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How to save your own life: one soldier's story


The smiling youth in the photograph is Yuri, 22 years old, from Poltava oblast. In 2014 he completed his construction engineering baccalaureate and then volunteered to join the army. He is under contract with the 54th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

We first met Yuri when we came to interview Volodymyr Kovalsky at the military hospital. When Yuri saw our correspondent wearing a Patriot Defence t-shirt, he immediately recognized it. “I know you! You trained us,” he said. So we returned to the hospital a few days later to record his story.

At the outset, Yuri asks that his face not be shown on television, because he has not yet told his parents about his battle injuries. He wants to tell them personally when he returns to see them in Poltava oblast.

On the morning of March 17, 2016, Yuri's unit was out on a mission outside of Mariupol in Donetsk oblast. During the patrol, two men were wounded by a mine explosion. They called for help. Yuri was injured as they were being evacuated. 

“When it exploded, I fell and felt my leg go numb. I looked to see if it was still whole, but saw that part of it was missing. So I promptly applied a CAT tourniquet to the upper part of the leg. Then I got the first aid kit that was on my belt, took out out the Soviet-era tourniquet and applied it closer to the wound. Next, I took out the Israeli bandage and used it to dress the wound.”

Yuri was separated from the rest of the unit. He was near one of the enemy's checkpoints, so he tried to get back to safety on his own. So he started crawling. But then there was gunfire. After the battle ended, the men began collecting the wounded. “We were carried for about 500 meters to a kilometer, and then an armoured personnel carrier was able to drive up to us. They drove us back to our checkpoint, transferred us into cars that took us to the hospital in Mariupol,” Yuri recalled.

Yuri spent one day in Mariupol, and then was taken to Dnipropetrovsk for six days of critical care before being transported to the main military hospital in Kyiv.

Yuri in the room he shares at the main military hospital in Kyiv 

We asked Yuri if he managed his pain with strong narcotics. He answered that he's happy there weren't any immediately available. “I understood what had happened. It hurt. I changed the bandages, looked after the leg. I was able to feel where it hurt and where it didn't. If I had injected a painkiller, I wouldn't have been able to tell. When I loosened the tourniquet and saw that the bleeding had stopped, I knew that was a good thing. When I finally made it to a hospital, I was able to explain everything that I had done and had happened to me,” Yuri said.

One of the soldiers, who was injured along with Yuri, died on the spot from a shrapnel wound to his head. The second solider was taken to hospital. His spine was wounded by shrapnel and he can barely feel the lower part of his body. Still, he is making progress.

“For the first guy, they simply bandaged his head, although they knew that it wouldn't do anything. The second guy had two holes in his back, they plugged those up with QuikClot. His lungs had been punctured. They thought maybe it was pneumothorax, but he was breathing normally,” Yuri recalled.

Yuri took Patriot Defence's Combat Life Saver course in Novohrad-Volynsky in September, 2014. Soldiers first underwent training and then were provided with an individual first-aid kit or IFAK.

Speaking about that training course, Yuri noted that tactical medicine is very much needed in the army, and there are very few professionals who are able to teach something “more than what's written on a piece of paper, but provide а variety of assignments that are based on real-life situations.”

“The training taught me a lot. At first, I thought that it could happen to anyone, but not to me,” Yuri recalled. “But when I was wounded, I knew what I had to do.”

Yuri showed us his unfinished tattoo of medieval Grand Prince Sviatoslav of Kyiv on his chest

We asked him why he volunteered and his answer was short: “I had to. My country's at war.”

Different people understand the war in Ukraine in different ways: some call it simply an Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), while for others the war has taken away their freedom, their home, their friends. “I see this as another in a series of Ukrainian-Russian wars. It's happened many time before. Every one hundred years or so. We have this 'benevolent' neighbour with whom we've been fighting all our lives and with whom we'll probably spend the rest of our lives fighting.” Yuri signed his army contract for the duration of the ATO. “Initially, I didn't think the war would last long. We were making great progress at first. So I signed up.”

Yuri never told his parents that he's going to fight. And they don't know about his injury.

Yuri's parents thought he was deployed in Central Ukraine. They found out their son was serving in the ATO by chance, when he sent a parcel home. “It's not that they were negative about it, but they worry a lot. Later they calmed down. Now I have another 'present' for them,” Yuri said smiling, but with sadness in his eyes.

Yuri is currently being fitted with a prosthesis and his short-term plans include finishing his Sviatoslav tattoo, getting married and working on social projects together with his friends in Poltava.

Yuri was constantly smiling during our conversation. Towards the end he told us “All in all, this isn't a problem or a handicap for me,” he said looking at his amputated limb. “Life isn't over. In fact, I feel more positive the future.

This is not the first story about how first aid skills saved someone's life. Those same skills help people look at life differently.

During our training we prepare soldiers for the worst, but our wish is that they never have to actually use the skills we teach them. But when the worst comes to pass, you understand how good it was that in September, 2014, a soldier completed a two-day combat lifesaver course in Novohrad-Volynsky and is alive today thanks to it. 

Read also:

     • Saved Live: Tales from the Military Hospital
     • The medical system in Ukraine. Why changes are needed