BETHESDA, MARYLAND— A Ukrainian Army colonel, badly wounded while fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, is undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
Colonel Ihor Hordiychuk is a rare foreign patient at the world’s largest military hospital - which accepted him after a request from the government in Kyiv.
While the colonel heals and re-learns how to walk, he is already dreaming of returning to Ukraine and continuing to serve his country.
It was a 10-hour plane trip to Washington for the seriously-wounded colonel and his wife Tetiana. But just a day after his arrival at Walter Reed Medical Center, he was already doing the exercises necessary for his rehabilitation process.
“I feel much stronger now. I even can do physical exercises for few hours in a row,” he proudly remarked.
This is not his first visit to the United States. Hordiychuk learned English and was educated at the U.S. Military Academy.
‘Motivated beyond belief’
Hordiychuk’s physical therapist, Jessica Goodine, helps a lot of veterans go through the rehab process. But she says the Ukrainian colonel’s willpower has genuinely impressed her.
“He is a delight to work with. From day one he's been sarcastic and funny. He is able to make jokes and lighten up the situation. However, he is incredibly determined to get back to his functions and be able to come back to Ukraine and be able to help his people," she said. "He is motivated beyond belief. He is actually a type of patient I have to pull back.”
Hordiychuk was wounded in August, while leading a Ukrainian Special Forces squad behind separatist rebel lines. When finally forced to retreat, they came under fire from a “Grad” multiple rocket launcher, the colonel recalls.
“The shrapnel from the multiple launch rocket hit me here in the neck,” he said pointing to remnants of his injury. “It was the end of the helmet at that place, so my neck wasn't protected and that’s how everything happened.”
The rebels left the badly-wounded colonel bleeding on the battlefield in the summer heat for two days. They expected he would not live for more than a few hours.
His wife Tetiana believes his strong character and will to live saved his life.
“No doubt, our path to rehabilitation won’t be short. The rehab is very difficult, because he had very bad symptoms and the inflammation in his head. But thanks to doctors and God and my husband’s strong character we were able to get through this and now we are [here] alive,” she said.
Tetiana is also military - a senior member of the Ukrainian Special Forces. She says her husband had little confidence in her ability as a soldier at first. But that changed once she proved herself. Now, both of them know they have to work together very hard to get back to a normal life.
‘Faith can help’
Hordiychuk knows he has a long ahead.
“The doctors told me my traumas are too serious and, that is why it will take me almost two years to get back to a normal life. But in order to start at least walking independently … as I dream… well, I have to spend around one year practicing and learning how to walk again,” he said.
The colonel has one more operation to undergo and will then continue rehabilitation. He says he believes God will help him. In fact, he is confident it was his faith which saved him on the battlefield, when he seemingly had no chance to stay alive. For that reason, one of the first things he did, when he came to Walter Reed, was to meet with a priest. And when he felt a little better, he asked to be taken to a Ukrainian church not far from Walter Reed.
“Here I am and I think I am a good proof that faith can help you in life, when you basically have no chance,” Hordiychuk said.
The pastor at the church, St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Spring, Maryland, Volodymyr Steliac, recalls their first meeting.
“I think our conversations with Ihor actually gave me more than I could give him," he said. "This guy can teach us a lot with regard of what does it means to be devoted, to love your motherland and to value the freedom.”
Hordiychuk shares his thoughts with congregation members at St. Andrew’s about the situation on the front lines and in Ukraine in general. He also shares his determination to continue serving his country. He understands he will never be able to fight the way he did before his injury. But he says he definitely has something to teach the future generation of Ukrainian officers.