Vadym Svyrydenko lost everything on a frigid battlefield in Ukraine. Now the war’s only quadruple amputee is tackling the veteran crisis.
Vadym Svyrydenko is tired of talking about it. He’s told the story to Ukrainian journalists too many times. He doesn’t even want his picture taken.
“I’m not dead yet,” he says. “Why do you need my portrait?”
You can barely tell the extent of his injuries, even as he walks toward you. You see the limp—slight, but evident. There’s the untucked shirt, the fist bumps instead of handshakes, the skin tones that don’t quite match. Vadym Svyrydenko, 45, is one of a kind, an endangered species, he jokes as we sit in the lobby of the Hotel Khreschatyk: the only quadruple amputee produced by Ukraine’s brutal war against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s far east.
In the last four years, that conflict has officially discharged 327,000 veterans. More than 3,300 of them qualify for disabled status, with thousands more of the injured left uncounted. In recent years, the conflict has devolved into trench warfare. Wounds from landmines, mortars, and artillery have already produced 280 amputees. For a sense of how unusual Svyrydenko is: More than 15 years of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced just five American quadruple amputees. The time is usually too short to apply four tourniquets, the blood loss too great, to save soldiers from such catastrophic blast trauma. Ukraine has one such man.
Four years earlier and just a few feet away from where we sit in central Kyiv, more than 130 protestors were killed in clashes with pro-government security forces in the capital’s Maidan Square as they demanded closer ties to Europe. Today, the Hotel Khreschatyk is notable only for its lackluster service; Vadym cannot seem to get a coffee. It took him so long to relearn how to feed himself that the wait seems like a cruel joke.
Street protests in Kyiv succeeded in forcing pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power, but Ukraine’s new government was totally unprepared for the full-scale war that followed. After two decades of corruption and neglect, Ukraine’s army was in tatters. Russian troops quickly seized Crimea, a peninsula along the Black Sea famous for its beaches. Separatists, armed by Moscow and later supported by Russian shock troops, routed the Ukrainian army.
Amid the carnage, wounded soldiers streamed back to Kyiv. The government was caught flat-footed. They had veterans, of course, from peacekeeping missions in the Balkans in the 1990s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, even a few old timers from World War II. But these new veterans came back with a different set of injuries, ailments more common to American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, multiple amputations.
Volunteers—some working with organized nonprofits, but mostly motivated private citizens at first–rushed to treat veterans. The far-flung Ukrainian diaspora, numbering 20 million people, brought wounded strangers to North America for expensive surgeries and rehabilitation. Young volunteers—professional, educated abroad and speaking immaculate English—organized mental health programs and lobbied for the creation of a Ministry of Veterans Affairs.
Vadym Svyrydenko’s goals are more modest. He wants wounded veterans running, biking, and sweating. In a country where veterans are often ignored at best and castigated at worst, Vadym thinks sports might just be the way to convince his countrymen that broken packages don’t mean broken people. Now he just needs someone to pay attention.
On February 16, 2015, Vadym was working as a medic—his years in sales and marketing for a Kyiv newspaper a distant memory—when he and five other men were dispatched to help a checkpoint near the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, an important road and railway junction, that had been surrounded during heavy fighting. A shell exploded next to him. Shrapnel hit his arm, cutting to the bone. Another soldier applied a tourniquet and gave him painkillers. To this day, a chunk of flesh above his amputated forearm is still missing. Surgeons stitched up his wounds. That evening, he and other injured men hobbled into four armored vehicles and set out for Bakhmut, 55 kilometers to the northwest.
He can’t recall when they hit the first landmine, but he does remember being thrown like a ragdoll and the smell of burnt metal. Chaban, a 23-year-old commander, hauled Vadym from the wrecked vehicle before it was swallowed in flames. In the chaos, they loaded the injured into the remaining truck and began to drive. After ten meters they hit another mine. Vadym was thrown so hard he could’t walk; he just lay there, bleeding.
It was negative four degrees Fahrenheit. A few soldiers ran off, promising to send help when they reached the next checkpoint. Vadym and Chaban decided to take refuge in the truck cabin until morning. They covered themselves with blankets, but the doors were so mangled they wouldn’t close. Chaban had lost a lot of blood.
Huddled in the truck, Vadym shivered through the night, waiting for help. By morning, none had arrived. There was no one left to save. A dozen men sleeping in and around the truck—every one of them had frozen to death or succumbed to his injuries.
Vadym couldn’t walk, but his phone still worked. He called friends in his unit stationed nearby. They couldn’t find him. There were no signs or landmarks and he was too disoriented to direct them. He waited. His phone battery died. He survived a second night. He shivered in the wrecked truck, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades. And a third night. He found a few old cookies. And a fourth. He ate snow.
On the morning of February 20, separatist scouts found him. He was on his knees in the snow.
“I can’t, I have frostbite.”
“If you don’t walk, we’ll shoot you.”
His muscles felt like cotton.
He crawled. They shoved him into a car and drove to separatist-controlled Donetsk about 100 kilometers away.
In Donetsk, a nurse hooked him up to a drip and patched him up. They took pity on Vadym and let him call his friends, who spread word that he was alive. He was in bad shape. His hands had started to crack and turn black with necrosis. The separatists preferred he die back in Ukrainian-held territory. An ambulance picked him up and took him back across the contact line.
Back in a friendly hospital, doctors asked permission to amputate his limbs. All of them. The alternative, they said, was death.
“It was hard to hear,” he recalled later to a newspaper. “But the doctor told me I should live for my family.”
If help had come while Vadym was huddled in that broken truck, getting his veterans’ benefits might have been tough. In Ukraine, soldiers with minor flesh wounds often return to civilian life with little or no support. Bureaucratic habits learned during 72 years of Soviet rule die hard. Today, veterans are passed between 22 different ministries and offices on their journey to obtain healthcare, education grants, pensions, and other benefits. “Complications” often arise that require bribes.
In the absence of a Ministry of Veterans Affairs, volunteers fill the gap.
Lesia Vasylenko, a 31-year-old lawyer, runs Legal 100, a nonprofit whose telephone hotline fields more than 1,200 calls a month from veterans looking for help navigating the benefits labyrinth. Ivona Kostyna, 22, ran a kitchen on Maidan to feed protesters, ferried supplies to soldiers at the front and is now the vice chairman of Pobratymy, which offers psychotherapy sessions to veterans.
“Civilians… don’t understand what it means to be a veteran,” she says. “What it means to return home. Not that it is bad or that it is painful. It is just different.”
Even beyond the poor benefits, bureaucracy, and lack of access for the disabled, Ukraine is a particularly challenging place for veterans. For decades, Ukrainian society at large perceived those who joined the military as either too poor to bribe their way out of compulsory service or too stupid to find another career. Meanwhile, propaganda pushed by Russian internet trolls, Kostyna says, plays up the involvement of white nationalists in the early days of the fighting in order to paint all veterans as deranged neo-Nazis. Many Ukrainians fear them. For those who feel ashamed over not enlisting during their country’s moment of crisis, dismissing veterans as mentally unstable is convenient.
“We can divide the whole [country] into groups,” says Andrii Skorokhod, a 32-year-old who stepped on a mine near Donetsk, resulting in severe leg and back injuries. “The first group understands—or tries to understand—how people live with this. The other group doesn’t want to be involved.” Some of the latter, Skorokhod suspects, are separatist sympathizers.
Leonid Ostaltsev, a pizza chef turned soldier, founded Veterano Pizza after returning home the eastern front in June 2015. Back in the capital, he saw how many former army buddies were struggling to adapt to civilian life in a haze of drinking, fighting, and depression. Ostaltsev staffs his restaurant entirely with veterans and requires that they attend weekly meetings with a psychologist who he keeps on the payroll.
“If the population doesn’t support veterans, we won’t have the right military,” Lesia Vasylenko says. “People won’t join if the image is losers go in and damaged guys come out.”
Back in Ukrainian-held territory, Vadym was shuttled between hospitals, learning slowly how to be an adult again. A few months after the surgery, he could feed himself with help from Canadian physical therapists working in Kyiv who brought him special devices designed to allow amputees to hold forks and spoons. A veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, himself missing a leg, taught Vadym how to navigate steps.
After five months of rehabilitation in Kyiv, Vadym shipped off to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. to continue his recovery. The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, during which improvised explosives left more than 1,600 veterans with amputated limbs, have made the Pentagon a global leader in treatment. Vadym was one of just a few quadruple amputees—so few, in fact, that he never met another during his time in the U.S. He did meet men missing three limbs, some of them with high amputations close to the hip and shoulder.
Doctors wanted him to get in the pool. Take a swim, they said. Vadym refused. He had no hands or feet. He skipped the first training. He thought it over. He came to the second and stared at the pool. He loved swimming, or he used to. He hit the water and he was moving.
“A coach swam after me and yelled something,” he recalls. A translator shouted too. “But I asked her if I could just swim.”
Vadym spent eight months in the United States. He took physical therapy courses and got prosthetic legs for walking, mechanical and electronic prosthetic hands, and, as a gift, adapters for cooking and other daily tasks. He also came home with a pair of blades, the fiberglass prosthetics made famous by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. There are still just a handful of them in all of Ukraine.
At home in Kyiv, the government approached him with an offer. How would he like to work for the president? Vadym hesitated. He worried that his injuries were too severe to handle such a big job. He finally accepted and soon had a business card announcing a mouthful of a title worthy of a Soviet-style bureaucracy: Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Rehabilitation of ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operations] Participants Wounded, Shell-shocked, Crippled or Diseased during Participation in the Anti-Terrorist Operation.
Vadym is not a politician, but he knows about the transformative power of sports. He took his place at the vanguard of a national movement to make sports a centerpiece of putting wounded veterans in public view—not as pitiable or broken, but healing, and even inspiring.
In September 2017, he attended the Invictus Games, a sports competition created by Prince Harry for wounded veterans, and won a bronze medal in indoor rowing. A month later, he strapped on his blades and prepared for the ten-kilometer race at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. He jogged around a school track while his wife sat in the stands counting laps. He finished in 71 minutes, an average of 11-and-a-half minute miles. According to the running app Strava, American men averaged nine-minute miles in 2015–on two legs.
In Ukraine, he organizes events that have a way of succeeding in spite of themselves. During a bike race this summer in Mukachevo, in western Ukraine, police officers working the event mistakenly told 11 wounded veterans to make a wrong turn. They ended up biking almost double the 40-kilometer course and came crashing towards the finish line from all directions, some even crossing a river.
“But they returned really happy,” Vadym says. “They came because they’re soldiers.”
This October, Ukraine again sent 10 men to run in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. The race, one of the world’s largest marathons, sets 30,000 runners in motion with a booming Howitzer cannon. First, his office needed to decide who is going. Over the summer, he organized time trials at a crumbling Soviet-era track. In the field of two dozen runners there were several amputees running on legs meant for walking. Vadym is trying to get funding for sports prosthetics for veterans like these.
Among the veterans on the track was 21-year-old Oleksandr Popruzhenko. Last year, while teaching recruits to throw anti-tank grenades, he saw an armed grenade fall and roll toward a trench full of men. He grabbed it and tried to throw it away. He took a face full of shrapnel instead and is now blind. He runs with a volunteer banded to his wrist. A half-dozen local TV crews were on hand to interview Vadym and film the race.
Not everyone loves Vadym. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine’s politicians and generals gorged themselves on the defense budget, which led to the military catastrophe in 2014 and 2015. Reformers are making strides, but some veterans are still suspicious. After a strength training event—burpees, pull-ups, and deadlifts—in the eastern city of Dnipro that Vadym does not attend, wounded veterans gathered at Steaker’s, a restaurant with a familiar red chili logo that might strain copyright law. Vadym is a tool of President Petro Poroshenko, they said. Even if he isn’t personally dirty, he’s a puppet, a fig leaf to cover the president’s corruption.
Back in Kyiv, I ask Vadym if he encounters corruption. He thinks for a moment.
He says he hasn’t encountered any. And anyway, he goes on, “there is corruption in the U.S. too.” The various government ministries can be very slow, he admits. Vadym forces a pained smile, like a hostage on a ransom tape trying to communicate with the outside world.
Vadym’s position could be powerful, says Vasylenko, the lawyer, but he’s not a savvy political operator. He surrounded himself with the wrong people and allowed himself to become a public relations tool for the president. Has he achieved anything? She smiles and shakes her head slightly. Mostly “sports stuff,” she says.
At Veterano Pizza, I asked founder Leonid Ostaltsev what he thinks about criticisms of Vadym.
“He’s a cool guy,” Ostaltsev says. “He doesn’t have arms and legs. But he’s doing something. What the fuck. He’s my hero.”
Vadym watched the qualifying race for the Marine Corps Marathon carefully from the sidelines as the field quickly spread itself out. Mykola Rudyk crossed the finish line in 17 minutes flat and was immediately mobbed by cameras. He speaks English, German, and French—or had at least rehearsed a series of phrases for that day.
“For me, this is easy!” he shouted in English, then dropped to the track and did push-ups with his thumbs.
Rudyk was wounded by a sniper’s bullet during the Maidan protests. When he said he was previously an elite runner and tossed out his best marathon time, it strained credulity. But online, there it is: Lyon, 1998: 2 hours, 12 minutes and 29 seconds—good enough for sixth place and a $10,000 prize at last year’s New York City marathon.
Journalists were still badgering Rudyk when Popruzhenko, the blind runner, and his guide crossed the finish line in 23 minutes and 47 seconds. Popruzhenko kept asking what place he finished—only the top five will go to Washington—but his wife would not say. No one would tell him that he came in 18th place.
A few weeks later, Popruzhenko and his guide go for a training run in a Kyiv park. As they end their workout, it starts to rain. Passing cars splash through puddles in the road. After the time trials, there was no question in Vadym’s mind.
“I am alive, and I can run,” Popruzhenko told him.
How many blind people, Vadym says, dare to live and act like him? Popruzhenko is going to Washington.
On this drizzly day in August, Popruzhenko doesn’t yet know that two months later, during the race, his guide will go down with an injury. An American runner, a total stranger, will tug his wristband for several miles until Ukrainian veterans who have finished the 10K race rush to take over. He doesn’t know that he’ll complete the marathon in four hours flat, or that his wife will jump on him at the finish line crying his nickname, “Sasha! Sasha!”
Vadym hasn’t fixed the system, or started a new ministry. It’s still August, and a blind veteran trudges through the rain in wet shoes, listening to raindrops fall in darkness. He has something to prove, and finally some small way to prove it. Maybe, for now, that is enough.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.