Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

After nine years of war, “Snake” said the experience of defending his country against Russia made him feel as if he had lost his humanity entirely.

Milwaukee Independent spoke with the young but battle-hardened veteran on July 4, at the home of a friend in the rural border town of Novovolynsk in Volyn Oblast. It was the day before the battalion commander was due to be deployed back to the frontlines.

He took precious time away from his wife and children to share his story.

“I have no feelings at all when I see death. I know it is wrong to be so empty, but there is nothing I can do. I have lost so many people I cared about since 2014. It seems like everyone is expendable now, except for my family,” said Snake. “I don’t know what it feels like to feel anymore.”

His call sign “Snake” was taken from the character S. D. “Snake” Plissken, the anti-hero of the classic John Carpenter film from 1981, “Escape From New York.”

Snake talked about seeing brave men and women face the brutal realities of war, witnessing the destruction of family homes and individual humanity. The relentless sounds of gunfire, explosions, and constant threats create an environment where stress, anxiety, and fear are constant companions.

“When I see the badly wounded, I think death would be better. All those beautiful boys without arms, legs, or even faces. They suffer tremendously for a long time from the brutality of this war,” said Snake. “Doctors cannot keep up with the disfigured because there are so many. Families are not prepared to care for such horrible injuries. And there is not much help the government can offer right now either.”

Snake’s words echoed the history books from World War I in Europe, when a generation of young veterans crippled by years of trench warfare tried to reintegrate into a society that wanted to forget about the global conflict.

Many of the former soldiers suffered from terrible PTSD, complicated by their frightening appearance that left communities unable to accept the condition of their return.

“Ukrainian soldiers feel that they are fighting for their families back home. But it can be a helpless situation at times, because they are not at home to care for their family. Women struggle by themselves with no financial support to care for their kids,” said Snake. “While husbands risk their lives every day on the battlefield, wives and children are terrified every day of every single phone call. Will it bring bad news? Or does no phone call mean something bad happened? Either way, they are terrified.”

Soldiers are asking wives to have babies, to give them something to live for. On the front line, if they do not stay busy the men start to feel like they are going insane. Snake said that having family helps keep them anchored, and gives them something tangible to fight for.

There also remains complicated feelings that the suffering and sacrifices are unevenly shared, especially about men who are not in the armed forces or who left Ukraine. For many soldiers, the weight of responsibility they face can be overwhelming.

Those emotional struggles are not isolated incidents, but common threads that weave through the lives of many Ukrainian soldiers. Snake had no visible physical wounds from years of war, but he was not without injury. Hidden from view and concealed behind his hardened expression were emotional wounds.

“I guess you could say that the war has disfigured me on the inside. But no one will stare at my broken soul when I walk by on the street,” said Snake. “Only my family will know about the suffering I hold back.”

The war has galvanized Ukrainian society, but many hard truths will need to be reconciled when it is over. To understand and acknowledge the emotional burdens carried by its brave warriors will take time. But by doing so, Ukraine can foster a culture of compassion and destigmatization of mental health concerns within the military.

Snake deployed on July 5, and stated that he had no idea if he would survive. For security reasons, his wife and children were not photographed for the Milwaukee Independent interview. What the combat veteran shared offered an insight into the trauma frontline soldiers face defending their homeland and homes from Russia’s brutality.

“I would like to say something heroic, patriotic, or just poetic. But I cannot escape from the horrors of this war. Time with my family offers a pause from that trauma, but nothing like peace,” added Snake. “I have no wish for death, I want to see my children grow up and live in a free Ukraine. But at least in death the war for me will be over.”

Series: Return to Ukraine

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war