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A new battle for Ukrainian soldiers: Reintegrating into civilian life

Before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of his country in February 2022, Stanislav was an installer of coolers, neon signs and other Pepsi promotional items in Ukrainian bars and supermarkets. He volunteered to fight and did so until early in 2023, in the east of the country, where he was severely wounded. His arm is today a flap of skin. It was not amputated, but he can no longer move it. His torso and back are covered in shrapnel scars.

In a first contact with Stanislav, in November 2023, on a night train, the now ex-soldier was on his way to Kyiv for a third operation. He was drunk as a skunk. During the night he did not sleep a wink, plagued by nightmares and insomnia. He smoked incessantly, not caring that it was prohibited in the carriage. No one reproached him. Stanislav, 34, lived with his mother in a village in the Zaporizhzhia region. She called his cell phone every two hours, worried. When he woke up in the morning, calmer, he admitted that he did not see any chance of rebuilding his life, of getting a job again: the disability allowance and his mother were the only things that would sustain him.

Stanislav is one of tens of thousands of soldiers who have been discharged from the Ukrainian army in over two years of war, the vast majority of them crippled. Oleg Gorobets, a former military officer, estimates the number at around 100,000. The Ministry of Defense itself does not provide official data. Gorobets fought in the Donbas war against pro-Russian separatists, which began in 2014. From his own experience and that of other veterans he works with, he speaks of what awaits the who will have defended their country when they return to civilian life after the war against Russia.

“One hundred thousand people have already returned and little is being done. And when more come back, crime, domestic violence, alcoholism… The problem will be big,” says Gorobets. Dutch expert Robert van Voren, an advisor to the Ukrainian government, recalled a year ago in an interview with EL PAÍS that in the UK, 17% of army veterans receive prison sentences. “What we face [in Ukraine] is of unimaginable proportions, and the country is not prepared,” Van Voren said.

Ukraine has a Ministry for Veterans Affairs that offers vocational training programs, medical assistance, land grants, or loans and mortgages on advantageous terms. But for most of those interviewed for this article, this support is insufficient.

Gorobets set up Demetra, an agricultural enterprise in the city of Poltava, together with his partner Taras Leliuj, who is serving in the army. They started with four hectares granted by the government for having served and they now have 500 hectares. They employ four ex-combatants and he admits that it is not easy: “It is important for them to have a job because when they are at home they go out of their minds.” One of his employees suffers from alcoholism and has to be helped. “They don’t have time to readjust,” reflects Gorobets. “, but in Ukraine we don’t have this; they jump straight from war to civilian life.”

Oleg Gorobets, who runs an agricultural company, Demetra, in Poltava.
Oleg Gorobets, who runs an agricultural company, Demetra, in Poltava.Cristian Segura

Mistrust between civilians and military

The estimate of 2.5 million combatants was provided by Serhiy Pozniak on March 14 in an interview in the Ukrainian media outlet VN. Pozniak, president of the Ukrainian Association of Veteran Entrepreneurs, participated in February in a round table organized by another media outlet, LB. The figure does not include Ukrainians fighting on the Russian side. The population in free Ukraine is 35 million. The meeting indicated that by 2024, 200,000 servicemen are expected to be demobilized and returned to civilian life. There are about 900,000 men and women — 5% of the total population — who are serving in the country’s defense, to which no fewer than .

“I think Ukraine is not ready to reintegrate so many men who will return from the front,” says Alexander Shilin, owner of Eco Waste, a Kharkiv company that collects scrap metal and other material to be recycled. Shilin was wounded in 2023 by a drone bomb. Since then, he has had reduced mobility. In the car he keeps his crutch and a mat for rehabilitation exercises. The 43-year-old criticizes the Ukrainian authorities for what he considers to be excessive difficulties in reintegrating into civilian life. And he gives his own example: despite his obvious disability, he has not yet been able to transfer to the reserves and continues to serve in the , although not in combat operations.

The main problem, says Shilin, is that “mistrust” is growing between the civilian population and the military: “When the war started there was unity between the population and the army, but the distance between them is growing and growing. The demobilization of troops worries civilians because they see that there is not enough support for the soldiers.”

Alexander Shilin, in one of the trucks of his company Eco Waste, in Kharkiv.
Alexander Shilin, in one of the trucks of his company Eco Waste, in Kharkiv.Cristian Segura

Following orders

Shilin had been a bricklayer and a truck driver and now owns his company. He is the epitome of a statistic provided in 2023 by the Veterans Foundation, a government-linked institution: 70% of those returning from war would like to start their own business. “, but there you don’t have freedom. The soldier gets fed up with following orders, and when he returns to civilian life, he finds it harder to take orders,” explains Igor Iashchenko, a Poltava businessman who was demobilized last autumn after serving in combat forces and intelligence units.

Iashchenko founded his company, Ministry of Family, in December 2023. It is a small shopping and leisure space for families, financed with investment from organizations that help servicemen start a new working life. The Veterans Foundation indicates that the main fear of 77% of veterans is that they will not find employment. The second concern, for 72%, is falling into alcohol and drugs. Those interviewed indicate the pros and cons of hiring ex-soldiers: the advantages are, above all, the tax breaks and two months’ salary paid by the state; the disadvantages are that former military personnel are entitled to reduced working hours, more vacation days, and a year’s leave.

Ruslan Agibalov, representative of the Kharkiv War Veterans Association, which is responsible for assistance to invalids, highlights another drawback of having a salaried ex-combatant: “A veteran can be dangerous at first; they can be aggressive and find it hard to accept opinions they do not agree with.” Agibalov points out that banks are reluctant to give loans to ex-military personnel because they consider them to be more unstable. “People who have had combat experience have a broader perspective of what is important in life, so it is harder for them to work for someone who has not been through the same thing,” adds Yuri Danilenko, chairman of the Kharkiv War Veterans Association.

Gorobets says it is easy to get state loans for retired soldiers, but few apply for them because of lack of training or because they distrust the government. There is only one good thing about serving in the army, agree the interviewees, and that is that it provides discipline and self-confidence. Having a good commander is key, Iashchenko notes, to go through military service with conviction and return mentally stable to civilian life.

Igor Iashchenko, war veteran, in his cafe in Poltava.
Igor Iashchenko, war veteran, in his cafe in Poltava.Cristian Segura

“The army was much worse in 2015″

Oleksander Markov is 53 years old, but looks 10 years younger. This doctor, a former neurosurgeon, stocky, with a bushy beard and short hair, has run his own rehabilitation clinic in Kharkiv for two years. Some of his equipment has been purchased through funding programs from the Veterans Foundation, including the fireproof covers that protect the equipment. His clinic is located in the center of the city, in an area that is regularly bombed.

Most of his clients are civilians, but he also sees military personnel through an army discount scheme. , in the Donbas war and in 2022, and understands that for a veteran it is “psychologically logical that they want to be their own boss. They don’t want to be under anyone’s control after the experience they have had, although many will not be able to have their own business because of the .”

Markov says Ukraine is much better prepared than it was during the war in Donbas to reintegrate troops into civilian life: “In 2022, when I returned to the front, I was surprised how the level of assistance had improved. The army was much worse in 2015; at the front you saw a lot of demoralization, alcoholism, drugs, and heart attacks.”

The demobilized combatants return to civilian life angry, Markov acknowledges, with the people around them who did not sacrifice as they did. But with good therapeutic support, an improvement can be seen within a week. He recalls the case of a young man he treated. He was traumatized after being wounded and hiding in a trench for 24 hours, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades: within two weeks of psychological and physical therapy, he was smiling again.

Oleksander Markov, at his medical center in Kharkiv.
Oleksander Markov, at his medical center in Kharkiv.Cristian Segura

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