Why Olena Ivanenko is putting her life on the line for Ukraine

Olena Ivanenko quit her job and joined the fight for Ukraine after Russia began its invasion in February 2022. Now she's battling on the frontlines against enemy attacks while struggling with her injuries and the loss of comrades.

"In the trenches on the front, I saw every kind of cruelty imaginable," says Ivanenko. "I saw hell."

After six months of that hell, the 42-year-old suffered a serious injury and had to be evacuated for medical care. She rejoined the fighting the first chance she got, but the time away taught her that returning to "normality" after the trauma of war is no easy task.

The woman who raised her hand

Conference organized by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense to discuss mental healthcare for soldiers (July 2023)

Experts and officials from Ukraine's Ministry of Defense met in July 2023 to discuss treatments for soldiers who have suffered psychological injury.

As the hour-long meeting wrapped up, the floor was thrown open for questions. Ivanenko, dressed in a military cap and khaki shirt, quickly raised her hand.

"We soldiers face trauma on the battlefield," she said. "Those who enlist in the fight should be told it's normal to suffer various difficulties when coming home. Our commanding officers are mentally strong, but we have no access to experts who can help. That's why we need support."

For autonomy, freedom, life, and Ukraine

Ivanenko used to be a complete stranger to war, working as a food industry consultant.

Ivanenko before Russia's invasion

After Russia's invasion, she volunteered to aid evacuees. Then, last December, she applied to become a soldier. In Ukraine, men over the age of 18 capable of fighting are eligible to be conscripted. Only women with a medical or pharmaceutical specialty can be asked to do military service. Ivanenko has neither but she asked to sign up to "protect the motherland."

"For autonomy, freedom, life, and Ukraine. That's all there is. That's why I decided to fight on the frontline," she says.

She was assigned to the elite 47th Mechanized Brigade and dispatched to Zaporizhzhia Oblast, a fiercely contested area in the south. It was the frontline of Ukraine's counteroffensive to retake areas under Russian occupation.

In a video she filmed herself, she holds a large machine gun as she sits in a trench just wide enough for her shoulders. Blue tape wrapped around her helmet and arms identifies her as a Ukrainian soldier. Russian soldiers wear red tape.

Inside the trenches (June 2023)

A shell whizzes by as she crouches, drowning out the sound of her breathing. The dry bang of an explosion follows. Her face contorts at the shock.

Wounded by a shell fragment

Ivanenko served as a storm trooper. In June, a shell from a Russian tank struck at close range. She narrowly escaped death, but the shrapnel penetrated her calf.

Ivanenko being transported to hospital
Leg wound from the shell fragment

Many of her fellow soldiers died in the attack. She continued to document her experience while being transported to hospital.

As she battled the pain of her injury, she screamed: "Remember! The war is not over!"

Facing the deaths of her comrades

She was taken for treatment to Kyiv, where she attended the Ministry of Defense conference. Two days later, she met with a psychological counselor in a city park.

Her counselor had also been a frontline soldier. The two sat facing each other on an outdoor cafe bench.

Perhaps in the hope of helping her to relax, the counselor handed Ivanenko a ball. She rolled it in her hands, feeling its surface. Three minutes after they began talking, Ivanenko told him about the death of her close comrade.

She said she learned the news through social media on her way to the park. Squeezing the ball in both hands, she burst into tears.

"As I was heading to the subway, I received a message that 'Alaska' [his military code name] had passed away. I'll never forget his smile."

Alaska, Ivanenko's fallen comrade

Alaska was a 41-year-old soldier who had also returned from the front line. He had been undergoing treatment after an amputation.

"How can I get used to this kind of news?" cried Ivanenko. "I don't want to get used to this." She said in the two-and-a-half months since being injured and returning to Kyiv, she had attended the funerals of three fellow soldiers.

Funeral of a fellow soldier (July 2023)

The counselor told Ivanenko: "You are experiencing loss after loss. Putting yourself in surroundings where civilians live normally will let you gradually soften that pain." He advised her to immerse herself in a calm environment.

'This is not the city I should be in.'

But after all she had been through, Ivanenko found this no easy task.

Despite Russia's continuing attacks, most businesses in Kyiv are operating as usual. On the surface it seems as if the city is going about its everyday life. Ivanenko confessed the mental burden she feels from this ordinariness.

Kyiv in August

She recalls one day visiting a restaurant with a friend, where she witnessed a dispute between a customer and a staff member. She thought, "Why are they arguing over something so trivial when their own soldiers are fighting for life or death?" She admits she began to feel "these are not the kinds of people we should be risking our lives to protect."

She began feeling increasingly disillusioned with life in Kyiv. The fact that her comrades were still out there risking their lives made her determined to go back and join them, as soon as her injury healed.

Fleeting time with family

Doctors remove a shell fragment from the wound, but would not give her a clear go-ahead to return to the fight. Instead, she was told that if she pushed herself too hard while her wound was still healing, she might end up disabled.

Surgically removed shell fragment

"There was a hole in my leg, but luckily, the leg itself is okay," she says.

While convalescing, Ivanenko spent a brief time at home in Odesa Oblast with her family.

Ivanenko with her parents

"I stayed for about a week with my parents. We talked, I helped around the house, and we laughed a lot. We had fun. It's a warm home," she says.

But it was only a fleeting reunion, and her parents were stoic as they watched her leave, knowing she was determined to rejoin the fighting.

A lifeline purchased with personal money

Ahead of her return to the war, Ivanenko shopped for some potentially lifesaving equipment, including a new bulletproof vest. Since most supplies for Ukrainian troops are made for men, they do not fit female bodies well.

"After experiencing actual combat, I realized I needed to get better gear, so shell fragments don't get into my armpits or neck through the gaps in my protection,"

At a military outfitter near Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station, Ivanenko assessed the gear and asked the staff question. She wanted lightweight and durable armor. By the time she left the store, she had spent more than 1,000 dollars of her own money.

People to protect, motherland to defend

As she prepared to return to the battlefield, Ivanenko's friends gave her emotional support.

She pulled a photo from the breast pocket of her bulletproof vest. A message on the back read: 'We'll always be with you.' They're my dearest friends. That's Karina, Aleksandra, Katya, and me."

Ivanenko says every time she looks at the photo, her desire to protect her people and defend her motherland grows stronger.

Shadow of America

Among her accessories is an American flag patch attached to her rucksack.

"When I applied for the military, I underwent training at a base in Germany, and my instructor was an American," she explains. "I received the patch as a good luck charm. I traveled overland to Poland and took a flight to Germany."

Reason for returning

Ivanenko returned to battle on September 4, and said that while she lives in constant fear, she feels she has no choice but to fight.

"Until February 24, 2022, I lived in my own world," she says. "I didn't care about the conflicts going on in the east, like Donbas. But now is the time to protect our homes, families, ourselves, and the cities."

Ivanenko's departure

Six days after she rejoined the battle, another shell landed at close range as Ivanenko fought on the front line. She sent a video taken in the dust-filled trench, on which she can be heard yelling, "They got me! They got me!"

She later confirmed she was safe, but danger is a constant on the battlefield. Nevertheless, she says she won't leave: "We must defeat them once and for all. Only by force can we drive out the enemy from our land."