BORYSPIL, KYIV OBLAST – About a hundred people gathered in a city memorial park to say their last goodbyes to an outstanding combat commander, colonel Valeriy Gudz, who had been killed in a battle near Russian-occupied Luhansk on March 12.
Gudz, 51, had defended Ukraine from Russia’s army since the early days of war in 2014. He grew from a platoon leader to a brigade commander. He freed his soldiers from captivity and rescued them in battle. For his heroic deeds he received a handful of medals.
“He was very brave. He always personally checked all the frontline positions despite his high rank,” said Natalya Sychova, a friend and a volunteer.
“He took care of his soldiers, was like father to them,” she went on.
His comrades-in-arms held the farewell ceremony on March 15 to the sounds of shell explosions. Boryspil, Gudz’s hometown, is 30 kilometers west of the positions of Russian forces that have been moving toward Kyiv.
As Russian soldiers try to besiege Ukraine’s capital, Gudz’s task was to push them out from the country’s east, something he proved to be good at during eight years of war.
The last battle
When Russia declared its full-scale war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, Gudz was on a scheduled training for military commanders. He immediately dropped it and returned to the frontline.
Two days later he was killed.
“He died in his first fight,” said Olena Mokrenchuk, a friend of the Gudz family and a press officer of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
But the war in Donbas had escalated and Gudz was needed there.
“The situation was very serious. There was a threat of encirclement of our main forces, and it was necessary to conduct an operation to prevent it,” she said, “that's why he was sent there. His skills and his knowledge were vital.”
The battle took place near Popasna, a city 100 kilometers to the west of Russian-occupied Luhansk. Gudz knew both the positions and the people well, Mokrenchuk said, as he had served there as a commander of the 24th Mechanized Brigade before he left for training.
“This really shows his character. He did not arrive and start unpacking, making himself comfortable in a new chair. Instead, he went straight into a fight,” she said.
A ‘father’ to his soldiers
In the 2000s Gudz retired to reserve after serving in the army for 10 years.
He then became a teacher of pre-service training for young men.
Among his students was Vyacheslav Pecheniuk, a former soldier and now a member of the territorial defense force.
“He showed me boxing, I did it for three years. He constantly tried to keep me next to him, so I didn’t get into trouble,” Pecheniuk said.
“He was a role model and someone I was proud of,” he added.
In 2014, Pecheniuk joined the Ukrainian army like Gudz. He served on the frontline for one year. After a break he decided to return and signed up for Gudz’s brigade.
“And here again he was keeping me next to him. Did not let me join the intelligence unit,” he said, adding that Gudz was worried for his safety.
Together they served in Avdiivka, a hotspot in the war in Donetsk Oblast. For some time Pecheniuk was Gudz’s driver.
“A funny thing. Every time I was driving him somewhere he was reading a book. He was well-read, smart,” he said.
Gudz's nickname was “79," the number of the first brigade he served in, but soldiers say everyone called him by his patronymic, Fedorovych, in a very fatherly way.
A hero of the city
“Heroes do not die,” said the abbot of St. Nicholas Church, Father Nicholas, who held the ceremony.
“However, no one is born a hero. You can grow into one,” he went on.
Gudz was a hero, he said, because he defended the country and the city and earned people’s respect.
He is buried in Knishov Memorial Park next to other heroes of Ukraine including the crew of an aircraft downed by Russia in Slovyansk in June 2014.
“Thanks to people like him we only felt what war is really like 20 days ago. Prior to that, he guarded our peace and defended our quiet sky including over Boryspil,” said city mayor Volodymyr Borysenko.
“We will never forget and never forgive,” he said.