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The Invictus Games for Wounded Soldiers: Inside Ukraine’s Victory
30 September, 2017
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Vadym Svyrydenko, the Representative of the President on the Rehabilitation of ATO participants and a former paramedic in the 128 Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Photo credit: Serhiy Boyko/HROMADSKE

It was an unexpected victory for Ukraine. Eight gold medals, four silver, and two bronze at the Invictus Games — perhaps the most important athletic event you haven’t yet heard of.

Founded in 2014 with the active support of Prince Harry of Wales, the Invictus Games are a tournament for military servicemen and -women who have suffered life-altering injuries during war. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, US First Lady Melania Trump, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were all in attendance at the 2017 games, held in Toronto Canada from September 24 through 30.

But while the games have already been running for several years, this was Ukraine’s first time competing.

One of Ukraine’s medalists is 44-year-old indoor rower Vadym Svyrydenko, who took home the bronze. Competitive sports are a recent venture for him. In 2015, he lost his legs and hands near Debaltseve, where he served as a paramedic in the 128 Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Svyrydenko and his comrades were leaving the city when their car hit a mine. He was the only passenger to survive.

As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Representative on the Rehabilitation of Anti-Terrorist Operation [ATO]* Participants, Svyrydenko is now caring on the legislative level for those injured during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Hromadske spoke to Svyrydenko about the “Invictus Games,” his work, and the possibility of establishing a Ministry of Veterans Affairs in Ukraine.

*Anti-Terrorist Operation is the legal name for Ukraine’s military operations in the east.

Injury & Rehabilitation: From Ukraine's Debaltseve to Washington

I sustained two injuries when our Brigade was surrounded, near Debaltseve. Our convoy was destroyed as we were trying to escape. Cold and alone, I waited inside the wrecked vehicle for four nights.

Vadym Svyrydenko, the Representative of the President on the Rehabilitation of ATO participants and a former paramedic in the 128 Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Photo credit: Serhiy Boyko/HROMADSKE

Scouts from the [self-proclaimed] “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) found me and took me to the “basement” of [a building the formerly housed the local branch of] the Security Service of Ukraine in Donetsk. They provided me with medical assistance. Due to my worsening condition, a decision was made to exchange me for another prisoner of war. It became clear that if I didn’t receive proper medical attention, it would be too late. After the exchange, I was taken to a burn center in Kyiv by helicopter, where I underwent amputation, rehabilitation, and received treatment. And in August, I was sent to rehab in Washington.

There, specialists examined me, tested my walking (in a straight line, up and down the stairs) and my physical endurance. They asked me what I was doing before the war and what I wanted to do in the future. They then provided me with my own personalized program and timeline.

I was in Washington for eight months. The programs there are individualized — one person went home after two months, and one guy had been there for already two years. I saw how other guys were training — running and swimming — and I also wanted to do that. The facilities there are adapted for this — the tracks, the pools. I started training and increasing the load [on myself].

Psychologists were always present at the trainings. It’s a whole different level of trust involved when they are always by your side. Initially, they carried out testing and then they only observed. They made sure that there were no conflicts between the Americans and us. Their boys are also in rough shape.

We got along well with the American veterans. They know about the war in Ukraine. The Americans even showed their respect to Ukrainians by rising to their feet and playing our national anthem when we entered the training room.

The Ministry of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitating Veterans

As the Representative of the President on the Rehabilitation of ATO participants, I am responsible for physical, psychological, and neurological rehabilitation. There are a lot of issues: the lack of specialists, rehabilitation centers, etc. We are in negotiations with the Ministry of Social Policy to receive money for servicing prosthetic limbs. There are presidential decrees, but they are being implemented slowly. Not everyone wants to do it. Some lack money, others lack determination.

Vadym Svyrydenko (right) and the coach of Ukrainian National Team in the Invictus Games during training  Photo credit: Serhiy Boyko/HROMADSKE

Our priority is to create a rehabilitation center with foreign specialists, as soon as possible, for people who were in captivity. Because they have been forgotten.

We are also thinking about establishing a Ministry of Veterans Affairs, which is more encompassing than a Ministry of Rehabilitation. Already we are dealing with veterans from not only the ATO, but also from Afghanistan and World War II. The President supports this initiative.

We reached out to American, Canadian, and Croatian veterans. The Croats said that before they created such a ministry, there were many suicides, and many issues were not resolved. I’m not saying that everything is bad — the specialized ministries are working, but I believe that veterans themselves should be in control.

When nobody from the Ministry of Social Policy and the Ministry of Health wants to take responsibility, the Veterans Ministry should coordinate their work for them. The plan was to launch the Ministry in the fall, but bureaucracy is delaying the process.  

But I couldn’t be a minister. The minister has to be someone different — a manager who can delegate, and who can be trusted by veterans. He or she does not necessarily have to be an ATO veteran, but veterans should know that individual. Because otherwise, that person will be tossed out. (laughs)

Maybe we will have a model ministry, and maybe nothing will happen. It depends on the people involved, so the team needs to be good. You can’t just show off and say, “I am a veteran, and I’ll kick your ass." You need to work hard.

The “Invictus Games”

Training is a step-by-step process. At first, we trained twice a day. But you need to slow down a week before the competitions to avoid fatigue. Otherwise, it would be too stressful in Toronto. We also had coaches who managed everything.

Ukraine’s Invictus Games team training at the gym. (Bottom photo shows Vadym Svyrydenko) Photo credit: Serhiy Dunda/HROMADSKE

We are not a Paralympic team. Our athletes are already injured, with concussions, wounds, torn limbs, and broken spines. This event is like an effective physical and psychological rehabilitation for all of us. The fact that Prince Harry launched the “Invictus Games” is amazing. We had an opportunity to participate in the games, which is beneficial for our country, our veterans, and for people with disabilities.

We already achieved so much just in our training. That’s why we say: “Medals are important, but so are people's lives.” We went after the medals, but the main thing is that the people who were once lying on the ground are now running, swimming and showing such outstanding progress.

/Translated and adapted by Tanya Bednarchyk