On January 27th and January 28th, the Open World Leadership Center hosted a two-day series webinar that focused on social acceptance and reintegration of Ukrainian military veterans. Since the conflict in Donbas began in 2014, there has been a constant need to support Ukrainian veterans and provide them the necessary care and services to readjust to civilian life after serving in the military, oftentimes after returning home from dangerous battlefield conditions. This webinar addressed those needs with the help of various U.S. and Ukrainian government institutions, humanitarian organizations, and healthcare providers, and featured a wide variety of panelists representing each one of these organizations that support veterans.
Some noteworthy speakers from the U.S. side that participated in the first part of the webinar included both Co-Chairs of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and Former Ambassadors to Ukraine William Taylor and John Herbst. Other U.S. guests that participated in the second part of the event included Dr. Patricia Watson from the National Center for PTSD, and Bonnie Carroll, a military veteran and founder and president of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors).
On the Ukrainian side, the event featured Parliament members Yana Zinkevych from the Committee on Health Care, Mykola Velychkovych from the Committee on Transport and Infrastructure, and Deputy Minister on Veterans Affairs Oleksandr Tereshchenko. Other Ukrainian speakers that joined the second part of the program included Executive Director of Veteran Hub Artem Denysov, Vice President and Co-Founder of Razom for Ukraine Lyuba Shipovich, and Head of the Veteran’s Department for the International Charity Foundation “Come Back Alive” Mariia Nazarova.
This event covered a wide range of issues pertaining to Ukrainian veterans, including readjustment to life after military service and combat, job skills and vocational training, healthcare services for combat injuries and PTSD, and support for women and LGBTQ veterans.
“Many international NGOs provide veteran services,” said Mariia Nazarova, “the Ukrainian Ministry of Veteran Affairs should further develop their capacities to support Ukrainian veterans, collaboration among different organizations is key.”
U.S. Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick spoke on providing support to Ukraine’s veterans with great enthusiasm. According to Fitzpatrick, providing high quality care to Ukrainian veterans has always been a priority for the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, noting that special priority has been given to providing care for veterans suffering from PTSD.
Fitzpatrick first traveled to Ukraine when he worked as an FBI Agent; he was stationed in Kyiv, and his initial assignment was to prevent corruption in the judicial and law enforcement sectors. Since his first trip to Kyiv, Fitzpatrick has made a notable contribution to strengthen ties between U.S. and Ukrainian caucuses. “Members of Congress plan to continue providing resources to veterans’ organizations,” he stated during the webinar.
The program also featured veterans who have started grassroots organizations that focus on specific needs of certain groups of veterans. Two of these speakers were Halyna Kempouz, founder of the Women’s Veteran Movement Civic Initiative, and Victor Pylypenko, founder of the NGO Fulcrum.
Halyna Kempouz, who served as a member of a Ukrainian mechanized brigade in Donbas, strives to unite female veterans who continue to face gender issues. Some of the services provided by the ‘Civic Initiative’ include providing psychological support, commemorating fallen women veterans, offering training for new job skills, advocating for veterans who were victims of sexual assault, and showcasing the heroism of female veterans through documentaries. According to Kempouz, these documentaries were intended to help people better understand Russian aggression and provide an answer to the question: “Why did women have to fight?”
Kempouz also addressed the city-village dichotomy in Ukraine, which directly affects the quality of support to female veterans. “Most veteran support centers are located in major cities, but there are many women veterans who live in the villages,” Kempouz pointed out.
Victor Pylypenko, who served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces from 2014 to 2016, manages Fulcrum, which supports the LGBTQ veteran community throughout Ukraine. LGBTQ rights are still a sensitive issue in Ukraine, so after Pylypenko came out as a gay veteran, he wanted to show that LGBTQ veterans exist and that there are progressive, democratic changes being made throughout the country.
“When I first started the NGO Fulcrum, only a handful of LGBTQ veterans joined, probably around eight or so veterans,” Pylypenko said, “now there are around 109 LGBTQ veteran members.”
Even though the organization faces many challenges, Fulcrum continues to work on projects dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ veteran community. Some of the projects the organization is currently working on include promoting empowerment, providing medical and psychological care services, filming documentaries, and promoting LGBTQ rights and democracy in Ukraine as a whole. According to Pylypenko, many foreign allies and heterosexual organizations are very supportive of Fulcrum.
The event concluded with two presentations on the health risks of combat from Dr. Stephen C. Hunt and Dr. Patricia Watson of the National Center for PTSD. In his presentation, Dr. Hunt discussed the health risks of combat.
“When you look at the two most famous Greek epics, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the Illiad is about surviving war, the Odyssey is about returning from war,” said Dr. Hunt, “there are intense physical and psychological risks in combat; there are also a lot of accidents, sexual violence, and other factors to consider.”
Dr. Hunt proposed that in order to combat the health risks of combat, the notion of post-combat care must become a standardized process and customized for each combat veteran. Integrated post-combat care is necessary: combat care, mental health care, social work, and community integration are all parts of the veteran’s environment.
In Dr. Watson’s presentation, she stated that a recurring problem in the American VA system is that many healthcare providers do not always have a full understanding of the military, which can lead to serious errors. “These providers make assumptions about veterans’ experiences,” Dr. Watson stated, “veterans like it when healthcare providers are respectful, and they also prefer flexibility when providers give their services.”
Many veterans do not seek out help, mainly because of stigma, and also by prioritizing their families over their own well-being. This is especially evident in Ukraine since there is a stigma against psychological treatment. According to Dr. Watson, “stress first aid” is a phrase used for psychological recovery training in Ukraine in order to help get around negative perceptions associated with psychological treatment.
This two-day event ended on a positive note; speakers from both sides had the opportunity to network with one another, which could pave the way for future collaboration between U.S. and Ukrainian veteran organizations. The Open World Leadership Center has been working with Ukrainian veterans since the summer of 2014, when it first collaborated on a PTSD program with the Yale School of Medicine. Since then, the agency has hosted more than 150 veteran leaders from Ukraine in a variety of topics to further their reintegration and acceptance by society.