Air Force Wounded Warrior program partners with Ukrainian vets to find healing in war-torn country
Exercise and adaptive sports have been proven to build resiliency among wounded veterans. Through new purpose, unwavering support, rekindled determination, and a focus on ability and not disability, these warriors can heal. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that 13,000 people had been killed in the Ukraine conflict as of 2019. Upward of 30,000 soldiers have been badly wounded since the war began in 2014.
These injured soldiers come back with burns covering much of their bodies, extensive brain damage, and chronic phantom pains from amputations. Around half of them are also suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once home, their new war is just beginning.
The Ukrainian government struggles to provide basic care for these veterans, with private non-profits often stepping in to pay for things like prosthetics. Seeking help for mental health illnesses, like PTSD, carries a strong stigma for Ukrainian society. Psychologists and non-profit wounded warrior programs in Ukraine have been working hard to change that.
In 2015, Col. (Dr.) Vsevolod Stebliuk introduced the first complex psychological and physical program for the rehabilitation of war veterans at Irpin Military Hospital in Ukraine. It's there that veterans are introduced to things like exercise therapy to build resiliency. Wounded Warrior Ukraine also teaches PTSD workshops, deep breathing and exercise therapy to Ukrainian veterans.
In 2017 the Ukraine team made its debut at the Invictus Games. This was monumental for these veterans who were struggling with devastating visible and invisible wounds from war. The Invictus Games helped them by not only building a community of support, but by giving them purpose and passion through adaptive sports. The word "Invictus" is Latin for unconquered – implying that although forever changed by war, they will not be overcome.
Marsha Gonzales, a retired United States Air Force veteran and current Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Branch Chief for Warrior Care Support, is the manager of Team US for the 2020 Invictus Games. While at a meeting for the games, she met the manager for Team Ukraine, Oksana Horbach. Horbach shared with Gonzales her concern for her team, as Ukraine did not have the same access to financial resources as other countries. Gonzales decided to help.
When discussing different options of support, Gonzales remembered that AFW2 had equipment that was to be recycled. It was at this moment that AFW2 helped establish Team Ukraine's first-ever wheelchair basketball team to compete in the 2020 Invictus Games.
Ten specialized wheelchairs were delivered to Ukraine in February, and with them came two AFW2 coaches and five sports ambassadors to not only train the Ukrainians with sport-specific knowledge, but also directly engage with local veterans. The AFW2 group visited the Ministry of Veteran's Affairs, Ministry of Defense, and engaged with local media to share stories of resilience through adaptive sports.
According to Gonzales, many tears were shed during the visits with veterans. She shared that while visiting veterans in one local hospital, it was hard not to be overcome by their stories. American Veterans who came on the trip with AFW2 also felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the care and support they receive in the United States. All involved wished there was more they could do for these incredible Ukrainian veterans.
One Ukrainian veteran shared during a visit that they had just received word of increased fighting, and that some of their friends had been killed. Gonzales said it was hard to remain unemotional, knowing that not far away, more Ukrainian soldiers were dying in the conflict.
While providing wheelchairs and giving their time might not seem like much to some, to the Ukrainians it was everything. "We are giving these veterans hope for their future," Gonzales said.
Team US co-captain, retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joshua Smith, was one of the ambassadors on the international trip. He made a Facebook post on Feb. 22 sharing that the visit was a humbling and profound experience for him and others taking part.
"Letting other wounded, ill, and injured service members/disabled veterans know that we can adapt, overcome, and persevere with absolute resiliency in the face of challenges, obstacles, and trials we suffer due to military service for our countries," he wrote.
Smith said that they went into this trip with Team Ukraine appearing very unsure of why they were there to help. However, by the time AFW2 left, Ukrainian veterans were referring to them as "our Americans."
It was no longer Team US and Team Ukraine – it was "Our Team."
To see all of the things AFW2 is doing to support wounded warriors, click here. Also, check out Team Ukraine's Invictus Team page.