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
- Return to Ukraine: A trauma loop of travel from Milwaukee to a country still at war a year later
- From Weddings to War: How Kostiantyn and Vlada Liberov photograph Ukraine's daily horrors
- Being Friends of Angels: The Milwaukee nonprofit saving lives and offering hope in Ukraine
- Mayors of Milwaukee and Irpin expand Sister City cooperation after visit by nonprofit delegation
- Interview with Tom Barrett: U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg reflects on forging ties with Irpin
- Wisconsin Ukrainians host annual fundraising picnic to support homeland on 500th day of war
- Advanced Wireless to donate 840 access points to rebuild Irpin's citywide Wi-Fi network
- Children of Irpin begin planning mural for Mitchell Airport to showcase Sister City friendship
- Irpin is not forgotten: Residents thank Milwaukee Independent for reporting on their "Hero City"
- Milwaukee photojournalist on assignment in Kyiv during July 2 Russian drone strike targeting civilians
- Russian cruise missile attack kills residents far from front lines in Western Ukraine city of Lviv
- Ukraine arrests man accused of directing Russian ballistic missile strike on Kramatorsk pizza parlor
- Milwaukee offers Ukrainian refugee family life-saving treatment for son's genetic condition
- Nikita Pirnach: Irpin student hopes to help his country after finishing education in Milwaukee
- Sick children wait for overseas medical treatments as a new generation is born in Ukraine during war
- Iryna Suslova: The superwoman saving Ukrainian children abducted by Russia
- How a group of Ukrainian mothers, wives, and daughters are distributing vital humanitarian aid
- Freeing Freddie: Educational program aims to reduce PTSD for Ukraine's war-weary children
- The trauma of living: When being killed is the preferred choice to being disfigured from battle
- President Zelenskyy offers gratitude and awards to wounded soldiers while visiting Lviv Hospital
- Former Vice President Mike Pence visits Irpin during unannounced campaign trip to Kyiv
- Military Hospitals provide vital care for Ukrainian soldiers in need of hope and healing
- Combat surgeons pioneer advances in maxillofacial reconstruction of Ukraine's injured heroes
- Milwaukee donors cover cost of reconstructive surgery for American volunteer wounded in battle
- In their own words: Listening to the Voices of Children talk about their experiences from war
- Traumatized by War: Children of Ukraine carry on after losing parents, homes, and innocence
- Widespread Torture: U.N. report documents Russia's systematic executions of Ukrainian civilians
- Wisconsin volunteers sort and pack donated medical supplies for use in Ukraine's hospitals
- Lviv warehouse serves as vital link in medical supply chain from Milwaukee to frontlines
- Aid from Milwaukee is providing internally displaced people in Ukraine with food and clothing
- Iryna Pletnyova: How the city of Uman transformed into a hub for refugees fleeing war
- Bombs in the night: Why children in Uman are still traumatized by Russia's missile attack
- School Bunkers: When a national flag becomes a memorial to dead Ukrainian students
- Hasidic life in Uman: A journey across Ukraine to the Tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
- Tetiana Storozhko: Being a witness to the history of Roma culture in Ukraine
- Remembering Oskar Schindler: A photojournalist’s diary from the streets of Jewish Kraków
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.