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‘War is tough’ – Ukrainian soldiers reveal mental toll of fighting on the frontline

His voice quiet and at times wobbly, a Ukrainian soldier called Maksym candidly shares his mental trauma from fighting on the frontline.

“Everything the Russians have done – trying to destroy us, killing our fellow soldiers – it deeply affects my emotional state,” he said. “War is tough.”

The soldier agreed to speak to Sky News as he received support at a makeshift psychological centre in eastern Ukraine, set up by fellow troops from 41st Brigade.

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The facility can hold around 10 service personnel at a time, each able to stay for a few days.

As well as being offered a bed, food and space to relax, each visitor is also assessed by military psychologists and encouraged to speak about what is going on in their mind.

Maksym candidly shares his mental trauma
Image:
Maksym candidly shares his mental trauma

Maksym said as soon as he left a two-week rotation in the frontline town of Chasiv Yar, in the Donbas, he knew something was wrong.

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“There were a lot of thoughts swirling in my head about what had happened, and I couldn’t shake them off,” he said, clasping his hands and at times staring into space.

“It was all weighing heavily on me, so I turned to a psychologist to provide me with some assistance.”

Like the majority of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s full-scale war, Maksym had previously been a civilian. He worked as an electrical engineer but signed up to fight in April 2022.

Apologising as his voice broke with emotion, he said that the war had changed him.

He described the pain of being unable to see his family easily when deployed on operations – and the agony of not knowing at times whether he would survive to be with them again.

Maksym said the support hub offered some respite.

“This place is very helpful because you try to get rid of everything you’ve been through, to recover, to gather your thoughts… because a soldier who is broken inside…”

He suddenly paused and said sorry once more for his voice faltering.

Maksym then continued: “He cannot perform these tasks properly and can cause harm.”

It is a warning that rings true for every conflict, where mental health conditions – such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – caused by exposure to violence, danger and loss can be devastating if left untreated.

There are no publicly available figures on the number of Ukrainian military personnel and veterans who have PTSD, according to a report by the Kyiv Independent new outlet.

However, it cited health ministry figures that showed a sharp rise last year in diagnoses of the condition to 12,494 cases, compared with 3,167 in 2021, though it was unclear whether servicemen and women were included in the data.

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Ilya, a lieutenant, is a military psychologist who works at the support centre, which was set up inside what had been an abandoned building.

The place is quite basic with a line of camp beds, separated by makeshift dividers, and a small canteen. Staff said they would love additional equipment such as board games, a snooker table and a better television set.

Still, the facility is a relatively new idea to be able to treat Ukrainian soldiers’ hidden mental wounds close to the frontline.

There have long been stabilisation hubs to deal with physical injuries.

“The main goal is to rehabilitate servicemen so that they remain healthy, both physically and mentally, emotionally, and with their thoughts in order,” Ilya said.

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He was previously a combat soldier, so understands the trauma of war from personal experience – a background that means his patients feel more comfortable to open up about their own experiences.

He said it is vital to pay attention to a person’s mental scars.

“I tell the guys: You can stay silent, but it [the trauma] will stay inside you, and the more you accumulate, the worse it becomes… None of us is made of steel.”

Ilya, a lieutenant, is a military psychologist
Image:
Ilya, a lieutenant, is a military psychologist

As for the danger of leaving mental injuries untreated, he said: “We may lose a serviceman. He will start having problems, and besides harming himself, he may harm other people.”

But with Ukraine suffering troop shortages, only those at the centre who display the most serious signs of mental trauma are sent on for further treatment.

The rest must return to the frontline.

Maksym said he believes he will soon be asked to fight once again “because it’s war”.

He added: “This is our land… If we retreat, we will lose Ukraine. Next will be Poland, then other countries. The aggression won’t stop. We need to stop it where we can.”

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