Many caring people pay visits to the wounded troopers that are treated in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast clinical hospital named after I. Mechnykov. They come by to show their appreciation, bringing newspapers, letters, books and food. Reporters are often guests in Valentyn Tsyhulsky’s ward. They are eager to tell about the helicopter pilot, a hero, who not only saved himself from the burning chopper, but also saved his flight navigator.
“I think it’s enough for today, he’s already talked to many journalists”, says at first Yuriy Kyrpa, Senior Physician at Spine Neurosurgery Department. In few minutes, he comes back from the ward and says: “Come in. He said, since the people are here, one should respect that. Now, tell the world about our hero. A real hero!”
Me and our photo reporter Mykola Myakshykov expected to meet both Valentyn and his wife Aliona, but she had to leave to Kyiv the day before.
“She will be back in a week. She’s now going through tough times: sitting at my bed-side, doing all men’s work at home. Her father is a disabled person. Besides, our youngest son Ihor who turned two recently, needs his mom very much”, Valentyn explains. “Once when she was on the TV, Alyona gave his best to her son. Since then, for a rather long time, Ihor would ask his granny to turn on the TV and show mom”.
The ward looks like an ordinary patient room, except for a couple of origami cranes with yellow-blue ribbons – a present from children of volunteers. There’s a notebook and several books on the table. Valentyn feels better now: burns on his shoulders and arms healed without any scars. But due to injured spine, which, luckily, turned not as serious as doctors thought at first, he will have to spend another 6 months in rehabilitation. When his helicopter was shot down near Sloviansk, Lt. Col. Valentyn Tsyhulsky got a compression fracture of two vertebrae. Despite the trauma, he managed to drag out the unconscious flight navigator, thus saving his life. After the rehab, he will have to report to air force military commission. Valentyn tries not to think about possible outcome of the commission, as all he wants is to fly, to get back to the beloved job.
“If God let me survive, then there was a reason for it – it must have been a sign for me not to say goodbye to skies, but to continue. Ukraine should be one, united, so I don’t feel like leaving yet,” he said firmly.
As soon as we mentioned aviation, it seemed to us like the ward grew in size. It felt as if we saw a little boy who, along with his brother Volodya, listened to the stories of his uncle. Uncle Anatoliy visited his relatives in Kirovohrad oblast and told the boys stories about the war in Afghanistan, about airborne forces, about the important mission of helicopter pilots who helped and saved the soldiers. It was their uncle who inspired the boys to enter Kharkiv flight school. However, it was Valentyn who eventually joined the military. After graduation in 1998, Tsyhulsky was deployed in Brody, Lviv oblast. He currently serves there as deputy commander of the 16th Independent Helicopter Brigade. Since 2005, he has 4 times participated in peacekeeping missions in various hot spots of the planet. Valentyn completed three combat missions in Liberia (2005, 2006, 2008) and another one in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2012).
“In Liberia, it was much easier. There were no military actions, and most of the time we, the helicopter guys, patrolled the border, carried cargo and passengers. In Congo, it was the same task at first, but gradually the situation changed and later it looked very similar to what we have now in Ukraine: armed rebels rose against the government, so we had to fight. In April this year, we were deployed in the counter-terrorism operation zone here, in eastern Ukraine. We change each other from time to time, for the other guys to have rest.
Remembering June, 4 and his combat mission on Mi-24 helicopter near Sloviansk, Lt.Col. Tsyhulsky speaks briefly and dryly, as a true serviceman:
“Terrorists shot at us from man-portable air-defense systems and heavy machineguns. The missiles hit the target, and the chopper burst in the air. I particularly lost control over it, and the cargo hold burst into flames. I managed to re-gain balance over the machine and perform the crash landing. It was rather hard impact, which is why me and flight navigator got spine injuries”.
“The chopper was on fire, its windshield was broken. I managed to get out of the machine, while flight navigator received multiple injuries of his spine and limbs and fainted. I realized I couldn’t get him out of the cabin in one try, so I tried to recover him from a fainting fit. I asked him: “Serhiy, get up! I can’t get you out of here on my own”. He said he couldn’t feel his legs, and he could only move his right arm. Then I found a stick, which I used as a tire jack and later as a crutch for him. By then, the flames took over my cabin and time was ticking away. I crawled onto the cabin and began pulling out my comrade out of it. So I got the burns myself. When I took him out of the cabin, we crawled some 15 metres away from the helicopter. Then I called the ground evacuation group on the radio. At first, they took us to Kharkiv, later they sent me to Dnipropetrovsk. They considered treating me in Israel, but the injuries turned out not that serious. My comrade with more serious traumas was sent to Kyiv.”
For personal courage and heroism in defending state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, for loyalty to the military oath and unbreakable spirit, President Petro Poroshenko awarded 170 Ukrainian troopers who took part in the counter-terrorism operation.
Staying in his bed, Lt.Col. Valentyn Tsyhulsky received his 3rd degree Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. It was his first war decoration. For what it’s worth, this 36-year-old man with a smile on his face is a great optimist. His brothers in arms and choppers are waiting for him to come back. And, by the way, military uniform looks very well on him.
Nevertheless, it is his children who wait for him the most. Indeed, he very much misses them, too.
How do you raise your kids? What kind of stories do you tell them?
“I’ve got three sons. The oldest one, from my first marriage, is named Oleksandr. He’s 14, a true fan of sport and a football lover. 11-year-old Oleksandr loves history, reads books about Cossacks, and he’s very interested in politics. Every evening, after a news bulletin, he calls me and we discuss the latest developments. He expresses his opinion about something, and I express mine. It’s quite interesting talking to him about these things. You know, I realized that my son grows up – probably a bit sooner than he should have. Currently, he is all revved up and raring to go. The thing is, the government came up with idea to send 40 children of servicemen who were wounded in counter-terrorism operation for a vacation to Slovenia. So, we will have to collect all needed documents, file them, but the things are already packed. The youngest son, Ihor, will stay with his mom, of course.”
As much as we’d like to continue talking about family matters and other nice things, the conversation eventually goes back to the situation in eastern Ukraine. When asked about his strongest impression from communicating the locals, Valentyn answered that since he found himself in the hospital, he’s been pleasantly surprised with the civilians’ attitude to the wounded soldiers.
“The people, who are not even close to the army service, treat us very good. They brought money and helped us in many other ways. They very much care about the army and Ukraine. This suggests that we are doing the right thing. If there were such people in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, war and death would never come there. We should once and for all punish those rebellious leaders who made this conflict possible. Not all those who followed them were traitors, some of them just made a poor choice. I doubt whether they want anything else but peace. Everybody wants peace now. It hurts everyone to lose their homes, their families, to participate in military actions where they shoot at you. The most important thing happened when President Poroshenko claimed a unilateral truce. Only then we realized who really wants this war to continue. A resident of Donetsk or Luhansk oblast, someone who has a family there, would not continue fighting during the truce. He would instead try to negotiate, to find a peaceful way. But as the truce went on, our troopers were shot at more than 50 times. We realized that people who support Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics just want to make as much money as possible. They are mercenaries.
During our interview, his cell phone rang. Valentyn checked out who it was, but didn’t pick up.
“My father’s worried about me. I’ll call him back later.”
Back at home in Kirovohrad oblast, his parents Volodymyr and Valentyna, along with two sisters and a brother, can’t wait to hear from him.
“Maybe it’s for the better that I’m the sole military man in the family”, says Valentyn. “When I got here, I learned that my friend – also a chopper pilot – lost his brother. They both took part in the operation in eastern Ukraine. His brother’s Mi-8 chopper was shot down by terrorists. Doctors spent several days getting him out of the state of shock. But regardless the heavy casualties, we shouldn’t be stopping the counter-terrorism operation. After such events, one would wish that those in power realize how important the army is. But in our case, for all these years, the armed forces were deprived and oppressed. Now that we’re at war, everyone can see how bad things are – we don’t even have enough vests and helmets. But I’m sure Ukraine will revive as a strong modern state, with strong professional army. For our part, we will do everything for the country to preserve its integrity, to stay united,” says Lt. Col. Valentyn Tsyhulsky.
Original text by Lyudmyla Blyk (Dnipropetrovsk)
Translated by Ivan Zhezhera
Photos by Mykola Myakshykov (Dnipropetrovsk)