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Mother of fallen “Ghost of Kyiv” pilot opens rehab center for veterans

A mother’s devotion and a community’s compassion unite to transform an abandoned hospital into a “Warmth of Winged Soul” rehab center for veterans and their families to heal physically and mentally.
Nataliia Tarabalka. Credit: Suspilne Carpathians
Mother of fallen “Ghost of Kyiv” pilot opens rehab center for veterans

Nataliia Tarabalka, mother of the late Stepan Tarabalka, one of the legendary “Ghost of Kyiv” pilots, has founded a rehabilitation center for Ukrainian veterans called “Warmth of Winged Soul” using state compensation for her son’s death.

The day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Nataliia decided to leave Portugal, where she had lived for seven years, and return to Ukraine to be closer to her son. Stepan was killed in an aerial battle near Zhytomyr on 13 March 2022.

Already in Ukraine, I understood that I would not return. And when Stepan died, I decided I would not just exist but live and create what my son and I had dreamed of,” Nataliia said.

Stepan Tarabalka. Credit: Wikipedia

In an interview with ShoTam media, Nataliia said the center helped her cope with her grief over losing her son. “It was at a meeting of families who had lost loved ones. At the time, I had the freshest wound, so to speak. The girls who had lost relatives back in 2014-2015 helped me get through that terrible barrier of pain and not sink into loneliness,” she said.

Stepan was known as one of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a collective image of pilots from Ukraine’s 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade who reportedly shot down dozens of Russian aircraft.

“I believe the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ fulfilled its purpose – not just taking out dozens of enemy planes, but becoming a legend that gave hope and faith to thousands of Ukrainians,” Stepan’s mother said.

Stepan Tarabalka. Credit: photo provided by Nataliia for ShoTam

Using the state compensation for her son’s death, Nataliia founded the rehabilitation center in an abandoned hospital building in Tsenyava village, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. It offers support for soldiers, their families, and the families of those killed in the war.

Nataliia’s idea has received wide support from the Tsenyava community and people abroad. “Everyone is helping however they can – some with money, some with labor, some donating furniture or flower pots to furnish the rooms. We’re still in the renovation process but opened as soon as the first rooms were ready: the massage room, gym, and aromatherapy room,” she said.

Nataliia with the rehab center specialists. Credit: ShoTam

The center focuses on providing a trusting, home-like atmosphere with medical, psychological, and rehabilitative support. “My logic is this: we need to help the guys and girls remember what they loved before, what they dreamed of. Little lighthouses – tomato bushes like at grandma’s house, a longed-for violin, or a few hours of quiet fishing – step by step, they will help find the light again, and return to life after the hell of war. Of course, all this is in addition to working with psychologists, psychiatrists, and rehab specialists,” Nataliia said.

Session at the rehab center. Credit: Suspilne Ivano-Frankivsk

The psychologist often holds sessions outdoors in the park or on a bench. Notably, a psychiatrist from Luhansk Oblast and a massage therapist displaced from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast have volunteered their services. “This cause has brought together so many people,” Tarabalka said.

Nataliia also has plans to expand services at the rehabilitation center. She aims to equip a nearby pond so soldiers can go fishing during their recovery visits. The center also features an orchard and a park that the whole village helped clear out. Notably, a kalyna and oak alley has already been planted on the grounds in memory of Ukraine’s fallen defenders.

Plans are also in place for a gym, farm, and even a vegetable garden. She hopes to build a separate facility with overnight rooms so families of soldiers can stay for extended visits. An art therapy room stocked with painting supplies and musical instruments is also envisioned. “And I dream of having horses here too,” she added.

Nataliia hopes that the “Warmth of Winged Soul” center could serve as an inspiration for similar initiatives across Ukraine.

I’m just a person with a dream to create a special place that helps our heroes come back to life after experiencing the hell of war,” she said.

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