Opinion | In Ukraine, Amputees Are Ready to Give More

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LVIV, Ukraine — The Superhumans Center is full of war amputees learning to walk on artificial limbs or smoking cigarettes clutched in prosthetic fingers.

Yet this philanthropically supported hospital for wounded Ukrainians is not antiseptically depressing, as hospitals often are. Perhaps that’s because of the admiration that Ukrainians feel for these veterans, leading them to carry their stumps with pride — and to plan a return to the front with artificial arms and legs.

“I do not see disabled people,” Oleksandra Kabanova said as she sat waiting for her husband, Oleh Spodin, to complete a physical therapy session. “I see superheroes.”

She eagerly shared the story of how Spodin lost his leg: He volunteered to go out and rescue a wounded comrade. “He’s very sexy without a leg,” she added, beaming.

That’s where I think Vladimir Putin miscalculated when he invaded Ukraine last year: He underappreciated Ukrainian grit and resilience. I suspect some Americans make the same mistake. Month after month, Ukrainians have lost buildings, heat, electricity, lives — yet they are ready to keep sacrificing, and there is a society-wide reverence for those who have given so much.

A recent poll found that 78 percent of Ukrainians had close relatives or friends killed or injured in the fighting. That’s a staggering toll, yet if anything, it has strengthened Ukrainian determination rather than weakened it. On each of my visits to wartime Ukraine, what has struck me the most is not the immense suffering but the even more overwhelming resolve to win.

While the pain and difficulty faced by those struggling to learn to walk again are enormous, the public adulation is a salve.

“This week, a woman tried to embrace me at a bus stop,” said Denys Kryvenko, 24, who lost both legs and an arm in January in fighting near Bakhmut. “People have tried to give me food, give me money, give me hugs.”

Kryvenko told me that even as a triple amputee, he is going to rejoin his unit on the front line.

“My unit is waiting for me,” he insisted. He is discussing two roles: either as an instructor for paramedics — he is proof of the value of tourniquets, three of which saved his life — or as a counselor to coach soldiers struggling in bleak times.

Bohdan Petrenko, 21, whom I met when he was practicing walking with his artificial leg, is likewise planning to rejoin his military unit as soon as he fully recovers from the mortar injuries that took his leg and mangled his arms. Petrenko said he would return to the front as a radio man or drone operator.

Petrenko had a crush on a girl in his hometown before the war but had never dared ask her out, and when fighting broke out she evacuated to Poland. On a trip back to Ukraine to visit her parents, she heard he was injured and when passing through Lviv stopped by to visit him in the hospital.

“She never left,” he added. “She’s still here. It’s magical.”

They’re now living together, he said, adding, “Someone can have all his arms and legs and still not be successful in love, but an amputee can win a heart.”

The West should surely do a better job providing Ukraine with the F-16s, tanks and long-range missiles it needs to end this war. But what may matter even more than weaponry is the value of the Ukrainian determination to win — even on prosthetic legs.

The war amputees are stoical about their challenges, for they’ve lost friends and, by that standard, feel fortunate. “After the amputation, I didn’t feel so bad,” mused Yevhen Tiurin, 30, with a grin. “The problems in my leg were now over.”

The nurse treating him, Olha Baranych, was impressed. “Something clicked in my heart,” she recalled. They married and are expecting their first child in August.

Kabanova, the woman who thinks her husband looks sexy without a leg, acknowledges that heroes aren’t always family-friendly. Being alone while Spodin was on the front was “10 months of hell,” she said. When he was injured the first two times, she begged him to come home to her.

Spodin refused. Then on Feb. 15, he called Kabanova and sounded different, weak.

“Are you injured?” she asked.

“My leg is missing,” he said faintly but, trying to maintain his humor, added, “A piece of me will stay behind forever.”

Kabanova becomes teary at the recollection. “People thought that girls would dump guys after their injuries,” she said fiercely. “No way! It doesn’t work that way.”

Spodin’s amputation was imperfect, so he had to undergo another surgery to reshape the stump, and now he’s waiting for the wound to heal so that he can get a prosthetic limb — and then he’ll be back to war.

“Amputation is a temporary difficulty,” Spodin explained. “These are just new conditions in our lives that we must adjust to.”

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