ZARYCHEN, Ukraine – Lieutenant Colonel Oleh Dombrowski inserted the key into the ignition of his orange Lada several times before finally grabbing the engine.
The inconspicuous car — a Soviet relic of the kind popular in the devastated Donbass region — has been racking up miles as Colonel Dombrowski and his team of military psychologists cruise the front lines of eastern Ukraine training soldiers to deal with trauma after a year in the war.
“Sometimes soldiers cannot even determine what the problem is, and this training helps them figure it out – what to pay attention to, how to control your mind and thoughts,” said Rodion Khrihoryan, a military psychologist. “Understanding the problem is the first critical step.”
Colonel Dombrowski and his team lead east across open fields to an abandoned house just three miles from the front line. Half a dozen Ukrainians Soldiers of the 125th front-line brigade arrived in Donetsk for one session. Like hundreds of thousands of soldiers throughout the country, they were engaged in fierce battles with the Russian troops in the trenches, forests and cities. They saw their friends die.
“The men came from the site and told me that they had been bombed and pressed, that they needed support. They couldn’t manage it themselves,” said Ihor Bahniuk, deputy battalion commander.
“The longer the war goes on, the more help people will need,” he added.
Colonel Dombrowski leads a group of a few dozen psychologists and trainers at the Center for Psychological and Moral Support of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces. Each team of trainers holds 60 to 90 training sessions per month, including group therapy or one-on-one sessions.
Instructors teach various breathing techniques to release stress, physical tactics to prevent soldiers from panicking when under attack and mental exercises to help them calm down. Sometimes, sessions merely provide a place for soldiers to vent.
said Oleksandr, teacher.
Konstantin has been on the front line since November. He contacted the trainers at the end of the session for advice on how to prevent himself from “freezing” and being unable to move on the battlefield. He said he wished he had learned those techniques before he went to war.
He said, “I have nightmares, and sometimes I don’t feel like sleeping.” “When your position gets shot, you realize it’s a lottery. Will it hit you or not? Every day, something can happen, and you have to come to terms with it.”
While psychologists have already trained thousands of soldiers, treating trauma at an army-wide level—during an active conflict—is an enormous challenge.
Volodymyr, another soldier who attended the hearing, said he suffered a heart attack during the fighting. He said he doubted that one training session would help him completely overcome the trauma he was experiencing.
“Imagine – for two weeks there was continuous shelling and explosions around you,” said Volodymyr. “You can hide, and then you raise your head and a few feet away from you will be a crater with your entire body deep. If you haven’t experienced it, you won’t be able to understand it.”
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