The first time I arrived to war my first commander in the The Right Sector Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (hereinafter – The Right Sector) Oleksandr Popov asked me:
- What are you doing here? You are only 19! Why did you come here? And I replied:
- For justice.
Looking puzzled, the commander continued:
- Why can’t you fight for justice “there”, in the peaceful territories? And I replied directly:
- Because there is no automatic rifle there…
It was my thirst for justice, for social equality, virtue and a decent peaceful life for Ukrainians that urged me to join the national liberation struggle. Therefore, at the age of 18 I joined the ranks of the Right Sector. First, I merely participated in the rallies, later – campaigning activities, stood at the tents raising funds for our volunteers. But all my hard work throughout my 18th year didn't seem enough – I felt the strength and confidence of being able to do more. So, in a year, after celebrating my 19th birthday, a week later I was on the train to the front line in the East of Ukraine. What did I feel at those moments? There was an array of feelings, but none of them told me "stop before it is too late". On the contrary, I was eager to do everything in my power and beyond my abilities, as long as it would be useful for defending Ukraine and destroying its enemies. After three weeks of training at the training base we went on a rotation. It was my first combat deployment. Krasnohorivka. The position at which we were on a combat duty was called "Skala" (a Rock). We joined the reconnaissance company, for reinforcement. The enemy was 800 metres away and I did not like it, because I said "it is too far away, we can't even see them".... During the week-long rotation nothing special was happening there, apart from a few moments: at first, a sniper pestered us for several nights. He kept shooting at our position, and although the bullets flew high, the sounds of their explosions really tickled our nerves. And second, in a the green area at one end of which the Separatists were situated, with our OP (observation post) – at the other end, we noticed the enemy's sabotage and reconnaissance group. Truth be told, our unit didn’t take me for that sortie because I was the youngest soldier, which made me feel rather indignant and fairly angry, because I came there for a reason... to fight. But the senior officer of our group always told me, and now I understand him:
- Don't rush, kid, you'll have enough time to fight....
After a month in the East, within which it was only a week of fighting, I returned home. But I could not stay at home, for the first few days I could not sleep well, I was constantly pacing from one room to another, and I had no more peace of mind. The only thing that kept me awake was the thought, "I shouldn't be home now, I should be at war, my mates are there"... But one argument held me back for a while. It was the fact that for the whole month that I spent in the East, officially I was a full-time student at Khmelnitskyi National University.
That was actually the reason why I returned home, I had to resolve the issue of my studies, because I couldn't study full-time and go to war. Upon arriving at the department, I phoned the Head of the Department. I told him about what had happened to me during previous month and said that I was returning to the war. Oleh Viktorovych listened to me carefully and asked:
- Do I understand correctly that you are not planning to continue your studies? And I replied with confidence:
- I am willing to obtain a diploma in rehabilitation and be trained as a fitness coach; yet, at the moment, the circumstances urge me to return to the East.
His next words were at the same time, a gift from destiny, as well as revealed the decency and patriotism of Oleh Viktorovych. Upon hearing my arguments, he said:
- I will help you. You must make sure that you come back alive. You won’t need to worry about your grades.… You can go.
And then - another trip by train, kilometres of roads again and the East of Ukraine. Yet, then confidence in my actions and, most importantly, realization that all my actions and deeds were correct drastically increased compared to the first rotation. Because one conversation with Oleh Viktorovych charged me with even more confidence and motivation to continue fighting and win this war, because people believe in us, people help us, at all levels in all cities, villages and in every institution. They help us in every way they can and this is why I would go back to war.
To be honest, the second rotation promised to be much more interesting. And it began immediately on the day of my arrival.
Drakon (Oleksandr Popov) gathered our unit in a room and said:
- Tomorrow we must prepare for a sortie. We should take warm clothes and plenty of ammunition. Our point is Butivka mine. There you will have a chance to fight.
These words were like balm for the soul: "At last, we can fight in the war, we will face the enemy even closer, they will not be 800 metres away from us anymore".
Indeed, when we arrived at the mine, the distance was exactly 10 times less and made only 80 metres, or 100-150 metres in some places. That month-long rotation could be summarized in the following way: there I saw the first bloodshed, felt what a 152mm shell burst was like.
Most importantly, it was there that I met my first mentor, the war guru Hutsul (Iurii Hnatiuk), who taught me how to quickly master the Kalashnikov rifle, the Utyos NSV machine gun, the AGS-17 (Automatic Grenade Launcher), the AK, the underbarrel grenade launcher, RPG-7 (man-portable rocket-propelled anti-tank grenade launcher) and even hand grenades. To tell the truth, I don't know whether his way of explaining was so efficient, or it was me who learnt fast, yet he taught me all these lessons during gunfights, when bullets were flying around and mine fragments were slicing through concrete like a knife through the butter, but that's how it was. Hutsul taught me the basics of war... Later that summer, in 2016 Hutsul died of shrapnel wounds at Butivka Mine – his death was my first serious loss in this war. The man who taught me everything I know was gone. Nevertheless, with his death, a much bigger idea and aspiration in my war intentions ignited, aspiration for victory. Victory for the sake of vengeance, because the best vengeance would be victory. In the autumn 2016, I got transferred to a different Right Sector unit called SANTA, where I continued carrying out combat missions in the Avdiivka industrial zone, staying there until the end of winter 2017.
I felt like a traitor when I went to see the commander of Santa to confer with him about my wish to continue fighting, only this time – as a contractor of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. There were several reasons for that, first – I understood that the volunteer movement was not what it had been, and the pace of fighting had dropped considerably, and that we, volunteers, were coordinating our actions with the military in one way or another. And the second reason, though perhaps, it was the first and the main one, was the fact that my whole year in the front line, which I spent voluntarily, without wages, benefits or social guarantees from the state, my parents kept pulling on the yoke of my tuition fees. The financial status of my family, to put it mildly, was far from wealthy, and I realized that my parents could no longer pay for my studies, and in addition my father was also giving me money every month so I could come home for rotations, so I decided to get contracted. I was thinking: "I won't leave the war anyway, at least I will get a salary, the risks with my life and health remain the same, but this way will be financially easier for my parents, and the state guarantees social protection for me in case anything should happen". I went to the commander. I did feel like a traitor, because, after all, those were the guys with whom I've been through so much, and how could I just leave them? But my common sense prevailed, and the guys used to say: join the AFU, as you're a young guy, you have prospects, your sense of patriotism is superb, you have higher education, this country needs such officers. Thus, when I spoke to the Santa commander, he said only two words:
- Staryi. 74th. Staryi (Old man) is the call sign of a company commander, and 74th is the 74th Independent Reconnaissance Battalion. So, now it was going to be reconnaissance. Reconnaissance is the ears, eyes and hands of the front. No actions, planning, offensive or defensive actions take place without reconnaissance. Four months spent at the training centre, then in the summer of 2017 I joined the company, which at that time was serving in the Mariupol direction. I was accepted as one of their own, because the core of the company, led by the Commander Oleksandr Staryna (Staryi), had fought for the Avdiivka industrial zone side by side with Santa's unit, and knowing the reputation of Santa and his guys at the front, they could not perceive me in any other way but as a part of their own unit.
On my part, I understood the responsibility and the honor of Santa unit’s name, and my eagerness to engage in combat without sparing myself or the enemy soon brought me to a reconnaissance group of a frontline legend, defender of the Donetsk airfield, defender and pioneer of the Avdiivka industrial zone, Oleksandr Leonidovych Kolodiazhny (call sign KOL).
KOL would die in the summer of 2019 during a combat mission in Mariinka. There was a terrorist Tsemakh, who had been involved in the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing in the summer of 2014. It was KOL who would be entrusted with the task of transporting Tsemakh from the territory controlled by the enemy to the Ukrainian territory. A month before that fateful special operation my right foot was blown off.
Kolodiazhny was killed, but he remains an extraordinary example of will for life and heroism; and the moral authority of this man left an unforgettable trace in my memory…
In Kolodiazhny's group I lived through an extremely difficult and dangerous path. It was KOL who introduced me to real reconnaissance. During dozens of reconnaissance sorties I saw and understood the importance of reconnaissance. It made me believe that it was possible, without firing a single shot, to move forward and regain tens of hectares of Ukrainian land. Sometimes we were able to regain only a few meters. We suffered very heavy losses, sometimes we ended up with severed limbs, sometimes fatalities. But no matter what, we continued our work.
May 16th, 2019... The day when my life was divided into 'before' and 'after'. It was an ordinary day, an ordinary task – to cover a certain piece of land, to reveal the presence of new positions on the front line. It was a railway near the village of Olenivka, Donetsk region. That's where I left my foot. Some 20-25 metres away from the enemy there was an explosion. The next thing was evacuation, followed by amputation.
May 17th 2019. The day after I got blown up on an enemy anti-personnel mine, I was taken by a helicopter to the Kharkiv Military Hospital. A surgeon came up to me and said:
- Roman, look, your foot was amputated, the wound was cleaned, everything was done well, but not enough for a prosthesis, we need to amputate a bit more, if you give your consent, sign the permission here....
Being exhausted from the painkillers and powerful antibiotics, I could barely turn my head to the doctor, but said:
- Doctor, you may cut as much as you need, what matters to me is that I should be able to run, jump and play sports....
...A few days later Iulia, a volunteer from Kharkiv, came to me and said that Drakon had called her and asked to visit one of his fighters. Neither Iulia nor I knew then that this meeting was no accident and that a year later we would get married, and that a year and a half after our meeting we would have a son.
Games of Heroes... I was introduced to this project by a volunteer from Kharkiv, Oleksandr Honcharov.
- We had just been brought to the Prosthetics Institute when Oleksandr arrived and asked:
- Do you want to take part in the Games of Heroes project? You look sporty!
I said that I would think about it, although at that time it's not that I didn't have a prosthesis, I only had my stitches removed two days earlier!
But after 9 months of rehabilitation and prosthetics, I tested myself in this project. Oleksandr did not decide to trade on trifles, and wrote me down in the pro category (i.e. with an increased intensity), at first, I did not want it, because I was not confident enough either in victory, or in even reaching the end of the first round. All this seemed like a good thing, but had had a prosthesis for only 9 months, and it’s not every day that I had to compete for the first time with people who had been wearing prostheses for several years. So, I asked Honcharov:
- "Sania, are you sure? Because I am not!" ..... Oleksandr answered with his usual sense of humour:
- "Oh, come on, have you seen yourself?!" .... Well, apparently his confidence gave me confidence.
And indeed, I did win that time. Owing entirely to my coach Iulia Koval, to whom Honcharov introduced me...
I was convinced of her professionalism after the victory, because I had less than two months with her before the competition, but she managed to introduce me to and prepare me for the CrossFit for adaptive athletes in the shortest possible time. I would probably never have сome across CrossFit if not for the injury. However, after the first win, I decided to take up sports more professionally. However, due to the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, all gyms were closed. Therefore, I decided to equip a small gym in our rented apartment, in which at that time me, Iulia, and our eldest son Vania lived.
I needed a home gym for two reasons: the first is unhindered, constant access to free sports and trainings for competitions, and the second - the opportunity to train with my son, setting an example for him and instilling sports in him from childhood.
Almost a year passed since the first victory at the Games of Heroes, when the organizers decided to hold the competition online. All because of the pandemic. In this case as well, my impromptu home gym yielded positive results. I won in three categories: pushes of the kettlebell, long cycle, pull ups and CrossFit.
The victory gave me great motivation to move on, to do sports even more, and additionally it prompted me to do something incredibly motivating for the wounded fighters. Something that has not yet been done in Ukraine, and possibly in the World. Subsequently, this "something incredible" turned into setting a National Record of Ukraine... I pulled a 16-ton AN-26 aircraft…
I direct all my activities and all internal forces at motivating severely wounded fighters (with amputations) to life... all my efforts are aimed at showing them and the entire society that life is beautiful, that they need to live to the fullest, despite any restrictions.... I live, and most importantly, prove to myself that a prosthesis is not a sentence, that disability is just an entry in a medical card, which does not affect anything, nor limits you in anything.
Now, I have applied with the Gromadyanyn Charitable Foundation with a request to help me raise funds for a special prosthesis for running, which would give me more opportunities for training and help me prepare for new achievements and new victories…