Ukraine War Amputees Get New Limbs in U.S.

The soldiers, still outfitted in camo, arrived not by cargo plane or armored carrier but by wheelchair, and formed up before a crowd bearing flags, flowers and the traditional loaves of bread.

There were handshakes, hugs and song — the Ukrainian national anthem, of course — and a few photos, but no long-winded speeches or squandered minutes.

This was the arrivals area of the Minneapolis International Airport, far from home. These soldiers had a lot to get done and not much time to do it.

Thirteen months ago, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had barely begun when Serhii Lukashchuk got the early-morning call. “They said, ‘The war has started,’ so I put on my uniform and went to the front lines,” he said.

It was his second tour in the Ukrainian Army, but just weeks after arriving in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, he stepped on a land mine, losing his right leg below the knee and part of his left foot.

Surgery followed, and still more surgery.

“And then I was in America,” he said.

Mr. Lukashchuk, 30, was part of the seventh group of Ukrainian amputees to find their way to the Protez Foundation rehabilitation clinic in Oakdale, Minn., where they were being fitted with new limbs.

Another soldier, Mykola Filonenko, sought help from the clinic at the urging of his sister after he lost his legs fighting in the region of Kharkiv. Roman Hryhorian, who lost a leg and an arm in the city of Bakhmut, got a tip about it from someone at the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

Years of hostilities with Russia and its proxies have forced Ukraine to become skilled in the art of replacing limbs, but with full-scale war in its second year, the need has become too great for Ukraine’s medical workers alone. So since last summer, Protez, a nonprofit, has been taking in Ukrainians who have lost limbs.

By this month, almost 800 Ukrainians had signed up for help, said Dr. Yakov Gradinar, the chief medical officer at Protez. So far, the clinic has equipped almost 60 people, most of them soldiers, with prosthetic devices.

“The biggest part of their success has been their determination,” said Dr. Gradinar, who spent his early childhood in Ukraine. All of the men photographed for this article volunteered for the military after Russia invaded. “That just shows their drive,” he said.

Protez, which is about 15 miles east of Minneapolis, is not like many other prosthetic clinics, which may work with amputees for months, fitting the prosthetic devices, doing physical therapy and teaching them how to use their new limbs.

“This program lasts only three weeks or so,” said Dr. Gradinar. “It’s a greatly accelerated process: from wheelchair to walking home.”

For some patients, like a civilian who lost his arm in the brutalized town of Bucha, even that felt too long.

“He said: ‘Yakov, in five days I need to be back in Ukraine. Winter is coming and I need to be taking care of city needs,’” Dr. Gradinar recalled.

Ukrainians are no strangers to tough winters, but even so, Minnesota took some getting used to. Before the soldiers began arriving, it was often frostbite that landed people in Minnesota clinics in need of a prosthetic limb.‌

“A cold welcome to Minnesota,” some joke now about their reception, which was anything but.

Gifts at the airport were just the beginning. Minnesota has a big Ukrainian community, and many people have volunteered to help at the clinic and put the soldiers up in their homes.

One of the volunteers, Toly Dzyuba, said he and his wife were consumed by anger in the early months of the war and desperate to offer meaningful help.

“It is incredible to witness the transformation that happens during the three to four weeks of rehab,” Mr. Dzyuba said. “These soldiers arrive in their wheelchairs with a broken spirit, with missing limbs. Their lives got crippled — you can see it all in their eyes.

“Within two to three days, they are able to stand and make their first baby steps. Then they can walk.”

Mr. Hryhorian said he was lucky just to be alive.

He and three other soldiers were in Bakhmut, the eastern city where fighting has raged for months, unloading a truck filled with ammunition, grenades and mines. They spotted a Russian reconnaissance drone above them. The drone had spotted them, too.

Soon, they were being hit by artillery fire.

Two of the men escaped unhurt. The third was wounded. Mr. Hryhorian, 40, lost his right arm and right leg, and ended up in Minnesota in January being fitted for new ones.

Given the cargo he was unloading, it could have been much worse. The artillery shells landed some 50 meters from the truck, he said. A direct hit may well have killed them all.

“It would have been over,” he said.

Mr. Filonenko, 22, had to argue his way into the war.

When Russia invaded, he went to his local recruiting office to sign up, but the recruiters saw only a man with scoliosis and flat feet, and sent him home.

On his third try, they relented.

Before the war, he was learning to tattoo. The ink on his right leg read “God.” On his left was a cross.

The tattoos were left on the battlefield of Kharkiv. He stepped on a mine while carrying a wounded soldier.

In late January, he returned home after finishing treatment in Minnesota.

“Now,” he said, “I want to get stronger and work on starting a family.”

The Protez Foundation, which was formed in 2022, depends heavily on donations and covers the Ukrainian soldiers’ treatment, travel and lodging costs. The soldiers help the clinic raise money — traveling, for example, to California in January to attend a fund-raiser. They also made time for some sightseeing.

Workers at the clinic realized quickly that their Ukrainian patients faced more than just the usual hurdles amputees must overcome.

“You’re surprised how many challenges they get that we here in the United States don’t think about,” Dr. Gradinar said. “For example, the lights go off — they cannot use an elevator. One of the soldiers had to go up seven floors.

“So now when I’m training with them, I started to think, ‘OK, let’s start doing stairs much sooner.’ And I’m shocked at how they can do it.”

When it was time to go home, the Ukrainians’ plans varied.

Mr. Filonenko said he wanted to go back to learning tattooing.

Mr. Lukashchuk said he hoped to relearn to walk and then go back into the army (a quarter of the 28 soldiers treated by Protez last year did just that).

Vadym Burei, who was going back to his family, might have had to explain himself a little to his wife.

Mr. Burei, 44, lost both of his legs outside Bakhmut when the vehicle he was in was hit by a Russian rocket. He had been en route to aid wounded soldiers, and had been in some of the most intense battles of the war, including in Lysychansk and Bakhmut.

“During the middle of the war,” he said, “I told my wife that I was a cook in the kitchen. Afterward, she understood how far away from the truth that really was.”

David Guttenfelder contributed reporting.

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