bondar replied: “Why not, it’s good to help others when there are actual results.”

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