Exhausted Ukrainian soldiers battle mental exhaustion as the war drags on

DNIPRO, Ukraine – Lt. Anton Pendukh says the trauma he is experiencing on the frontlines of the war against Russia is very different from what he imagined military life would be like before joining the Ukrainian armed forces.

It’s not that he didn’t know before that lives were lost and sacrifices were made. But it’s very different, he says, when you live it — and losses include having friends to rely on and who rely on you.

“When I see it with my own eyes,” he says, “it hurts my soul. I understand this happening, but when I see it…”

He pauses, looks down, and then takes a deep breath.

“We will never be the same again, ever,” he says. “Never.”

After nine months of war, the Ukrainian armed forces are physically and mentally exhausted.

Commanders say the motivation and spirit of their forces are the most important weapons in the fight to protect their homeland. But they are not immune to the physical and mental costs that have plagued so many soldiers in combat.

Many of Ukraine’s armed forces have not been home for months – some not since the war began in February.

Pendukh, 33, is in a training camp in eastern Ukraine after serving on the front lines for several months. His battalion is growing and they’re training some new members – some of whom have never picked up a weapon before.

Like many soldiers, Pendukh is highly motivated. His goal is clear: to liberate his homeland from Russian occupiers. But the war got to him.

Lt.  Anton Pendukh, a morale officer, talks to fellow soldiers at a training camp outside Dnipro, Ukraine, on October 24.  He says he's tired but has no choice but to fight.

Franco Ordonez/NPR



Lt. Anton Pendukh, a morale officer, talks to fellow soldiers at a training camp outside Dnipro, Ukraine, on October 24. He says he’s tired but has no choice but to fight.

Nonetheless, he considers himself lucky. Friends in his battalion have served in squads that have lost more than half their members.

“A lot of problems, even psychological problems,” he says. “Some people from these formations need psychological help afterwards. Very serious psychological help.”

Pendukh works on communications and logistics for the battalion. He is also an official “morale officer” with special training to spot signs of emotional distress and guide colleagues through anticipated challenges.

Ukrainian commanders turn to morale officers and psychologists to keep the soldiers happy.

Lt. Anton Zolotaryov, a morale officer along with Pendukh for battalion training at this camp in eastern Ukraine, works to prepare soldiers for the mental rigors of a long battle.

They watch over the soldiers, keeping them focused on the battle, solving problems quickly and not letting them fester inside, which can be dangerous on the battlefield. Zolotarev says low-morale leaders and soldiers “can be toxic.”

Low morale is contagious, says Ludmila Volter, a psychologist at Soldiers Shelter, an aid organization in Zaporizhia.

Commanders have increasingly called on her to advise soldiers on the frontlines as the war drags on, she says. She estimates that since the beginning of the war she has traveled across the front lines to meet with more than 100 soldiers. Some one-on-one. And many in groups.

Younger soldiers have fewer reservations than older combatants about speaking to mental health professionals, she says. You are more open. They share details about panic attacks and even personal matters related to their families struggling at home without them.

But Volter sees the greatest challenge in the guilt of the survivor.

“It’s when your brother dies and the soldier starts judging himself,” she says. “‘I was in the wrong place. I should have been there.’ ”

It can limit their will to keep fighting, she says.

She says she tries to reassure the soldiers, explaining that there is only so much they can do and reminding them how important they are in battle.

Ukrainian infantry soldiers train at a military camp outside of Dnipro, Ukraine, on October 24.

Franco Ordonez/NPR



Ukrainian infantry soldiers train at a military camp outside of Dnipro, Ukraine, on October 24.

Maj. Roman Kovalev, who directs battalion training at the military camp, says the spirit and motivation of his soldiers are as critical to success as the US-supplied HIMARS, the long-range rocket launchers that helped shift the war in Ukraine’s favour .

And he understands all too well that his troops face challenges — and he says they rise to them.

To keep them motivated, Kovalev tells his soldiers what he tells himself in difficult moments.

“I tell them two things when it’s really hard and you’re really tired,” he says, “and that is to ask yourself: Why are you here and for what reason?”

For Pendukh, the answer is his family.

He’s tired of living in a tent. He’s tired of facing the daily artillery barrage. He misses his mother and her kitchen.

He admits he cried while eating an apple pie his mum sent him recently.

But he says it’s even harder for his loved ones.

“The further away you are from the action, the scarier it feels,” he says.

An attack hit his own house – the Kiev apartment he shared with his girlfriend.

“She told me how she survived that attack. She helped the injured in those attacks,” he says.

He is grateful that she was not there at the time. But now he has no home to return to.

“So I get angry,” he says. “I’m getting angrier every day.”

He insists that fighting for Ukraine, fighting for his loved ones, will help him cope with his own challenges. The attacks on his country drive him on.

And that’s why he says he has to be at the forefront. At least for him it’s therapeutic.

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