5 Ukrainian soldiers with limb-loss injuries experience first Thanksgiving in Minneapolis
On this day of thanks, the holiday food prep in a northeast Minneapolis house is a long and loving process that takes hours.
“Thanksgiving for us is a very special day,” explains Yakov Gradinar, who moved to the United States from Ukraine 15 years ago. “We see how much the U.S. has helped us, how much America helped us to become part of this country, part of this community.”
The guests of honor here are five Ukrainian soldiers who’ve lost limbs in battle.
“It’s very interesting to learn about this tradition in the U.S.,” says Dmytru Bilokorovych, a senior sailor with the Ukrainian military. “Because Ukraine doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so it’s something new for us, and we are excited about it.”
Roman Matvisiv is a senior lieutenant who was also badly wounded.
“Russians started shooting at us with mines,” he says. “One mine was very close and I got injured in my leg. Three days later I regain consciousness in the hospital and I didn’t have my leg at that time.”
For three weeks, Matvisiv and the other soldiers have been hosted by the Protez Foundation.
The Oakdale nonprofit provides free prosthetics to Ukrainians with limb-loss injuries from the war. It also provides fittings, adjustments and rehabilitation.
For these men, it’s a path to freedom and hope.
“I need to work with it more,” Matvisiv says. “I started running with it, but it’s very hard. But I feel I’ll be fully functional pretty soon.”
In July, an anti-personnel mine took off part of Bilokorovych’s right leg.
His new prosthetic, he says, is like a gift.
“It is like to be born again, so you can just walk around without any support of crutches or anything,” he smiles. “You just walk and it is exciting — a very great feeling.”
The soldiers’ visit comes as the war in Ukraine entered its 10th month.
This week it’s become especially violent and deadly.
On Wednesday, Russia fired at least 70 missiles across Ukraine, one of the largest barrages since the fighting began.
Those attacks have knocked out power to millions, even as temperatures have fallen to near freezing.
The European Union is now declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
“I believe that’s a good start for the whole world,” Matvisiv declares. “To start acting and focusing on Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and deal with it and help Ukraine finish this war faster.”
So this Thanksgiving feast in the midst of war is also a kind of farewell.
Protez Foundation members are Ukrainians who now call Minnesota home.
Since May, the foundation has provided free prosthetics to 24 Ukrainians, including 19 soldiers.
They have a goal to help 33 people by the end of the year.
“It’s very emotional for us and very fulfilling being 5,000 miles away, being able to help Ukrainians suffering,” says Gradinar with the Protez Foundation. “Right now, the system is overwhelmed, the medical field is overwhelmed, especially with now being impacted with the infrastructure, where hospitals don’t have electricity, don’t have water.”
The soldiers plan to fly home to Ukraine on Saturday.
They won’t be returning to the front lines but will take on other roles, such as working at headquarters or as training instructors.
Bilokorovych says the support from the U.S. is being felt halfway around the world.
“When we were in Ukraine, we felt the support of people of the U.S. and the whole world,” he exclaims. “So we want to thank everyone’s governments and people for the support we felt at home and felt here. Deep in our hearts, we are grateful.”