“Millennials come in all stripes and with all sorts of backgrounds, including some veterans of the war,” Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Ukraine at the Washington, DC–based Wilson Center, told me. “They, and others affected directly and indirectly by the war, have had and will continue to experience some of the problems that are associated with all wars—PTSD, displacement, disconnection from their families and communities. These things will necessarily complicate their prospects in every sense, including gainful employment.”Yuri, now 34, encapsulates that struggle: A father of one, he’s trying to subsist while praying his country never gets completely invaded.Yuri grew up idolizing military service—his father and grandfather were both soldiers in the Soviet armed forces—and entered Kharkiv Air Force University, before being commissioned as an officer in 2006. He left the military five years later, but when protests flared in 2014, the fledgling Ukrainian government, fresh from ousting the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych (who fled to Russia), called on former troops to protect the country from Russian-backed Separatists in the east. Yuri didn’t hesitate, though the decision has driven a wedge between him and his parents, who are based in Crimea and staunch supporters of the Russian state. Yuri says he’s been estranged from them since he decided to fight against Putin’s regime.
"Many of these military personnel are Millennials who have been sucked into the labor of war and now face uncertain prospects in a country rife with Soviet-era boomer corruption, an uneven economy, and a lack of job opportunities."
Unlike some vets, Yuri knew he needed help and has since sought free care from a therapist who works for an independent veterans support group. “She helped me to fight with this,” he said. “And now I feel much better.”Yet the war will always be there for him and others, notably those fellow vets who’ve told Yuri about showing up to work and immediately feeling the emotional gulf between their co-workers and themselves. “Many veterans suffer from problems with their bosses, who either don’t understand what is inside a veteran’s head or don’t want to keep such a person in the company, thinking, ‘That veteran is dangerous for others,’” he told me.The chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s committee for veteran affairs, Oleksandr Tretyakov, has asserted that more than 1,000 veterans of the war in Donbass have killed themselves since 2014, though the real figure is likely higher given the difficulties of tracking suicides. According to government figures, the war has produced more Ukrainian vets with post-traumatic stress than the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, in which many Ukrainians served. Meanwhile, state support for mental health is minimal, and the social stigma surrounding PTSD can discourage veterans seeking aid. And for vets in rural areas outside major metropolitan centers like Kiev or Kharkiv, where the cost of living is higher, finding adequate mental health services comes with the added barrier—and expense—of travel.
When you’re on the front lines, Yuri wrote me, “You have orders, you have your brothers, whom you can trust 100 percent, and you have your enemies. All is clear. In civilian life, things are much more complicated, enemies are [hidden], friends are uncertain.”
Not much is known about the proposed ministry or how it will support veterans in finding employment once their tours are over. “But to the extent Ukraine succeeds more broadly with its big reform agenda items—health, social welfare, anti-corruption—the new Ukraine should actually be a much better and more welcoming place for [Millennials] to rebuild their lives,” Rojansky, the Wilson Center director, added.When a soldier is welcomed home to a communal role and a sense of contributing to the collective, it’s a powerful feeling. For Yuri, life changed when he found his calling in journalism because of his need to be “more useful for my country.” He’s now the deputy editor in chief of The Ukrainian Week, a current affairs magazine, where he covers politics and the military.“I cannot predict the future,” Yuri told me, adding that he’s since conquered his bouts with PTSD. “But as a journalist I try to do my best, making this future more Ukraine-friendly.”For now, the former soldier remains in the military reserve, his weapon and gear at the ready if the call comes for him to defend Ukraine for a third time. “I see my future life only in this country,” Yuri said. “If needed, I will fight again for its independence.”Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
“Today’s veterans,” Junger writes, “often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”