Early in the morning on March 9, Rostyslav Kotenko dialed the number of his father, Ukraine’s Armed Forces Colonel Serhii Kotenko.
The two hadn't spoken since Kotenko’s father left to fight Russian forces in the war's hot spots, near Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
The long-awaited but brief conversation ended with Kotenko saying the most important yet rarely spoken words between them.
“Dad, I love you,” he said.
Those words turned out to be Kotenko’s last to his father. In a couple of hours that same day, a Russian artillery attack killed Serhii. He was 54.
On March 16, President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Colonel Kotenko the Hero of Ukraine title posthumously. Kotenko says he is beyond proud to be the son of such a great man who was and always will be his hero.
“He always wanted to be at the frontline. He felt more useful there,” Kotenko says.
“He was a true patriot, a true hero.”
Russia’s war has already killed up to 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers, Zelensky estimated in an interview with CNN on April 15. Around 10,000 Ukrainian troops have been injured, and it’s “hard to say how many will survive,” he said.
Behind every number in these statistics, there is a Ukrainian hero who sacrificed their life fighting for the country’s freedom, as well as a grieving family endeavoring to overcome the heartbreaking tragedy of losing a loved one.
Serhii Kotenko, 54
Rostyslav says his father was “a man among men.”
Born in the town of Haisyn, Vinnytsia Oblast, Kotenko joined the military shortly after finishing school and soon became a local platoon commander. He got married in his early 20s and had two sons, to whom he was an “example and a good friend.”
Kotenko retired after 20 years in the military. But his proactive personality didn't let him enjoy his retirement: He spent several years working at different enterprises in his hometown where he was valued for “bringing discipline and order,” his son says.
In 2014, Kotenko even became the head of the Haisyn regional administration. But Russia’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas changed his life.
He gave up his job and joined the military again in 2015.
As commander of the Ninth Battalion of the Ground Forces’ 59th Motorized Brigade, Kotenko protected Ukraine ever since.
Rostyslav says his father was a brave man who “led people and always tried to be the first at the frontline.”
Kotenko’s battalion defended multiple towns and villages in Ukraine’s hottest spots near the Russian-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk, including Popasna, a city 100 kilometers to the west of Russian-occupied Luhansk, and Vodiane village in Donetsk Oblast.
For his courage and personal merits in protecting Ukraine, Kotenko was awarded the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Order in 2019.
On Feb. 24, when Russia started its all-out invasion of Ukraine, Serhii’s battalion was located somewhere in Kherson Oblast, not far from the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula.
Rostyslav says his father fearlessly fought the Russian army in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, taking out dozens of Russian military equipment and multiple troops. The fighting was so intense in those regions that Serhii even called his wife one night to say goodbye to her. She was relieved when he called her back in a couple of hours saying they had “repulsed the attack and broke out of Russia’s encirclement.”
Rostyslav says his father was always “extremely worried about his soldiers” and painfully handled the loss of his fellow officers.
He even told his brother Oleksandr, who at one point was volunteering for the Ukrainian military, not to sign a contract with the army to save his life. Oleksandr, however, didn’t follow his brother’s advice and joined the military.
Russian shelling killed him on March 7 not far from Mykolaiv. He was 51.
“It was very difficult for him to handle the loss of his brother,” Rostyslav says.
He admired and loved his father a lot, and even named his son after him. But as an adult, Rostyslav says, he rarely told his father that he loved him, saying that he was proud of him instead.
That morning, when Rostyslav finally reached out to his dad, the words just flew out of his mouth — his last words.
After lunch, Serhii went to the positions to check on his soldiers there. Moments later, Russia’s artillery shelling started. It killed Serhii and injured many soldiers from his battalion.
Rostyslav says their last phone call eases his pain a little. But his life will never be the same without his father.
“I would want him to be injured, to lose his legs or arms. I would look after him if only he was alive,” he says.
Colonel Kotenko was buried next to his brother in their hometown of Haisyn on March 11.
Rostyslav says he will always remember how joyful his father was, and how courageously he fought for a free Ukraine.
“A true hero…”
Tymofiy Rudiak, 43
Liudmyla Rudiak met her future husband Tymofiy at a local library in her native Latkivtsi village in Ternopil Oblast. She was 14.
Sixteen-year-old Tymofiy, who came to the village for the summer holidays, using any excuse to see Liudmyla, would come by her house to ask for books. That summer, the two started dating.
They were inseparable, she says. She waited for him to return from the army and four years after they met, the couple tied the knot.
It was a traditional three-day Ukrainian wedding for over 300 guests. A year later, when Tymofiy was serving at a military unit in Kamianets-Podilskyi, their son Denys was born.
They soon moved to Tymofiy’s native town of Fastiv in Kyiv Oblast and nested there, having two more children.
They were happy together, Liudmyla says. United not only by their love for each other and their children but also by their love for Ukraine. So when Russia started the war in Ukraine’s Donbas, Tymofiy joined the military without a doubt.
Liudmyla says she had a hard time accepting his decision: She was afraid to lose Tymofiy, and wanted their children – the youngest son was two years old back then – to grow up having a father.
“He told me ‘If you and I are patriots, who would I be if I stayed at home and watched it all happening there,’” she recalls. “I couldn't find the words to object.”
Rudiak voluntarily joined the military in 2014 and served three and a half years. He took part in the defense of Donetsk Airport, which is one of the most tragic, yet legendary episodes of Russia’s war in Donbas, as well as other hot spots.
Liudmyla says the war traumatized Tymofiy. Every time he came home for a short vacation, the family noticed how anxious and stressed he was.
"He would wake up at night screaming, start walking and hit the wall or fall on the ground covering his head with his hands when there were fireworks or firecracker explosions," she says.
The family tried to help and support him as much as possible. But they had less than five years to do so and finally enjoy their life together until Tymofiy had to return to the frontline again.
On Feb. 24, the two woke up to the sound of explosions. After they took the kids to a safe place, Tymofiy headed to the local military recruitment office. Shortly after, he came to Liudmyla’s workplace to say goodbye.
“He said he loved me,” she recalls. “And then we were just standing there hugging, in silence.”
“But I didn’t have enough of that,” she says crying. “We didn’t have enough time together.”
It was the last time she saw her husband: Tymofiy joined the 95th Airborne Brigade that day and was stationed in Kyiv Oblast.
All Liudmyla knows is that Tymofiy was in Makariv, a town in Kyiv Oblast, the last time he called her on March 3. She first thought he didn’t have a chance to charge his phone. After a week, Liudmyla realized her husband would have found a chance to contact her.
On March 11, Tymofiy’s friends identified his body in a morgue in Zhytomyr Oblast.
Based on the damage to his body, Liudmyla assumes that it was a Russian missile that killed him. The morgue staff returned her a fragment of a silver chain that she gave him. It was covered in her husband’s blood.
Shocked and heartbroken, she doesn't remember the funeral.
Even though Tymofiy’s death certificate says he died on March 3, when they lost connection with him, Liudmyla believes it happened between March 4-5, when she woke up in the middle of the night with her heart fluttering like mad as if "feeling that the love of her life was gone."
“27 years together,” she says.
“I can’t imagine… I don’t know how to live without him.”
Serhii Vorobiov, 57
Ukrainian gymnast Oleksandr Vorobiov, who won the bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, says he wouldn’t have achieved anything if not for his father.
Serhii Vorobiov encouraged his son to go into sports and always supported him.
“Even when I didn’t believe in myself,” Oleksandr says.
Before 2014, Vorobiov spent most of his time at his family’s farm in a village near Kamianske, a town in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Oleksandr says his father “adored” that farm and supported dozens of village residents by employing them.
The war, however, changed his priorities, putting Ukraine’s freedom first.
Oleksandr doesn’t know much about where his father had been fighting since 2014. Serhii didn’t talk about it very much, to avoid worrying his wife. At first, he didn't even mention going to the frontline but told the family that he was out for meetings with the Svoboda political party that he joined in 2014.
Yet Serhii’s wife wasn’t surprised when she found out. She knew how he loved and rooted for Ukraine. He even switched to the Ukrainian language, after spending his whole life speaking Russian.
Oleksandr says his father expected Russia to start the all-out invasion of Ukraine. So when that happened, Serhii was ready.
As a member of the volunteer battalion “Carpathian Sich," Vorobiov headed to defend Kyiv and its neighboring settlements. Oleksandr says he only talked with his father twice during that time but heard about the horrors his father witnessed there.
“He saw dead bodies, beheaded," Oleksandr says. "He was shocked.”
Serhii spent about a month fighting in Kyiv Oblast, later clearing the area from Russian mines, rescuing locals, and removing corpses from the streets.
He came home for one day, to attend the funeral of his fellow soldier, then headed to defend Kharkiv.
The last time Serhii called his wife was on April 10. He was very upset that two soldiers from his battalion had been killed that day.
A couple of hours after that call, she received a message from Serhii:
“Yulia, goodbye, I love you.”
Serhii, along with fellow soldiers, were in a car when a Russian tank attacked them. His legs were torn off after the strike, but he managed to escape the car and died on the ground near it. Oleksandr believes his father sent that message a moment before he died on April 11.
Oleksandr says he still can’t believe his father is gone.
“He has always been my hero," Oleksandr says. "But now... He is even more than that.”