Between battles, Ukraine’s soldiers have a place to recover
KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — Sitting in comfortable armchairs in a dimly lit room smelling of lavender and pine, the men take deep breaths as they close their eyes and listen to meditation music.
But this is not a bathroom. Ukrainian soldiers in uniform are taking a break at this rehabilitation center in the Kharkiv region to restore their bodies and minds before returning to the front line.
The relentless 10-month war has prompted a local commander to transform a Soviet-era sanatorium into a recovery center for servicemen to treat mental and physical ailments.
“This rehabilitation is helping the soldiers, at least for a week, to come together,” said Oleksander Vasylkovskyi, a lieutenant colonel in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Vasylkovskyi recalls how soldiers suffered in silence after returning home from fighting against Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014. The suicide rate among veterans rose in the following years, with many untreated cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. He hopes a center like this can raise awareness of the need for mental health care and prevent future suicides.
Here, soldiers are offered a variety of treatments: hydrotherapy in a heated pool to heal sore muscles; red light therapy to improve heart and blood circulation, a salt room for better breathing; and for those who have nightmares, electrosleep therapy—a Soviet-era low-frequency electrotherapy said 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 checks, Vasylkovskyi explained. “It’s the most important thing because a person develops some diseases from the stress of fighting.”
In addition to the psychological wounds of war, soldiers also come here to treat meningitis, contusions, amputations, inflammation of the lungs and nerves, sleep disorders, skin diseases and cardiovascular diseases, among others.
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“If someone has trauma and can’t walk, my department will put them back on their feet,” said Artem, a physical therapist who works at the center, who cannot give his last name for security reasons.
More than 2,000 soldiers have been treated here since the center opened in June. It receives support from international partners in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, USA and Spain. The cost of one day of rehabilitation for a soldier is about 20 euros, according to Vasylkovskyi. But more funds are still needed, he said, “because (the war) is not over.”
Viktori, whose last name cannot be published for security reasons, worked as a miner before joining the army. He took part in the military operation that expelled the Russian occupation forces from the Kharkiv region.
For months, he slept in cold, muddy trenches. “We worked in bad conditions for our health. It’s bad, it’s wet, it’s wet,” Victor explained as he sat in a room where the walls and floors are covered with coarse salt to clear his damaged lungs. “We have back pain, leg pain, wear equipment severe,” he added.
Four days in the rehabilitation center he felt rejuvenated. “I am already determined to go further, to continue my work, to destroy the enemy and bring us every day closer to victory,” Viktor said.
But perhaps the most attractive aspect of this rehab center is not the therapy, but the ability to bring the family along for a few days.
Maksym, who like Viktor cannot reveal his last name for security reasons, had not seen his wife and son for five months. One of the hardest parts of this fight, he said, is when “you can’t connect and talk to your loved ones.” He was relieved that they could join him for a few days at the rehab center and relax together. With no official holidays, this is the only way many soldiers can properly rest.
“I can see that the men are coming back to the unit after a week, resting and gaining more strength. And the thoughts they had before are gone,” said Maksym. Some of those horrible thoughts are memories of friends who died on the battlefield.
Asked how many friends he had lost, Maksym lowered his eyes and answered bluntly: “A lot.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine