Ukraine’s vet­er­ans strug­gle with men­tal trauma in civil­ian life

Kyiv Post - - News - BY PABLO GA­BILONDO [email protected]­SOURI.EDU Kyiv Post sum­mer in­tern Pablo Ga­bilondo can be reached at [email protected] mail.mis­souri.edu

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)

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