Ukraine’s veterans struggle with mental trauma in civilian life
Several Ukrainian psychologists have swapped their white garbs for bulletproof vests and headed to the war zone since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine. As well as working on the battlefield, they’ve begun thinking about the mental battles that some soldiers might have to fight in peacetime.
Some military psychologists, like Andriy Kozinchuk, who has served in the Kyivshchyna Battalion since August 2014, are not just there to care for their comrades, but to fight as well.
“When the war began I thought I could help the soldiers without being in the war zone, but in my heart I knew that I was a military man. I wanted to have a machine gun and go to Crimea to fight our enemy,” Kozinchuk told the Kyiv Post, referring to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory in March 2014.
Other psychologists on the front line are civilian volunteers, such as Tatiana Nazarenko, who decided to join the Aidar Battalion after the EuroMaidan Revolution. She has been to the front seven times since the start of the war.
“I try to help soldiers near the front line and right after they come back from battle. Sometimes it was very dangerous, because (places like) Shchastia were shelled regularly,” Nazarenko said.
The tasks that civilian psychologists carry out are far-removed from the jobs they had before the war, forcing them to make adjustments on the front line.
“In civilian psychology the client comes to you, sits on the couch, and tells you their troubles. Military psychology is not like that. Nobody comes to you – you have to find out which soldier is in trouble,” Kozinchuk said.
In an environment where bravery is important, not many soldiers even want to talk about their fears with a psychologist.
“They talk about everything: girls, cars, sex, football, politics, the president, the government… But they don’t speak about the fears they have in their hearts and souls,” Kozinchuk said.
This is why approaching soldiers delicately is an essential tactic.
“You don’t go to him and say ‘I see trouble in your heart,’ you say ‘Hi! Lets go and smoke,’ or ‘Can I help you dig some trenches? And during that time you talk with him,” Kozinchuk said.
Civilian volunteer psychologists also have to pay special attention to the reputation they build for themselves in the battalion.
“The day after we were shelled (in Shchastia) we had tickets to leave the war zone, but I told my colleague that we couldn’t leave because the soldiers would think that we were afraid. So we decided to stay another day,” Nazarenko said.
Both Nazarenko and Kozinchuk said that providing psychological help on the front line is just the start of their work, and that tracking a soldier’s men- tal health after they return to civilian life is essential.
“If we close our eyes after the war, the war they have in their hearts will not disappear. The war in the east of Ukraine will come to their streets and into their homes,” Kozinchuk said.
Adaptation to civilian life is very difficult, according to Nazarenko. Veterans often have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and can experience bouts of aggression, violence in their families, and depression.
“The first trouble is flashback,” Kozinchuk said. “After re-entering civilian life, a soldier might hear a sound or smell smoke that evokes a mental picture about his time in war. During this flashback, he can’t control himself, his behavior could be weird, he could crawl under the table, cry, or break something…He doesn’t control himself.”
Giving money to discharged soldiers isn’t enough once their tour of duty ends, Kozinchuk said.
“I’m not saying that we need to give them a million dollars. If a soldier has problems, he won’t know how to spend it: $800,000 for vodka, $100,000 dollars for meals… We have to help him so he can make the right choices in his life.”
For this reason Kozinchuk is forming a veterans’ organization to help soldiers adapt to normal life when they return home.
“We want a rehabilitation center, but not with doctors or psychologists with diplomas,” he said. “We try to teach them not to throw the war out of their soul, but to live with it, and open up to life again.”
Few are willing to help set up the rehabilitation center.
“Veterans say that this is good idea, the country says that this is good idea, businessmen say that this is a good idea… But they all just say it. There’s really only a small percentage of people who actually help us,” Kozinchuk said.
Nazarenko also faces problem with funding.
“At the beginning we got some money from the Canadian diaspora – they gave us the (money for train) tickets and some cash, about $5 dollars a day,” she said. “But the government doesn’t pay us; the government wants to use volunteers without spending money.”
Looking the other way won’t make these problems disappear, Kozinchuk said. Ukraine must be prepared for the challenge of caring for the mental health of soldiers once the war is over.
“We haven’t solved the problem yet. The big problem will come afterwards – from 1 to 3 years after the war ends, I think, and we need to get prepared now,” he said. “The Soviet Union won the Second World War, but they didn’t win the peace. I don’t want the same for us. I believe that we can win the war, and I believe that we can win the peace.”
Andriy Kozinchuk talks with soldiers in September 2014 at a sports center near the war front used as a barracks for his unit. The subject of the discussion is how to deal with post traumatic stress disorder and fear. (Courtesy)