Between battles, the Ukrainian army has nowhere to recover


KHARKIV, Ukraine — Sitting in comfortable armchairs in a dimly lit room that smells of lavender and pine trees, men breathe deeply as they close their eyes and listen to meditation music.

But it’s not a spa. Ukrainian soldiers in uniform rest at this rehabilitation center in the Kharkiv region to recover their bodies and minds before returning to the front lines.

The relentless 10 months of war prompted a local commander to turn a Soviet-era sanitarium into a convalescent center for soldiers to treat mental and physical ailments.

“This rehabilitation helps the soldiers, for at least a week, to get back on their feet,” said Oleksander Vasylkovskyi, Lieutenant Colonel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Vasylkovskyi recalls how soldiers suffered in silence after returning home from Russian fighting in the Ukrainian Donbass in 2014. The suicide rate among veterans increased in the following years, with many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder going untreated. He hopes centers like these can raise awareness of the need for mental health care and prevent future suicides.

Here, soldiers are offered a variety of treatments: water therapy in hot tubs to relieve sore muscles; red light therapy to improve heart and blood circulation, salt room for better breathing; and for those with nightmares, electrosleep – Soviet-era low-frequency electrotherapy believed to relax the nervous system and induce sleep.

Psychologists are also available, not only for soldiers but also for their families dealing with the trauma of war.

Soldiers also undergo medical examinations, Vasylkovskyi explained. “That’s the most important thing because someone developed some illnesses from the stress of fighting.”

As well as psychological wounds from war, soldiers also come here to treat meningitis, bruises, amputations, pneumonia and nerves, sleep disorders, skin diseases, cardiovascular diseases, among others.

“If someone is traumatized and cannot walk, my service will bring them back,” said Artem, a physiotherapist working at the center, who could not reveal his last name for security reasons.

More than 2,000 troops have been treated there since the center opened in June. It receives support from international partners in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, the United States and Spain. The cost of one day of rehabilitation for a soldier is around 20 euros, according to Vasylkovskyi. But more funds were needed, he said, “because (the war) is not over”.

Viktor, whose last name cannot be made public for security reasons, worked as a miner before joining the army. He took part in the military operation that pushed the Russian occupying forces out of the Kharkiv region.

For months he slept in the cold, muddy ditch. “We work in conditions that are bad for our health. Ugly, damp, wet,” explained Viktor as he sat in a room where the walls and floors were thickly coated with salt to clean his damaged lungs. “Back hurts, legs hurt, bring heavy equipment,” he added.

Four days in the rehabilitation center, he felt refreshed. “I am determined to go further, continue my work, destroy the enemy and bring victory closer every day,” said Viktor.

But perhaps the most appealing aspect of this rehab center isn’t the therapy, but the ability to take your family with you for a few days.

Maksym, who like Viktor cannot reveal his last name for security reasons, has not seen his wife and son for five months. One of the hardest parts of this war, he says, is when “you can’t go online and talk to your loved ones.” He was relieved they could join him for a few days at the rehab center and relax together. With no statutory holidays, it is the only way for many soldiers to get the rest they deserve.

“I see people returning to units after a week, resting and regaining strength. And the thoughts they had before are gone,” said Maksym. Some of these haunting thoughts are memories of friends who died on the battlefield.

When asked how many of his comrades he had lost, Maksym lowered his head and answered bluntly, “Too many.”

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