When Russian backed terrorist forces invaded Ukraine in the spring of 2014, the country found itself largely unprepared for war. What ensued was an initially crowd-funded war effort, with unprecedented numbers of volunteers signing up to fight in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer battalions. In the early weeks and months of the war these soldiers were sent to the front to fight with what little protective gear and weaponry they were able to procure, usually with their own funds.
To date, the war has claimed the lives of over 13,000 people, including more than 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Upwards of 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been injured, a figure which continues to grow everyday.
Throughout this conflict Ukrainian forces have continued to hold off an aggressor that is backed by one of the biggest military powers in the world, and have frequently been commended for their relentless spirit on the battlefield.
But as any veteran knows, physical battle is only one aspect of the challenges faced by soldiers. Mental preparedness is equally as important not only for battle readiness, but also for life after war. Many of those who have fought in eastern Ukraine had minimal psychological preparation, and this, combined with the extremely psychologically demanding nature of the war, has put them at a high risk for injuries such as PTSD.
Psychological trauma has already taken its toll on those returning from service. Since the Russian invasion began in April 2014, over 500,000 soldiers have taken part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (now called the Joint Forces Operation). According to Dr. Colonel Vsevolod Stebliuk, a former advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of Defence and the founder of the rehabilitation clinic at the Irpin Military Hospital, it is estimated that at least 30 percent of returning soldiers suffer from psychological injuries as a result of time spent in combat operations, with 10 percent of all cases considered to be acute. In 2018 alone, at least 1,000 Ukrainian veterans took their own lives.
“The psychological effect of this war will be very strong and long.”
– Dr. Colonel Vsevolod Stebliuk
Many soldiers returning home find it difficult to reintegrate back into civilian life. They are plagued by the invisible scars of their battlefield experiences, and often struggle with anxiety, depression, and aggression that manifest themselves as symptoms of PTSD and other brain injuries. Left untreated, these mental health issues can lead to economic marginalization, poverty, substance abuse, and violent behavior.
Many symptoms of psychological trauma go unnoticed by the general public. As an April 2015 article noted:
They tremble and shift in their chairs, unable to sit still. They are constantly on guard. They get into fights. They don’t communicate openly. Their personal relationships fall apart. Memories of the combat trigger mood swings. Flashbacks of battlefield traumas are common. So are sleep problems and depression. Amputees reach to scratch their scabbing wounds with phantom limbs. Many experience night terrors.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for trauma-afflicted veterans and victims of war to turn to alcohol, drugs, and heavy medications in an attempt to silence their pain and distress. Many veterans report feeling misjudged in society, and despite hundreds of thousands of them having returned home from service, discussing the psychological impacts of the war often remains taboo.
Hero’s Companion is a response to an urgent need to address these growing problems in a safe, healthy, and sustainable manner. The project grew out of a recognition of the distinct bond that could regularly be observed between soldiers and their animal companions who were never far away, providing companionship and security on the front.
Sadly, war does not only affect the soldiers who fight it. After experiencing much success with our veteran program, we have expanded the therapy dog program to work with former prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians (especially children) who have been affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict. By working with these groups we have been able to positively impact the rehabilitation journeys of hundreds of war-affected Ukrainians.