Ukrainian soldier Dmytro Batychko was running for cover from a Russian drone attack last summer when another soldier stepped on a landmine. It exploded. Batychko’s comrade fell.
Batychko ran to help. He stepped on another landmine. His comrade died; Batychko lost the lower half of his left leg.
Batychko was one of five Ukrainian soldiers who arrived in Minnesota on March 10. The men share a heartbreaking similarity: They have all lost a limb in the war with Russia.
Brought to the U.S. by the Protez Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps Ukrainian children, soldiers and civilians get free, high-quality prosthetics in the U.S., the soldiers were greeted with fanfare when they arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Within a few hours of landing, they were being fitted for prosthetics by Protez Foundation volunteers at a clinic in Oakdale. Two days later, four of the five men were walking.
“We were like little kids who were given a toy to play with,” said Batychko, 37, speaking in his native Ukrainian through interpreter Noyemin Gradinar. “We were walking all day on Sunday, but the doctor said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ He sat us down and said, ‘You can’t do everything in one day. There will be time to do this more.’”
After months of using a wheelchair and crutches, Batychko said it felt strange to be walking on both feet again. “I thought it would hurt a lot to be up on my feet for the first time, but it’s not as I thought,” he said. “It’s not too exhausting. I’m fine.”
Batychko, who was a repairman for a railroad prior to the war, said he learned about the Protez Foundation from a fellow soldier. “Protez” is Ukrainian for prosthesis. “I’m very lucky to be here,” he said.
Dozens helped in first year
The nonprofit organization has brought 56 Ukrainians to Minnesota since it was founded in May.
“We decided to do it in Minnesota for several reasons,” said Yakov “Jacob” Gradinar, the foundation’s chief medical officer. “First of all, we can provide them with prosthetics at a higher level of care because at this point the Ukrainian health system is very overwhelmed. Second, we can get these people three or four weeks of little vacation from the war. There are no sirens here.”
Also key is showing the soldiers “how the United States is supporting Ukraine in this difficult time,” he said. “These soldiers, they will bring that thought, that idea back to Ukraine.”
Each group of soldiers that arrives — last week’s contingent was the ninth group Protez has brought to the U.S. — travels to different parts of the country for one of the four weeks they are in the U.S. and shares their stories.
“Americans can come and talk and touch the result of the war,” Yakov Gradinar said. “We have an obligation to keep Ukrainian topic at top of mind here. It’s so easy to forget that war is still going and that people are getting killed and getting injured.”
The foundation relies on hundreds of volunteers in Minnesota to help with the effort. The clinic is located in donated space in the former Imation campus in Oakdale, which is owned by Slumberland Furniture. Prosthetics companies provide materials at a discount, and much of the work is done by volunteer prosthetist technicians and physical therapists. The soldiers live in a house that has been donated for a year near the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis, and volunteers cook and clean, Gradinar said.
Hundreds of people — many wearing the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow — greet the soldiers at MSP. The welcoming committee on March 10 included children carrying bouquets of flowers, men playing the accordion and singers performing traditional Ukrainian folk songs.
Kostiantyn and Kathryn Korchak, dressed in Ukrainian folk costumes, greeted the soldiers with a loaf of homemade bread, called palianytsia, and a bowl of salt. Each soldier tore off a small piece of bread, dipped it into the salt, and bowed his head in thanks before eating it.
“It is a tradition used to welcome someone into your home, or you can use it at a wedding to welcome two families together,” said Kostiantyn Korchak, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis. “When you share bread and salt, you are inviting somebody into your home, you are inviting them into your life, you are inviting them into your heart.”
While the couple, members of a Ukrainian dance troupe, served the soldiers, the crowd sang the country’s national anthem: “Ukraine has not died yet, Glory to Ukraine!”
John Cashman, who lives in Savage, cried as he hoisted a “Be Brave Like Ukraine” banner. “I’m feeling some PTSD because I was a Vietnam veteran, and when we came home, there wasn’t anybody there cheering or supporting us,” he said. “So it’s kind of interesting these feelings that I’m having as I see these boys.”
Cashman, 74, and his wife, Kathryn, met a Ukrainian family through a church connection 25 years ago. When the war broke out, they arranged for Sasha and Zhanna Klymemko and their two grown daughters to come to the U.S. under “Uniting for Ukraine,” a federal government initiative launched last April. The program allows Ukrainians who have been displaced by the war to seek refuge in the U.S. if they have a private sponsor willing to house and financially support them for two years.
“They’re so proud to be Ukrainians,” Cashman said. “Mr. Putin hasn’t got a chance against their nationalist feelings. They’re like Americans, you know. When they get down, they’re gonna push back.”
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Vasiliy and Olena Bandura, of Lakeville, learned about Protez in December when Gradinar came to speak at their church, First Ukrainian Baptist Church in St. Louis Park. They immediately signed up to volunteer. On Tuesday, the couple brought a homemade Ukrainian lunch: borscht with lamb; mashed potatoes with chicken gravy; kotlety (pork patties); cabbage salad; bread and blini (Ukrainian crepes).
“I worry about whether they’re eating enough,” said Olena Bandura, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1999. “I am from Ukraine, and my heart is with the soldiers.”
“I am every day crying,” said Vasiliy Bandura, wiping tears from his eyes. “I am praying every day for my country. It’s very hard for me to be here and I watch the news every day and we pray for Ukraine every day. We are very happy to see that our President Biden is helpful in providing help for Ukraine.”
‘We need to fight’
Gradinar, an orthopedic surgeon in Ukraine, moved to the U.S. in 2007 and trained to be a prosthetist. After the war began, Gradinar said he was motivated to do what he could to help his homeland — even from thousands of miles away. He met Yury Aroshidze, the foundation’s CEO, through a mutual friend — a pastor from Dnipro, Ukraine, who needed a prosthetic leg. The two men decided to join forces and form the Protez Foundation.
In October, Gradinar, 46, who is married and has seven children, left the prosthetics clinic where he worked in Minneapolis and went to work full-time at the foundation.
“There was a moment where I was leaving my job when I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is getting out of control,’” said Gradinar, who lives in Elk River. “I felt, literally, physical fear. I was like, ‘Yakov, you’re crazy,’ but then I thought of Proverbs 28:1. It says, ‘Wicked man is running when no one is chasing him, but righteous man is courageous as a lion.’ That verse came to my mind, and that gives me a lot of drive. When we are doing great things, we need to fight. We need to fight and be persistent and be courageous because a lot of evil people are fighting for their own. We have to be more courageous, and we have to be with that drive when we are doing the right thing.”
The Protez Foundation recently opened a clinic in western Ukraine — in the province of Zakarpattia — so amputees outfitted in Oakdale have a place to go for checkups. Protez officials also plan to offer prosthetic training to medical professionals in Ukraine “because the country’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the war,” he said.
Funding for the foundation has come mostly from individual donors, according to Gradinar. The most meaningful donations have been some of the smallest, he said.
“We started seeing donations for $3.47, $5.12, and we were like, ‘Who would donate that amount?’” he said.
It turns out it was Ukrainians who heard about the foundation’s work and were sending money from Ukraine. One hundred hryvnia, the country’s national currency, is worth about $2.72.
“That was so touching and inspired us even more,” Gradinar said. “That encouraged us even more to do what we were doing because they saw the need. They knew what needed to be taken care of.”
Priority is given to children who have lost limbs in the war, he said, because they are “the most vulnerable.” Among those in the second group of Ukrainians brought to the U.S. by Protez were two boys — ages 9 and 12. They have stayed in Minnesota with their mothers as they recover, he said.
Artem, the 9-year-old, lost his left hand after his house was hit by a strike. He and his brother and father were running to a shelter when another rocket struck them from behind. “Artem’s father was holding his brother’s hand and carrying Artem,” Gradinar said. Artem survived; his father and brother did not.
The other boy, Alex, now 13, was playing on a playground in Mariupol when a rocket hit. “He was in that explosion fog,” Gradinar said. “He lost his left leg. He said, ‘I just started to run back to my house and for some reason my leg wasn’t listening to me.’”
A church in Tennessee had just donated $5,000 to Protez when Alex arrived, Gradinar said. “I was able to buy him a running prosthetic, and he’s so happy that he can run,” he said. “He’s not just walking with a regular prosthetic.”
Sviatoslav Chernetskyi, 26, a programmer/engineer for Siemens, had his left leg blown off below the knee when he stepped on a landmine in an occupied village. “Everything was mines there,” he said, speaking in English. “Me and my friend looked for some way to get across the river. The bridge was always under fire, so we tried to find another way. As we were looking for another possible place, I stepped on a landmine.”
Chernetskyi was treated at four different hospitals before he learned about the Protez Foundation. He filled out an online form and submitted it. “I didn’t know if I would get picked to come here,” he said. “I just decided to try my luck and fill it out. If I came here, great. If not, then not a problem, I can get a prosthesis in Ukraine. But I had luck.”
The prosthesis he received in Ukraine was “very, very basic,” he said. “That foot doesn’t have any energy transfer or shock absorption. It has nothing, almost. You walk almost like on a piece of wood, so this is a huge difference.”
Andrii Sobkovskyi, 21, a double amputee, got to test out his new carbon-fiber feet and legs last Sunday. Two days later, the prosthetics were lengthened to make Sobkovskyi taller.
“It’s like trying to walk on ladders that are 6 feet tall,” said Wade Hallstrom, a Protez volunteer who owns a prosthetics lab called Heidi’s Legs, based in Hugo. “It’s incredibly difficult, but he’s strong — mentally and physically. Their mental attitude is a lot of it.”
Sobkovskyi, who arrived in Minnesota in February, was injured while he and other soldiers were protecting an area near Odesa, a city on the Black Sea. “Three rockets came from a ship into our barracks where we were and exploded,” he said. “A missile flew in, and the roof caved in, and the cement ceiling fell on my legs.”
Sobkovskyi and the other Ukrainian amputees have been a joy to work with, said Hallstrom, who spent Sunday building “four legs — three of them below the knee and one above the knee.”
“I’ve never met amputees like this before,” Hallstrom said. “They are so motivated and so just gung-ho to get going and to get moving. … This is the first time (Sobkovskyi) has walked, and he’s already up and going.”
One of the most positive is Oleksandr Ishchenko, 48, who had his left leg amputated after a mortar shell exploded and filled it with shrapnel near the start of the war. He then spent seven months in captivity.
“We were protecting our territories from the Russian Federation,” he said. “We were still setting up, and we weren’t quite ready. When Russian forces started coming at us, we were required to start fighting back. Russian drones found our location, and they started shooting. It was an awful scene. In front of my eyes, two guys died right away. There was no way to help them, and, unfortunately, there was no one there to help them.”
Ishchenko was wounded, but able to put a tourniquet on himself. He spent six days in a “base house” before Russians clearing the area found him and took him prisoner, he said.
“Others were beaten to death, and one of the soldiers found me and was like, ‘What should I do with him? I can just beat him up even more,’” he said, speaking in his native Ukrainian through translator Noyemin Gradinar. “He had already cocked his gun and put it up to my head. I was ready to die.”
But, he said, “destiny decided otherwise.”
“Their officers reacted right away, and they said, ‘Wait, don’t do it. You can’t do this,’” he said on Tuesday. “That’s one of the things where I’m very grateful to the officers that they were able to stop the soldier from killing me. This was on March 14, 2022, so today is my second birthday.”
While in captivity in Russia, he was treated by a physician who was “very neutral,” he said. “He didn’t take sides. I got really lucky. When I tried to pay for the surgery, he said, ‘I don’t need your money. I’m a doctor, and it’s my job to save people.’”
Ishchenko, a retired stonemason, hails from Kamianske, an industrial city in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. “I really love my city,” he said. “If somebody told me to move somewhere, I wouldn’t do it because the city has a lot of meaning to me. A lot of happy memories that happened in this city.”
He said he can’t wait to return home and see his wife, twin daughters and 6-year-old granddaughter. Another granddaughter will arrive this fall, he said, “so we’ll have a lot of stuff to do.”
Return and fight
Yevhenii Onyshchenko, who lost the lower part of his right leg when he stepped on a landmine on Oct. 7, said he plans to return to the front line as soon as he gets the OK.
“Everything will rely on how well I’ll be able to walk and how well things will be going on moving forward,” said Onyshchenko, 25. “This is the first time I’ve been walking in a very long time. It feels great. They did a nice job, and this isn’t even the final one. This is just the start. I never even dreamed of one like this.”
Batychko said he, too, plans to return and fight. “I’m going to protect our country and protect my family and live my life to its full potential,” he said.
The soldiers that Protez serves are “driven to defend Ukraine and not be a burden on their family and community,” Yakov Gradinar said. “They are soldiers. They are looking for the opportunity to just be able to get back up and walk and do what they were doing before they were injured.”
More than 780 Ukrainians have applied to be fitted with prosthetics through Protez, according to Gradinar. The foundation hopes to help 120 amputees this year, he said.
“When we first started, nobody thought the war would take so much,” Gradinar said. “When you start, you don’t think that the project is going to grow so big. It’s sad that that need is so big because people are injured, but at the same time you’re happy that we are a global community. We stand up for each other.”
Gradinar said he doesn’t see the war ending any time soon.
“Ukrainians are in a hard spot,” he said. “They would like to end the war, but as previous experience showed, if they settle for peace and don’t get Russians out of Ukrainian land, they will just start another war again. For that reason, I feel that Ukrainians just want to fight until they fully get them out of the land.
“When you talk to military guys, they have strong belief that in a year or so, they will be able to take over the land that was captured. The longer it goes, however, the more questions you have. The news showing how many people were killed, it definitely brings you down, but at the same time, you don’t have any choice. You have to fight.”
How to help injured Ukrainian soldiers
The Protez Foundation is looking for volunteers to translate, provide room and board to patients, and drive patients to and from the clinic in Oakdale.
To learn more or to donate, go to protezfoundation.com.
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