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'Just hold on’: Front-line medics race against time to save wounded soldiers

by Asami Terajima August 16, 2023 9:50 PM 11 min read
Combat medics Mykyta (L), 26, and Vitaly (R), 45, treat a wounded soldier on their way to the nearest stabilization point from the front line near Yampil in the northern part of Donetsk Oblast. (Asami Terajima/The Kyiv Independent)
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Editor’s note: Military medics interviewed for this story are only identified by first name due to security reasons.

DONETSK OBLAST – With its sirens blaring through the narrow and bumpy road, an ambulance speeds off to the closest front-line makeshift hospital in northeastern Ukraine.

“How many more minutes?” wounded 39-year-old soldier Yuriy asks the medics, groaning in pain.

“Ten minutes maximum,” combat medic Vitaly, 45, replies, holding the wounded’s hand tightly. “You are strong, brother, just hold on. Everything will be okay.”

Just a few hours prior, Yuriy’s right foot was blown off by an anti-personnel mine while he was conducting a reconnaissance task on the front line near Yampil in Donetsk Oblast.

Vitaly, along with his 27-year-old colleague Mykyta and 35-year-old driver Roman, evacuate the wounded nearly every day from a designated spot a few kilometers from the front line to the nearest stabilization point.

Deployed near Yampil with the 67th Separate Mechanized Brigade, the medics say they are seeing a rapid increase in casualty numbers as Russia intensifies its push on the northeastern front. According to Mykyta, they are mostly light to medium injuries – from shrapnel wounds to concussions.

The Ukrainian military reported in July that Russia has deployed over 100,000 personnel, more than 900 tanks, 555 artillery systems, and 370 rocket systems to the northeastern Lyman-Kupiansk sector. The Russian assaults are endless, and they are constantly looking for weak spots to make a breakthrough, according to infantrymen deployed in the area.

Anticipating an influx of wounded at any moment, the medics are always on standby. They are scheduled to have 12-hour shifts twice a week, but with an increase in intensity of fighting are receiving more and more calls.

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Relying mostly on volunteers’ help for medical supplies, organizing swift evacuations is a daunting task for combat medics who are risking their lives to pull the wounded out from the front lines.

Vehicles such as the American Humvee — which usually fit two wounded soldiers — are crucial for evacuation from the front lines to an area where ambulances can be used. While Ukraine’s Western allies have supplied hundreds of such vehicles since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, it is still not enough, and they are in need of constant repair.

To make sure evacuations go as smoothly as possible, the medics constantly need to communicate within their unit and with other brigades fighting in the area. Difficulties arise when Russia intercepts radio communication, especially during assaults, making it harder to work quickly.

Russian forces have consistently targeted medics and the vehicles evacuating the wounded – including ambulances – throughout the full-scale war. Medics are instructed to prioritize their safety over the wounded, but they often risk their own lives in an attempt to save as many lives as possible.

Fast evacuations help increase the chance of wounded soldiers’ survival because blood loss is the leading cause of death on the battlefield, accounting for more than 60% of the fatalities, according to the Health Ministry.

The casualty number varies from day to day. Some days there are no wounded soldiers, but other days they may have to evacuate as many as 16 soldiers in one shift, the group of medics said in their heavily shelled waiting point.

Reading the wounded

The medics do everything they can to make the evacuation process less traumatizing for the wounded soldiers.

The time lying on the ambulance stretcher – especially in silence – can become the most traumatizing moment in a soldier’s life if they start to process what has happened, according to Mykyta.

That is why the medics try to find conversational topics that suit the wounded soldiers’ interests, trying to distract them from thinking about their injury and the unbearable pain, Mykyta said.

With Yuriy, who suffered a mine injury, the two medics asked about his 12 and 16-year-old sons and his hometown in Ternopil Oblast – reassuring him that he would be home soon.

“We try to show (them) that everything is okay and that the scariest part is over,” Mykyta explained.

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Many of the wounded, however, naturally tend to look at their injury. But that could make them panic even more. So sometimes, Mykyta says he and his colleague even try to use their body to block the view.

Dealing with head injuries or severe bleeding in areas where tourniquets won’t help is especially difficult, and concussions can also be very scary – especially if there is bleeding from the ears and nose, according to the medics.

It is also crucial to gauge the psychological condition of the wounded soldiers, the medics say. Lying to their faces is sometimes necessary if they feel the soldier is at risk of going into shock, such as over fears of amputation.

“You look at the person and you understand whether they will be able to take the truth,” Mykyta said. “Everyone reacts differently to stress.”

‘Being cold-blooded’

It’s important to remain “cold-hearted” and not let emotions interfere, according to Vitaly.

“There is always a human factor, and in certain cases, people can make mistakes,” Vitaly said. “But we are not allowed to make them – that’s why we always analyze, so we can improve ourselves.”

The medics are frequently witness to some of the most brutal scenes of the war. Some of the wounded soldiers can’t be evacuated on time due to fierce fighting. Not all the evacuated soldiers make it to the stabilization point alive.

“If you begin to take everything that is happening really seriously and very sympathetically, then you will go crazy,” Mykyta said. “You will only be connected to pain, suffering, and agony all the time.”

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While Mykyta’s team has been able to evacuate all the wounded alive to the stabilization point thus far, he said he thought several times that the soldier might not make it through the roughly 30-minute drive.

For Roman, not being able to see the wounded soldier and his condition while driving is hard. His job is to focus on the road, trying to avoid large holes while driving as fast as possible.

“You try not to think about it, but your thoughts go back to it,” Roman said. “When you bring them (to the stabilization point) and you understand that they will live and everything will be okay, it's a big relief.”

The more severe the injury, the faster Roman drives the ambulance.

“Time is precious,” because a leg or an arm – or even a life – has a better chance of being saved the quicker the medics work, according to Roman and his colleagues.

‘Born by mistake, enjoying a chance to die for a reason’

None of the three men anticipated being medics when they decided to join the military in February 2022.

Months into their deployment in the war’s hottest spots, including to the now Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, they say they feel that they got a hang of the job.

But one of the most difficult parts of the job is seeing soldiers as young as 19 and 20 severely wounded, the medics said. “They are the gems of our nation,” Roman added.

The former forester from Zhytomyr Oblast, who is still afraid of injections, said that like a nightmare, he wants to forget about what he has seen at war once it is over.

Roman said that the most important thing for him is that everything is okay with his family, even if it means not telling them that he is in one of the hotspots of Russia’s war.

Vitaly, who used to work at a shipbuilding plant in France but came back to Ukraine when the war began said he is proud to have found a job in the army that he can still do even with the condition of his health after having some organs removed. “My task is to make people smile, and then I think I did something good,” he said.

Both Roman and Vitaly say they plan to return to their original work once the war is over.

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Mykyta, whose bulletproof vest has “Born by mistake, enjoying a chance to die for a reason” written on it, said at the age of 23, his mother told him that he was adopted from a pool of unwanted babies.

He says he feels confident for the first time in a long time that he is in the right place.

“There was one (moment in which I felt confident), second, and third – I began to understand that I really belong here and that I can do it,” Mykyta said.

After the war, the Dnipro native wants to become a high school teacher to teach students to think critically about historical events, particularly so that they know how dictators like Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power.

But none of the three medics expects the war to end anytime soon.

“After being in war for more than a year, you begin to understand that when (it will end) is not clear, but it will end for sure someday,” Mykyta said.

“It will definitely happen, but you can’t influence it in any way other than focus on what is happening now.”

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Note from the author:

Hi, this is Asami Terajima, the author of this article.

Thank you for reading our story. I was very lucky to spend the day with a group of very motivated medics, who are giving everything to save as many wounded soldiers as possible, even if it means constantly putting their own lives at risk. Besides interviewing them to write about their incredible work, I genuinely enjoyed getting to know them as friends – and as always, it was very difficult to leave. To help the Kyiv Independent continue telling stories that may otherwise be untold, please consider becoming our supporter.

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