Watch CBS News

Ukraine's troops get help for PTSD, but then head straight back to brutal trench warfare on front lines

Ukraine military treats PTSD on battlefield
Ukraine military medical program targets symptoms of PTSD during war 03:10

Kharkiv, Ukraine — A year of intense fighting in Ukraine — often hand-to-hand in muddy trenches, has taken a brutal psychological toll on a military built largely of volunteers. Many Ukrainian soldiers have found help at treatment centers that identify and respond to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

CBS News visited one of the centers, near the front lines in the city of Kharkiv, and found soothing music playing in a room bathed in shifting pastel shades and scented with pleasant aromas like citrus and lavender.

Soldiers come to such places straight from the battlefield, with the horrors of the war still fresh in their minds. While it looks a little like a spa, the center is in fact providing desperately needed psychological first aid to traumatized fighters — and crucially, the therapy is provided during war, instead of after it.

Ukrainian soldiers sit in a salt therapy room at a psychological treatment center run by the Invincibility Foundation project in Kharkiv, Ukraine, where they get help for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. CBS News

The center is run by the Invincibility Foundation project, started by Ukrainian Lt. Col. Oleksandr Vasylkovsky, a trained psychologist who fought against Russian-backed separatists in 2014, after Moscow seized Crimea

He knows the dangers first-hand, having suffered from acute PTSD during that stage of his country's conflict with Russia — but at that time, there were no programs set up to help him. He told CBS News it was only with the help of his wife and family that he was restored to full mental health.  

"This is aimed at minimizing psychological losses, because according to the old canons of war, an army only provides psychological help after the fighting is over," he explained, stressing that such help was clearly desperately needed long before that.

"A person's psychology is very fragile, and you can lose a person in a second," he said, adding that once that happens "that person loses himself, firstly, and secondly becomes dangerous for the society."

Along with a salt room for meditation, the center in Kharkiv also offers yoga, water sports, counselling and sleep therapy, all aimed at healing battered bodies and bruised hearts.

"I am rather tired, to kill another people (sic)," Andriy, one of the soldiers at the center, told CBS News during a week's break from defending the besieged eastern town of Bakhmut.

Inside the high tech battle for Bakhmut 02:28

A former businessman, the father of two has faced waves of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, who Ukrainian commanders say were hurled at the front line near Bakhmut like cannon fodder for weeks.

'We can kill 10, 20, 50 of them," he said. But they just kept coming.

The Ukrainian conflict has largely been an artillery war, but increasingly in the east, it's being fought in extremely close quarters, and that makes it more personal.

Ukrainian and Russian troops battle just feet apart 02:25

"Actually it's very difficult to kill people in direct combat," Andriy said. "When you are involved in a direct combat, you understood — you see, you feel everything."

Andriy now instinctively dives for cover when he hears a loud bang, and he's tormented by repetitive, dark thoughts.  

Ukrainian soldier Andriy walks and speaks with CBS News correspondent Debora Patta outside a psychological treatment center in Kharkiv, Ukriaine, in Februay 2023.  CBS News

He said he was left exhausted ad "rather nervous," and he was desperate to talk to someone.

"A psychologist helped me to clean my mind a little," he said. "Because it is not normal for people to kill another… it's not normal."  

Andriy said he did feel a little better, but a week was not enough, and a looming Russian spring offensive has already drawn him back to the front lines.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.