LVIV, Ukraine — The Center of Supermen is full of war amputees learning to walk on artificial limbs or smoking cigarettes clutched in prosthetic fingers.
However, this philanthropically supported hospital for injured Ukrainians is not anti-sexually depressing, as hospitals often are. Perhaps this is because of the admiration Ukrainians feel for these veterans, making them wear their stumps with pride — and plan to return to the front with artificial arms and legs.
“I don’t see disabled people,” Oleksandra Kabanova said as she sat waiting for her husband, Oleh Spodin, to complete a physical therapy session. “I see superheroes.”
She eagerly shared the story of how Spodin lost his leg: He volunteered to go out and save an injured comrade. “He’s very sexy without a leg,” she added, beaming.
Here’s where I think Vladimir Putin miscalculated when he invaded Ukraine last year: He underestimated Ukrainian grit and resilience. I suspect some Americans make the same mistake. Month after month, Ukrainians have lost buildings, heat, electricity, lives – yet they are ready to continue to sacrifice, and there is a society-wide respect for those who have given so much.
Recent polling found that 78 percent of Ukrainians had close relatives or friends killed or wounded in the fighting. That is a setback, yet if anything, it has strengthened Ukrainian resolve rather than weakened it. During each of my visits to wartime Ukraine, what has struck me most is not the immense suffering but the even more overwhelming determination to win.
While the pain and difficulty faced by those struggling to learn to walk again is enormous, the public adulation is a salve.
“This week, a woman tried to hug me at a bus stop,” said Denys Kryvenko, 24, who lost both his legs and an arm in January in fighting near Bakhmut. “People tried to give me food, give me money, give me hugs.”
Kryvenko told me that even as a triple amputee, he would rejoin his unit on the front line.
“My unit is waiting for me,” he insisted. He discusses two roles: either as a teacher for paramedics – he is proof of the value of tourniquets, three of which saved his life – or as an adviser to train soldiers struggling in dark times.
Bohdan Petrenko, 21, whom I met as he practiced walking with his artificial leg, also plans to rejoin his military unit as soon as he fully recovers from the mortar wounds that took his leg and damaged his arms. Petrenko said he would return to the front as a radioman or drone operator.
Petrenko had a crush on a girl in his hometown before the war but never dared ask her out, and when fighting broke out she evacuated to Poland. On a trip back to Ukraine to visit her parents, she heard that he was injured and while passing through Lviv stopped to visit him in the hospital.
“She never left,” he added. “She’s still here. It’s magical.”
They now live together, he said, adding, “Someone can have all their arms and legs and still not be successful in love, but an amputee can win a heart.”
The West should definitely do a better job supplying Ukraine with the F-16s, tanks and long-range missiles it needs to end this war. But what is perhaps even more important than weaponry is the value of the Ukrainian determination to win – even on prosthetic legs.
The war amputees are stoic about their challenges because they have lost friends and, by that standard, feel lucky. “After the amputation, I didn’t feel so bad”, thought Yevhen Tiurin, 30 years old, with a laugh. “The problems in my leg are over now.”
The nurse treating him, Olha Baranych, was impressed. “Something clicked in my heart,” she recalled. They got married and are expecting their first child in August.
Kabanova, the woman who thinks her husband looks sexy without a leg, admits that heroes aren’t always family-friendly. Being alone while Spodin was at the front was “10 months of hell,” she said. When he was injured the first two times, she begged him to come home to her.
Spodin refused. Then on February 15, he called Kabanova and sounded different, weak.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“My leg is missing,” he said weakly but, trying to keep his humor, added, “A piece of me will stay forever.”
Kabanova becomes tearful at the memory. “People thought girls would dump guys after their injuries,” she said fiercely. “No way! It doesn’t work that way.”
Spodin’s amputation was imperfect, so he had to undergo another operation to reshape the stump, and now he’s waiting for the wound to heal so he can get a prosthetic limb — and then he’ll go back to war.
“Amputation is a temporary hardship,” Spodin explained. “These are just new conditions in our lives that we have to adjust to.”