December 2, 2023

RODNEY, Ukraine – Yuri Brukhal, an electrician by trade, wasn’t playing a very dangerous role when he volunteered for the Ukrainian Regional Defense Forces at the start of the war. He is assigned to deliver cargo and personnel to a checkpoint in his quiet village in relative safety.

Weeks later, his unit had spread from his home in the West to a front-line battle in eastern Ukraine, the center of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. He was killed on 10 June.

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

Their deaths drove home how far the war had reached every community across the country, even those far from the front. He also highlighted the risks faced by volunteers with limited training, who are increasingly turning to the type of battles that test even the most experienced soldiers. Their bodies were brought back to fill cemeteries in largely quiet cities and towns in the west of the country.

“He was going there to protect us here,” said Vera Dutsko, 52, Mr. Brujal’s older sister, praising her brother’s patriotism. “But it is a tragedy for us – so painful – that the best of our nation will die in this war.”

At the start of the war, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were forbidden to leave the country but were not automatically conscripted, and many volunteered to fight. Volunteers in the country’s territorial defense forces, and reserve units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were initially assigned unattractive but safe tasks in relatively quiet regions such as western Ukraine, where the Russians had not invaded. But the heavy losses in manpower in the Donbass, where Russia is advancing with fierce bombardment and bombardment, forced the Ukrainian army to withdraw reinforcements from the west.

Many fighters like Mr. Brukhal, who have no prior military experience, are simply unprepared for this escalating level of combat. The training they receive is limited – sometimes two weeks or less.

The volunteers in the territorial defense group are not forced to redeploy with their unit, but many do so out of patriotism or a sense of duty, and perhaps a desire not to let their comrades down. The veterans say they know it will be bad at the front, but there is not much to prepare them for the violence of engagement on the front lines.

“These are people of peaceful professions, people of peaceful regions,” said Col. Valerie Corco, commander of the 103rd Territorial Defense Brigade, where Mr. Brujal served.

Colonel Corco said that most of the people who joined his group had never served in the army. He said the idea that people could spring into action when war was approaching was wrong. By that time it was too late.

His brigade, currently stationed in the eastern Donetsk region, consisted of men from the Lviv region. Colonel Kurko said several men had died in the past month, and at least three were buried in Lviv at the beginning of June.

He said that despite the time constraints, they are receiving basic skills and training, but acknowledged that the morale of the unit had undoubtedly changed.

“I will not 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.

He admitted that the relentless artillery bombardment “is a challenge that not everyone can meet,” and added that some families have questioned why their husbands and sons are required to spread outside their areas of origin without training.

Efforts to move more regional soldiers with limited training east led to the destruction of some units.

A regional defense company of 100 soldiers from across 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.

One of the soldiers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics, said the regional defense soldiers did not expect this kind of fierce engagement. “And here we ended up on the front line, like pedestrians sitting in trenches,” he said.

The accounts from the half-dozen Territorial Defense soldiers interviewed in this article were pretty much the same: they were trained as glorified guards during the early months of the war and then, as casualties mounted, they were sent to the front.

The Kyiv unit was also given the option to go east, and these men were soon attached to a regular Ukrainian military unit. Soldiers defending the area said that they only had rifles, machine guns, and a few anti-tank weapons that we had supplied from the west.

They lacked the only weapon that marked the war in recent months – artillery. They also had few ways of communicating with the units that had these heavy weapons.

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

“We are torn to shreds, people are falling like flies, and why are we here?” said the soldier. “It’s not clear.”

These types of deployments are starting to appear small protests As wives, mothers and daughters of some of the deceased express their dissatisfaction.

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

Before leaving for the war, he was building a house for his two daughters. In a memorial two weeks after his death, villagers gathered to pray around a long table inside the house, its stone walls still exposed, and food was distributed in front of them.

Mrs. Datsko, his sister, said it was the first meal in the house that had not yet been completed.

“It is very horrific when you see what is happening in the cemetery, and you do not know when it will stop,” she said, contemplating the rows of new graves that have appeared in the Lviv Military Cemetery since her brother was buried. “We will have many women without husbands and children without fathers.”

Oksana Stepanenko, 44, is also grieving with her daughter, Maria, 8, whose husband, Andrey Vertev, was murdered on May 15.

Like Mr. Brukhall, he was a volunteer tasked with protecting an overpass on the road during the early weeks of the war. He then joined the army’s anti-aircraft unit, and redeployed to the east.

His death added a new level of pain to the family. Artur, the son of Mrs. Stepanenko, died of an illness at the age of 13 three years ago. Now, a corner of their little 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 her husband was his choice to go to the front lines. But she, like many other people in Ukraine, asked, “How many men must die before this is over?”

Despite the losses, the families of the fighters who were sent to the east said that they considered it their patriotic duty to defend their homeland.

Natalia Rebrik, 39, who married her husband, Anton Tergin, just three months before the Russian invasion, said she naively believed that she would prevent any personal connection with the war.

“This war has started twice for me,” said Mrs. Rebrick. “The first time he started was the day of the invasion, and the second time was when Anton joined the arm

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

Ms Rebryk said she was worried he wasn’t getting enough training and was preparing daily for that call that she hopes will never come.

“We were expecting it to be over in two or three weeks. Then in another two or three weeks.” “When you talk to the soldiers, you realize that it may not end this year.”

In Rodney, far from the chaos, destruction, and death on the front line, the brutality of war can sometimes seem distant. And while the sirens still sound, months have passed since it prompted residents to seek shelter.

But the funerals of men like Mr. Brukhall bring her amazingly close, and others from Rodney’s small community are still fighting back in the East.

Jordana Brukhal, 13, said her father felt it was his duty to join the war, even though he was her primary caretaker after his separation from her mother last year.

“Until recently, I only felt this war mentally, not physically,” she said. “And since my father passed away, I feel that physically as well.”

Thomas Gibbons Neff And the Natalia throws you Reporting contributed from Druzhivka, Ukraine.

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