Ill-Prepared for Combat, Volunteers Die in Battles Far From Home

RUDNE, Ukraine — Yurii Brukhal, an electrician by trade, didn’t have a very dangerous role when he volunteered for Ukraine’s territorial defense forces at the start of the war. He was assigned to make deliveries and staff a checkpoint in the relative safety of his sleepy village.

Weeks later, his unit deployed from his home in the west to a frontline battle in eastern Ukraine, the epicenter of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. He was killed on June 10.

Andrii Verteev, who worked in a grocery store in the village, spent the first months of the war guarding a small overpass after work and returning home to his wife and daughter at night. Then he, too, volunteered to head east. He died in battle in Luhansk, just weeks before Mr. Brukhal.

Their deaths have driven home the extent to which the war is reaching into every community across the country, even those far from the front. It has also underscored the risks faced by volunteers, with limited training, who are increasingly heading into the kind of battles that test even the most experienced soldiers. Their bodies are being returned to fill up cemeteries in largely peaceful cities and towns in the country’s west.

“He was going over there to protect us here,” said Vira Datsko, 52, Mr. Brukhal’s older sister, praising her brother’s patriotism. “But it’s a tragedy for us — so painful — that the best of our nation are going to die in this war.”

At the start of the war, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 were banned from leaving the country but were not automatically conscripted, and many volunteered to fight. Volunteers to the country’s territorial defense forces, reserve units of Ukraine’s armed forces, were initially assigned unglamorous but safe tasks in relatively tranquil regions like Western Ukraine, where the Russians did not invade. But severe losses of manpower in the Donbas, where Russia is grinding forward with ferocious bombing and shelling, has forced Ukraine’s military to draw reinforcements from the West.

Mr. Brukhal, an electrician by trade, was given a soldier’s funeral. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Some family members of fallen volunteers have asked why their husbands and sons were deployed far away and without trainingCredit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Many of the fighters like Mr. Brukhal, who had no previous military experience, are simply unprepared for that escalated level of fighting. And the training they receive is limited — sometimes two weeks or less.

Volunteers to the territorial defense group are not forced to redeploy with their unit, but many do, spurred by patriotism or a sense of duty, and perhaps a desire not to let down their comrades. And while they know it will bad at the front, there is little to prepare them for the violence of front-line engagement, veteran soldiers say.

“These are people of peaceful professions, people from peaceful territories,” said Colonel Valeriy Kurko, the commander of the 103rd brigade of the territorial defense, where Mr. Brukhal served.

Col. Kurko said that most people who joined his group had never served in the army. The notion that people could simply spring to action when the war crept closer is wrong, he said; by then it is too late.

His brigade, currently stationed in the eastern Donetsk region, is made up of men from the Lviv area. Several of the men have died in the last month, Col. Kurko said, with at least three buried in Lviv in the start of June.

Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War

  • History and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
  • How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.
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Despite having limited time, they receive basic skills and training, he said, but acknowledged that the unit’s morale had undoubtedly shifted.

“I won’t hide from you the fact that some people were not ready to leave the territory of their region,” he said in an interview, but added that there were no soldiers from his brigade who refused to go east.

The training volunteers receive is limited, sometimes less than two weeks. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
Volunteers at a frontline position in Kharkiv, an eastern city. Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

He acknowledged that the relentless artillery shelling “is a challenge not everyone can cope with” and added that some families had asked why their husbands and sons were being asked to deploy outside their home regions with no training.

Efforts to move more territorial soldiers with limited training to the east has devastated some units.

One territorial defense company made up of 100 soldiers from around Kyiv suffered 30 percent losses on its first day on the eastern front, around the town of Bakhmut in late spring, according to soldiers from the unit.

Territorial defense soldiers did not expect that kind of fierce engagement, said one soldier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics. “And here we ended up on the frontline, as infantry that sit in the trenches,” he said.

Accounts from a half-dozen territorial defense soldiers interviewed for this article have been largely the same: They were trained as glorified guards during the war’s early months and then, as casualties mounted, were sent to the front.

The scene of a Russian missile strike in eastern Ukraine. “We are being torn to pieces, people falling down like flies, and why are we here?” one soldier asked.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The Kyiv unit was also given the choice to go east, and those men were quickly attached to a regular Ukrainian army unit. The territorial defense soldiers said they only had rifles, machine guns and few western-supplied anti-tank weapons.

They were lacking the one weapon that has defined the war in recent months — artillery. They also had few ways to communicate with the units that had those heavy weapons.

In short, the soldiers said, they were mostly on their own.

“We are being torn to pieces, people falling down like flies, and why are we here?” the soldier said. “It’s unclear.”

These kinds of deployments have begun to draw small protests as wives, mothers and daughters of some of the those who died express their discontent.

But others, like Mr. Brukhal’s family, said they supported their family members’ decision, despite their grief.

Before he left for the war, he had been building a home for his two daughters. At a memorial two weeks after his death, villagers gathered in prayer around a long table inside the house, its cinder block walls still exposed, a spread of food laid out in front of them.

It was the first meal in the still unfinished home, Ms. Datsko, his sister, said.

Bells being rung in Rudne, a village in western Ukraine, where at least two volunteer soldiers have been killed in recent weeks. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
Oksana Stepanenko, 44, comforts her daughter Mariia, 8, whose father, Andrii Verteev, was killed on May 15.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“It’s just horrible when you see what’s happening in the cemetery, and you don’t know when it will stop,” she said, reflecting on the rows of new graves appearing in Lviv’s military cemetery since her brother’s burial. “We are going to have lots of women without husbands and children without fathers.”

Oksana Stepanenko, 44, is also dealing with grief, along with her daughter Mariia, 8. Her husband, Andrii Verteev, was killed on May 15.

Like Mr. Brukhal, he had been a volunteer, tasked with protecting an overpass just up the road during the early weeks of the war. Then he joined an anti-aircraft unit of the military, and was redeployed to the east.

His death added a new level of pain to the family. Ms. Stepanenko’s son, Artur, died of an illness at age 13 three years ago. Now a corner of their small living room has become a shrine to the boy and his father.

Ms. Stepanenko said she finds solace in her faith and the fact that it was her husband’s choice to go to the front lines. But, like so many others in Ukraine she asked, “How many guys have to die before this ends?”

Despite the losses, families of fighters sent to the east said they viewed it as their patriotic duty to defend their nation.

Natalia Rebryk, 39, who married her husband, Anton Tyrgin, just three months before the Russian invasion, said she naïvely thought she would be spared any personal connection to the war.

“This war began twice for me,” Ms. Rebryk said. “The first time it started was the day of the invasion, and the second time was when Anton joined the arm

Mr. Brukhal’s family and neighbors gathered for a memorial in Rudne, his hometown, in western Ukraine. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
Yordana Brukhal, 13, right, said that her father felt it was his duty to join the war, even though he had been her primary caretaker after he separated from her mother last year.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Mr. Tyrgin worked in the music industry before the war and had no military background when he volunteered for the Ukrainian National Guard. He spent the early weeks of the conflict guarding strategic sites, but in early June, his unit was told that it may also be sent east.

Ms. Rebryk said worries that he doesn’t have enough training and braces herself daily for that call she hopes never comes.

“We expected it to end in two or three weeks. Then in another two or three weeks,” she said. “When you talk with the soldiers, you realize it may not even end this year.”

In Rudne, away from the chaos, destruction and death on the frontline, the war’s brutality can sometimes seem remote. While air-raid sirens still ring out, it has been months since they sent residents scrambling for shelters.

But the funerals of men like Mr. Brukhal bring it startlingly close, and others from the small community of Rudne are still fighting in the east.

Yordana Brukhal, 13, said that her father felt it was his duty to join the war, even though he had been her primary caretaker after he separated from her mother last year.

“Up until recently, I felt this war only mentally, not physically,” she said. “And since my father died, I feel it physically as well.”

At a church in Rudne, in western Ukraine, villagers gather for a service in remembrance of those who died.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Druzhkivka, Ukraine.

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