Ukraine soldiers seek 'new legs' in Orlando after a year of war
It’s been one year since Russia invaded Kyiv, Ukraine. To the shock of many l, that war is still being waged. The rumblings of war are felt in Orlando, where about a half dozen wounded Ukrainian soldiers are being fitted for prosthetic legs.
Last year, 26-year-old Alexander Bugko, was a barista in Rivne, Ukraine, planning to work as a graphic designer by the start of March. One year later, Bugko is a double amputee army soldier, living in Orlando, and stands on two prosthetic legs.
It's a reality several soldiers in Central Florida are dealing with on the one-year anniversary since Russia invaded Kyiv, Ukraine.
There have been 8,000 civilians killed, 13,000 injured and 14 million displaced in the last 12 months, according to the United Nations. Ukraine officials have not released soldier casualties, but American sources estimate the number exceeds 100,000.
Some of those injured soldiers are in Orlando being fitted for prosthetic limbs and learning to use them at Prosthetic and Orthotics Associates, a multipurpose facility south of downtown Orlando. Prior to the anniversary, Bugko was practicing with his new legs, learning to run, and working out on a rowing machine.
Bugko is determined to master his prosthetics so he can go home and help his fellow soldiers.
Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Bugko went looking for the Ukraine military, or anyone who could teach him how to fight. Several months later, Bugko lost his legs while he was eating dinner in a trench when an unknown explosion buried him under mounds of dirt.
“(I) screamed because (I) was underground at this moment. (I) was in a lot of pain. It hurt a lot,” Bugko said.
His peers dragged him out, tied tourniquets around his legs, and got him to a hospital. Doctors couldn’t save his legs but three weeks ago, Bugko began walking again in Orlando thanks to the Revived Soldier’s Ukraine 501 C3 charity, which seeks to rehabilitate soldiers with complex injuries. The group is led by an Orlando resident and its president Iryna Disipio.
“We pay medical bills for wounded soldiers because not everything is covered by the Ukrainian government, especially for the veterans, when soldiers are out of the army hospital,” Disipio said.
RSU has rehabilitated 20 soldiers since 2018 with its partner group in Ukraine. Disipio first started RSU to help soldiers who were fighting Russian forces after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Recently, RSU has given six soldiers prosthetic legs, costing the group over $160,000.
There’s a long list of soldiers waiting for help, Disipio said.
“It's a couple of thousand soldiers that are waiting for prosthetics right now in Ukraine with the legs, and about 500 soldiers waiting for arms. It's crazy,” Disipio said.
Mykhaylo Varvarych is a sergeant in the Ukraine Army. At the age of 28, he was one day away from completing his army contract when Russia invaded Ukraine. Two months later, a vehicle he was in drove over a land mine. The explosion took both his legs.
Varvarych was given his prosthetic legs three weeks ago. He’s still getting used to them.
"Being able to balance on prosthetic legs, that's, that's the first and most difficult thing that you have to get used to," he said.
Cheering him on the sidelines is his girlfriend, 19-year-old Iryna Botvinska, who traveled to Orlando with him.
She remembers the first day of the war vividly as she was drinking coffee early in the morning when she heard six sirens go off: Ukraine was under attack.
Varvarych called her later that day telling her he was going east to fight. Botvinska made him dinner the night before and made him promise to send her a smiley face whenever he had access to the internet, even if it was just for a moment.
Two months later, Varvarych lost his legs.
Botvinska is grateful that he's alive and is hopeful that she and Varvarych will return home soon.
"I want to live in a peaceful country, in my country, in Ukraine without the constant sirens and without the constant bombings," she said.
It will take Varvarych 90 days to complete his rehabilitation, but the longer he remains in Orlando the more he keeps asking himself one question.
"Why am I not there for my country?" Varvarych asked.
Varvarych isn’t alone. Bugko and all the amputee soldiers RSU has taken care of want to continue to fight.
"We've suffered the loss of so many civilians who have died. So many of the members, of our Ukrainian armed forces, have died. We need more weapons. We need more support," Varvarych said.
RSU is also made up of Ukrainian volunteers who fled the country. Six months ago, Anna Bonomrenko, 34 of Kharkiv, escaped Ukraine with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. Bonomrenko had a friend in Orlando, thus why they chose to move to Central Florida.
Bonomrenko translates for the soldiers in RSU, but her heart remains with what was left behind: her business that makes manicure instruments, her parents, and her sister.
"I'm here because I have a little girl," she said. "We have no homes and many more are destroyed. But I'm alive. I'm here. And I have hope that I will go back soon."
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