Cannonballs flew over the head, Ukrainian soldiers panicked and had a nervous breakdown in Donbass

The years of fighting in the Donbass, turned Volodymyr from a strong, calm soldier to a man who easily lost his temper and yelled at those around him for no reason.

Cannonballs flew over the head, Ukrainian soldiers panicked and had a nervous breakdown in Donbass
Cannonballs flew over the head, Ukrainian soldiers panicked and had a nervous breakdown in Donbass

WARRIOR BECOME A MAN TO ACT LIKE A WILD

Volodymyr (character name changed), a 49-year-old contract soldier, sits between two noisy tables for young men in a trendy pub in Kiev. Today is your day off.

Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and onto Volodymyr's muscular body as he grabbed the menu and ordered a juice. Volodymyr is a man of few words, but when he talks, he always looks directly at the person in front of him with intensely focused pale blue eyes.

Volodymyr was a staunch opponent of alcoholism, a prime example of the self-control he had forged during his arduous life from his youth during his military service in the Soviet Union.

Later, as a professional boxer, he was always mentally and physically disciplined.

In 2014, when the Russian-backed separatist movement in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine broke out, he decided to return to the army.

A Ukrainian Army soldier from the 92nd Battalion moves to a fighting position at the Shakta Butovka coal mine in Avdiivka, Donetsk after the gunfire of the separatists. Photo: Al Jazeera
A Ukrainian Army soldier from the 92nd Battalion moves to a fighting position at the Shakta Butovka coal mine in Avdiivka, Donetsk after the gunfire of the separatists. Photo: Al Jazeera

Then, a few years ago, when he fought in the front line, suddenly a 152mm shell fell near his position, exploding creating a shock wave that caused great pressure, causing him to suffer brain injuries.

For more than six months after the explosion, Volodymyr felt dizzy. “Sit down, get up, any movement makes me feel nauseous,” he said. “It was really, really scary. I feel like this situation will never end.”

Volodymyr was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can cause dizziness, partial deafness and, in some severe cases, disability or death but can also develop into other mental health conditions. psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety disorders.

Volodymyr was no longer the calm man he used to be. That injury and the years of war have made him prone to unusual outbursts, especially when leaving the front lines.

“When I returned to normal life, I felt like a wild person. I didn't realize it, but obviously I was yelling at people and so I got a lot of reprimands."

Volodymyr had no physical injuries, so he decided to keep his symptoms to himself, in keeping with what he perceived to be the military's culture of silence. "My problems are my own, I don't want to burden anyone else."

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (centre) during a visit to the Ukrainian Army in Donbass. Photo: Reuters
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (centre) during a visit to the Ukrainian Army in Donbass. Photo: Reuters

HARD CONSEQUENCES OF DISSOLUTION

Ukraine's military was ill-prepared and sorely lacking when fighting against Russian-backed separatists broke out in April 2014.

As a result, volunteer regiments were only hastily formed, commanded by inexperienced officers, to take part in the war in eastern Ukraine. On the front lines, soldiers and volunteers spent weeks or even months dealing with battlefield explosions, resulting in TBI and other invisible injuries.

After seven years, the conflict has so far claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people and the true impact of these wounds is now visible.

Valery Chobotar, a tall, 45-year-old former volunteer commander, is now a therapist and is working to raise awareness of the physical and mental health effects of the conflict. conflict against Ukrainian veterans.

“Their biggest problem is the brain injury, which is caused by the impact of the non-stop explosions. No expert before was qualified to explain this consequence."

He has learned how common these injuries are in recent years as he seeks to address mental health issues faced by veterans. Patients often have persistent initial symptoms such as confusion and dizziness associated with head trauma.

A Ukrainian soldier looks over a position near the front line with Russia-backed separatists in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine in November 2018. Photo: AP
A Ukrainian soldier looks over a position near the front line with Russia-backed separatists in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine in November 2018. Photo: AP

Chobotar, a pre-war martial arts instructor, was involved in the protracted and violent battle at Donetsk airport, an experience he describes as comparable to being punched for days on end. .

The continuous gunfire and shelling damaged his hearing, leading to chronic insomnia and nervous breakdowns.

"A normal soldier shouldn't go through heavy fire for more than a week, but nobody knows that and so there's no rotation," he said. We were still fighting under fire for several months."

With only "invisible wounds" such as nausea, dizziness or vomiting, soldiers can often return to the front lines just days after suffering a massive explosion.

Commander Hrishak at the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Al Jazeera
Commander Hrishak at the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Al Jazeera

In addition, Dr Kseniia Voznitsyna, a neurologist who studies the impact of TBI on Ukrainian veterans, says that doctors unaware of TBI may even misdiagnose it as multiple sclerosis. junk or hypertension.

This lack of diagnosis and treatment caused soldiers to suffer in silence for many years with many later symptoms such as memory loss, blurred vision, headaches, anxiety and depression.

Research conducted by the Lisova Poliana hospital began to officially record traumatic brain injury cases in 2019 and found that, in 2020, of the 1,470 veterans at the center, more than 56% suffered TBI.

Since 2014, the Ukrainian Army has increased from 140,000 to 255,000 active servicemen by 2021.

The presence of volunteer battalions during the early years when the fighting was heaviest made it difficult to know exactly how many soldiers were exposed to the explosions.

However, recent data from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission shows just how large the potential scale of the problem could be with more than 80,000 recorded explosions. in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions only in 2018.

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