KYIV, Ukraine — When Russia first launched war against Ukraine in 2014, 23-year-old Rodion Tristan was a soldier in a frontline battalion in the eastern Donbass region. A Russian sniper’s bullet nearly killed him.
“It was a large-caliber bomb and my right eye was completely destroyed,” Tristan said in accented English. “There was a hole in my head.”
Tristan said it was a miracle he survived. His skull is now scarred and he wears an eyepatch. His left eye was also severely damaged, leaving him with only partial vision.
After being discharged from the hospital, Tristan struggled to adjust to his new appearance, his changed face, and the rejection he experienced from many women.
“When you go on a date, she looks at you, doesn’t say anything, just turns around and walks away,” he recalled. “Finding sexual partners is a problem because people say, ‘You’re disabled, no,’ and that doesn’t work.'”
Ukrainian experts say this is a rapidly growing problem since Russia began its full-scale invasion last year. It is estimated that more than 120,000 Ukrainians Soldiers were injured while defending their country.
One of the most complex parts of their recovery may involve sex and intimacy.Tristan said other soldiers asked him, “How did you struggle?” [with this]how can you bear it?
The Veterans Center, the Kyiv-based support group’s headquarters, has launched a project called “ReSex” to help veterans and health care providers address these issues.
“Sometimes it’s not easy for them to ask the question and it’s difficult for the medical staff to answer it,” said Kateryna Skorokhod, head of ReSex.
She said the organization’s message to soldiers experiencing physical and mental trauma is one of hope.
“It’s not the end of your life, you can be happy, you can be in a relationship, you can have sex, and it can be great and fun,” she said. “It’s not just sad and dark and gritty, it can be light too. .”
Using multimedia to heal veterans
ReSex has released two Ukrainian-language books, one for male veterans and one for female veterans, to provide support and guidance.
The texts offer a range of practical advice, such as how to have sex in a wheelchair, and ideas for rethinking body image and desire.
“It’s not just about physical contact. It’s about relationships. It’s about how you view yourself after an injury,” Skrokhod said.
Her team is also reaching out on social media to try to find a wider audience while also eliminating discussions about sexuality in the military.
Video posted on YouTube by Veterans Hub and ReSex Ukrainian veterans, both male and female, with severe war injuries are shown frolicking with their buddies.
“Sex after combat trauma can be serious and uncomfortable,” the film’s narrator says, “or it can be fun, playful, sexy and exciting. And best of all – make love!”
The tone is designed to be flirty and sexy. Tristan, one of the veterans, revealed an intimate moment after removing his blindfold. He looks handsome and confident.
“Yes, the videos look very provocative, but that’s a way of making them interesting,” he said with a laugh. “They definitely got people’s attention. My friends in this video Call me later.”
Rehabilitation of Ukrainians affected by U.S. war in Afghanistan
Dr. Kseniia Vosnitsyna, director of the Institute of Veterans Mental Health and Rehabilitation run by Ukraine’s Ministry of Health, said the government decided to support the ReSex program in response to negative medical information about sexual behavior circulating online. .
While it’s unclear how many veterans have received support for intimacy issues through the program, “we hope it can have an impact because people often have very little information,” Vosnicina said. “When they receive high-quality, good information from trusted experts, we hope it helps.”
It’s also difficult to assess how many veterans experience sexual dysfunction as a result of wartime injuries or trauma, Vosnicina said.
“It’s hard to put it into percentages, but the reality is there are a lot of complaints about this issue,” she said.
These books, YouTube videos, and postwar efforts to normalize discussions of body positivity and sexuality are based on Katherine Ellis, American therapist She began her career treating U.S. veterans.
“There was a large number of service members coming back from Afghanistan who had questions about sex and intimacy,” Ellis told NPR. “Service providers were often not prepared to address these issues.”
Ellis wrote a book – Sex and Intimacy among Wounded Veterans – Much of the material in the manual currently used in Ukraine is provided with her permission.
Military culture tends to be conservative, she said. Sexuality and self-image are areas where many soldiers feel particularly vulnerable after injury. Ellis said many wounded veterans also experience low libido.
“There’s a real shame in bringing it up,” Ellis said. “Body image plays such a role.”
With help and guidance, she said, many veterans recover and learn to feel good about their bodies again. She believed that sex therapy could also help with other aspects of mental and physical recovery after war.
“There are a lot of promising results. Just helping people unpack and address their sexual expectations,” she said. “They can really focus on the pleasure they feel in their body. This can be very important and empowering during the treatment process.”
Tristan said that after a lot of therapy and work, he’s doing well these days – dating, finding romance, and feeling comfortable seeing himself in the mirror.
“Yeah, okay, I lost my eye, there’s something wrong with my face, okay, but some people [are] Much uglier by birth,” he joked.
Despite the protracted war, Tristan said he hopes to eventually meet a long-term partner who accepts him and the scars that come with defending Ukraine.
“At some point, yes, for sure, my life is not over, at least right now,” he said, adding that most women he meets these days are more understanding: “If you start a conversation , I’ll have a chance.”
Veterans who worked on the sex program say that hope is crucial. They were fighting not just for survival against Russia, but for the happiness and life they believed would come after the war.
Polina Litvinova contributed to this report from Kyiv.