Oakdale MN prosthetics foundation Protez helps Ukrainian soldiers

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.

Yakov “Jacob” Gradinar, right, chief medical officer of Oakdale-based Protez Foundation, greets Vadym Fedorov at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday, March 10, 2023. Federov, 30, had both legs amputated after he was injured in a strike during the war with Russia on June 8, 2022. (Mary Divine / Pioneer Press)

“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.”

RELATED: After more than a year of war, Ukrainians in Minnesota watch and wait

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.”

A woman ladles soup into a bowl at a table.
Olena Bandura, center, and her husband Vasiliy, right, serve lunch to Ukrainian soldiers at the Protez Foundation clinic in Oakdale. The Lakeville couple brought a homemade Ukrainian lunch of borscht with lamb, mashed potatoes, pork patties, cabbage salad, bread and blini (Ukrainian crepes). (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

“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.”

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