Article by: Violetta Kirtoka
Andriy Usach was wounded in July, 2014. His story has not reached foreign readers. Recently, we have been seeing a flurry of diplomatic activity – Merkel and Hollande’s visits, the Munich Security Conference and Minsk2…. and all for what? Fighting has intensified, more and more Russian soldiers, instructors and heavy weapons are pouring into Ukraine… and more and more soldiers and civilians are being killed or severely maimed. Andriy’s story will remind us that there’s an ongoing war in east Ukraine-Ed.
During heavy fighting in the ATO zone, 32-year-old Andriy Usach from Rivne oblast lost a leg, nearly lost an arm, and suffered serious injuries to his face.
– I went to the recruitment office late February 2014 – says Andrew, sitting in a wheelchair in the corridor of the Kyiv Military Hospital – Crimea had just been invaded. Everything was very clear. We had to defend our country. I knew that I couldn’t just sit on the couch and watch what was happening on TV. I was on Instytutska immediately after the shooting of peaceful demonstrators. I looked at the candles and flowers that tearful people were carrying in their hands; I felt such pain and sorrow that I was not with those dead young men at that moment…. That was the last straw. I didn’t tell my wife. I faced her when the war office called me and told me to show up. Sveta cried, of course. Do you know any woman that will let her man go to war? But, she knew why I was doing this. Someone has to go and defend our country. Incidentally, many of my friends and acquaintances couldn’t understand why I’d signed up. They said: “Nobody’s bothering us, so we’re fine. When the enemy knocks at my door, I’ll protect myself and my family.” But we all know the old saying – Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile! So, to stop Russian troops from entering Kyiv, we had to fight them in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Andriy worked as a salesman in a store. In 2000, he was drafted, joined the 80th Airmobile Brigade, and was stationed along the border. This time he was ordered to drive a Ural vehicle that carried howitzers.
– We arrived in the ATO zone early July. We could feel a change in mood and atmosphere as we were driving up to Kharkiv. We were given weapons and ammunition in Chuguev. We headed towards Slavyansk. That’s when the first “little green men” fired at us, first from one side, then from the other. It was horrible, a real nightmare! When we stopped at a checkpoint, it turned out that one of our boys was wounded. The bullet had hit him in the leg…
A few days later, the division was sent to Luhansk Airport, which was under heavy shelling at that time.
– We weren’t told where we were going. I realized that we were at the airport, when I saw the old “cropdusters”. We got into serious trouble along the way. Our column was moving along the roads that had been designated by ATO headquarters. We came to a wooden bridge. I still don’t understand who had made plans to move military hardware and troops over that bridge, because even an ordinary road navigator showed that the bridge could withstand no more than three and a half tons. So, how could I get across in my Ural? Naturally, the convoy stopped. While the officers were deciding what to do, the enemy saw us and began shelling. We had the impression that the enemy knew where we’d be… Luckily, there were no casualties. At first, we thought of making a pontoon bridge, but that would’ve meant felling trees. Thank goodness the locals helped us. They told us there was a concrete bridge just ahead. When we crossed the river, the reconnaissance group went ahead and ran into an ambush. Our boys were killed…
– Did your wife know where you were?
– I told her that we were safe. I called every day, and asked about the children. We have two daughters: Lera goes to sixth grade, Nastya is in third.
– The girls are well aware of what’s happening in the country and that their Dad went to war – adds Andriy’s wife, Svitlana – They were worried and afraid. The older one had a bad cold in summer; she lay in bed with a high fever. I asked her: “Sweetie, what you want, what can I buy you?” She answered immediately: “I want Daddy to come home….nothing more.”
– How were you injured, Andriy?
– It happened in the morning, on July 17. We were driving around the airport. We heard whizzing sounds, flying projectiles. I stopped the car. The guys jumped out and ran for cover. I ran two or three meters and fell. I thought I’d stumbled. I tried to get up, leaned on my arm and realized that a bullet had ripped through my left arm. I turned over and saw that my left leg was hurt, too. I knew right away that I’d lose it… I felt heat and fire on my face, broken teeth in my mouth… some kind of mushy stuff. I tried to find the first aid kit and get some pain killers. Then some of our guys ran up to me. I couldn’t talk, just pointed to the first aid kit. Then there was a buzzing in my head and I lost consciousness. It takes a long time to describe, and yet it all happened in a few seconds.
By the way, all the soldiers who jumped out of Andriy’s vehicle were injured. Only the soldier who remained in the vehicle was unharmed. Later, he admitted that some kind of inner force had kept him in the vehicle.
– I came to very quickly. They carried me to the airport where doctors were treating the wounded. An officer held my hand and said: “All will be well.” You know what?… before and after I was wounded, I knew that I’d come home from this war; I was sure I’d survive. Even when Dmytro Los, the trauma surgeon from Lviv told me that my leg would have to be amputated.
– Did they operate at the airport?
– Yes, and it was the right decision. I had a lot of injuries. Two major fractures in my arms, the bones were protruding through the skin. They also sewed my face up. I remember… they cut some pieces of skin off; it was a little painful. After all, we were surrounded by the enemy at that time. We couldn’t get any drugs or ammunition, or food, nor could we evacuate the wounded. I spent four days at the airport. I really wanted to see the sun. We couldn’t see it as the building was constantly being shelled. One of the shells crashed through the roof and fell a meter away from me. I looked at it and thought: if it explodes, that’s it… Fortunately, it didn’t detonate. The doctors ran in and took it away. I still marvel at their courage; they could’ve been wounded or killed. After that, the most severely wounded men were transferred to a bunker.
– Sveta, when did you find out about your husband’s injuries?
– The day after it happened. But, I had a bad feeling before. Andriy called me the day before, we talked as usual and said goodbye. And then my husband called back: “I wanted to say that I love you. Just once more…” I didn’t get a call from Andriy the next day. I couldn’t sleep that night. In the morning, I starting calling all the guys whose numbers Andriy had given me.
Four days later, Andriy and the other wounded soldiers – 50 in all after a week at the airport – were finally sent to the Kharkiv Military Hospital. By the way, the doctors who provided first aid to the fighters on the ground did not lose a single patient. Even the most severely wounded, including Andriy, were transferred to the hospital
– While I was lying at the airport, I saw how they helped our guys. I saw how worried the doctors were because they had no pain killers! I’ll never forget their eyes. Some of the wounded fighters refused to take drugs. If suddenly there were more critical cases, the doctors would need this medication, they would say. One of the soldiers clamped a piece of wood between his teeth while the doctors pulled out the shell splinter. That’s the kind of anesthesia we had …
– I arrived in Kharkiv the day they brought him in – says Svitlana. – The doctor allowed me to see Andriy in the intensive care unit, but he warned me it would be very difficult. He was right; I’ll never forget it… But, Andriy was alive and that was the most important thing for me. Well, God gave me strength not to cry at his bedside. But, as I left the intensive care unit, I didn’t just cry… I howled in pain …
Andriy was then transferred to the Lviv Military Hospital.
– They amputated another part of my leg. The doctors had cut it just below the knee at the airport, and in Lviv, they amputated above the knee. The wound was inflamed, it didn’t heal … The doctors also grafted a piece of skin from my thigh onto my arm. It was a piece of torn tissue, and they couldn’t remove it. Yep, I’ve been re-constructed; it’s like working with a toy construction kit. While I was in the Kyiv Hospital, Canadian doctors arrived in Ukraine to help wounded soldiers. They did some surgery on my face, took a piece of my thigh bone and inserted it into my jaw that needed strengthening.
– Nobody knew that Canadian doctors would be coming to Kyiv, so Lviv maxillofacial surgeons had already started searching for options on how to help my husband. – adds Svetlana – The whole left part of his face near the mouth was destroyed, the mucous membrane was seriously damaged. For a long time, Andriy was fed through a straw. When he spoke, the sutures turned red and swelled. I took it calmly, but he was very angry and frustrated.
– You know what I looked like? Like that hero in the Pirates of the Caribbean (who has a jellyfish instead of a mouth) – says Andrew – I have a normal face now. You can’t even see the scar; it’s under the chin, in the fold of the skin. However, I can hardly feel my lips, but that’s no big deal. I just have to see what we can do about my teeth – less than ten left out of 32…
– Will you get a prosthetic limb?
– Yes, in Lviv. It certainly doesn’t replace a leg, but I have no other choice. I’ll learn how to walk. I don’t want to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. If bears can be taught to ride a bike, can’t I learn to walk with a prosthetic leg? I’ve tried moving around on crutches, but my arm hasn’t healed yet. If I put too much weight on it I might fall and more complications would arise. I don’t need that right now.
– I’ll be eternally grateful to Dr. Dmytro Los, the traumatologist – says Svitlana. – If he hadn’t decided to amputate on the field of battle, I don’t think my husband would’ve survived … When we met Dmytro in Lviv, I told him what I thought. He’s a very kind and decent man. He always asks about Andriy. He cares for all his patients. I’ve watched this surgeon late at night, leaving the operation room, his scrubs wet with perspiration, eating on the run from a lunchbox … And instead of running straight home to his little daughter, he checks in on his wounded patients first.
– Andriy, will we win this war?
– No question about it! Even if our spirits drop, even if the morale of our fighters falls, we all understand that God is on our side. Putin did not expect that Ukrainians would stand and defend their homeland. I believe that the war in our country started when Yanukovych came to power. He destroyed the army, the SBU, the police … It’s very important for our country to start implementing real changes; it’s important that the people we elect to the Verkhovna Rada really try to resolve our country’s problems.
(Andriy was discharged from the Lviv Military Hospital and returned home. He’ll be back in Lviv for further treatment-Ed.)