(KYIV, Ukraine) — EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers may find some images disturbing.
Andriy and Alina Smolensky were just 22 years old when they were introduced by a mutual friend at a party in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, five years ago.
“I think it was midnight,” Alina told ABC News. “We talked all night long. After that, he found me on Facebook and he wrote to me. After that, we started to chat with each other. Every day.”
The couple bonded over a shared love of music and the outdoors. Three months later, Andriy proposed, and Alina said yes without hesitation.
“I was really kind of at that point of my life [when] I understood who am I, what I want from this life,” Andriy told ABC news. “And I finally found the girl for me.”
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Andriy, like so many other Ukrainians, signed up to fight, driven by the desire to protect his country and preserve the life they had built. Even if she wanted to, Alina knew she couldn’t convince Andriy to stay out of the war.
“If he was another person, if he had another mind, I don’t know if I’d love him,” she said. “I was scared, but in the same time, I was proud of him a lot.”
Andriy began in the infantry, but with his background in IT, he eventually found himself promoted and working as a sergeant in a drone reconnaissance unit on the frontline. While leading a mission in the spring, disaster struck in the trenches. Reaching out of the trench to pick up one of their drones, a mortar shell exploded in front of his face.
“Basically this is the last moment I remember,” Andriy said. His partner froze, but Andriy, still conscious, continued to shout orders to his men.
“He thought I was dead because it’s got blown right next to my head and my hands, as I get out from the trench,” Andriy said.
Rushed to the nearest field hospital, Andriy fell into a coma. Alina, back in Kyiv, heard the news the next day.
“It was a military psychologist,” she said. “He asked me to sit down and he said that there are two news for me. The good news is that Andriy is alive. The sad news is that he doesn’t have his arms and he didn’t know if he had his eyes.”
Within 15 minutes she had packed her bag and rushed to the east to see her husband. She was allowed just 20 minutes to see him and, despite the severity of Andriy’s life-changing injuries, she was by his side. A sense of relief was her overriding emotion.
“You know, I felt happy that I’m with him,” she said. “That he’s not alone. That I am not alone, too. That we are together. Because we are family.”
Andriy lost both his arms in the explosion. But it was the news that he had also lost his sight that proved most devastating.
“After that, I had a couple of hard days,” he said at an interview in the military hospital he is staying in. “When I realize that my whole life was disappearing now. My dreams disappearing now. My career disappearing now. And the next time I come to the Carpathian Mountains, hiking with my wife, I won’t have the possibility to take her hand and see her smiling.”
With Alina’s help, Andriy tries not to dwell on those thoughts. Instead, they focus on the positives. Though badly scarred, thanks to the quick work of the doctors, the shrapnel lodged in his face did not damage his brain, for which he is grateful.
“You know, a lot of veterans came back and they cannot remember their children,” Andriy said. “I am grateful to God that I can talk, that I can hear at least [with] one of my ears. And that I can remember who I am, why I did what I did. And to be proud for myself and my family.”
He added: “In my soul I’m the same, but my appearance is a little bit changed.”
Andriy’s injuries represent the kind of family tragedy unimaginable in peacetime. But Alina has not left his side, and is learning to adjust to the complex needs of Andriy’s recovery. That emotional support, as well as the medical, is crucial in helping the wounded to live functioning lives again.
It is special “to find such a level of support, such a friendship in a family, such love,” Dr. Bohdan Vashkevych, who is supervising Andriy’s care at a military hospital in Kyiv, told ABC News. Love and support, he said, “is one of the most important factors of a successful rehabilitation.”
The complexity of Andriy’s needs — lacking both the sensitivity of touch and his eyesight — cannot fully be served by Ukraine. The couple are hopeful that, as he continues his recovery, they may have access to prosthetics abroad and new technologies in the U.S. and Europe to help regain some of his sight. For now, they are taking their recovery one day at a time.
“You know, everyone told me that ‘Alina you are so strong,'” she said. “You are doing such a lot of things. But don’t think that I do something special. That’s my husband. I love him. What else should I do? That’s not something heroic for me.”
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