Ukrainian soldiers near the front lines are mastering the art of first aid. The ability to apply tourniquets, bandages, and assist wounded comrades can mean the difference between life and death.
Ukraine, October 15, 2023: Near the front lines of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, soldiers face a daily struggle for survival. In this unforgiving environment, a split-second decision to administer first aid can be the fine line between life and death. As the battle rages on, Ukrainian soldiers are honing their first aid skills, mastering the crucial techniques of applying tourniquets, bandages, and providing care for their wounded comrades.
Victor Pylypenko, a 36-year-old medic in the 72nd Ukrainian brigade, stresses the significance of this training. “It’s crucial training, because every soldier needs to know how to save his own life and that of others nearby,” he emphasizes.
The brutal reality of this conflict is evident in the countless soldiers who have been wounded or killed, although the exact numbers remain undisclosed by both Kyiv and Moscow. In the town of Kurakhove, just 15 kilometers from the eastern front, 15 soldiers from Pylypenko’s unit gather for an intensive first aid course, led by a dedicated intensive care nurse, Mossy, who is an Australian volunteer.
The training begins indoors, but quickly transitions to practical field exercises in the undergrowth. Here, the soldiers practice the vital skill of applying tourniquets to stop severe external bleeding, a condition that can lead to death within minutes. Each soldier is equipped with an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK), which includes one or two tourniquet straps. These straps, measuring approximately 70 centimeters and equipped with a twisting handle, can staunch bleeding effectively by gripping the limb above the wound.
Pylypenko explains, “The most common wounds in the field are (shrapnel) wounds in the limbs,” highlighting the grim realities soldiers face. Additionally, injuries to the chest and back are not uncommon, as bulletproof vests don’t provide complete protection.
The proper use of tourniquets is crucial. “There are frequent cases of massive haemorrhaging, and tourniquets have really saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives,” Pylypenko underscores. However, he also points out a disturbing issue – the quality of tourniquets provided to soldiers. “The government provides us with IFAKs, but they are not always good quality,” Pylypenko laments, mentioning “fake tourniquets that are deadly on the battlefield.”
Ukrainian NGOs and combat unit nurses have criticized the government for the lack of standardization and poor quality of first aid equipment provided. In response to this backlash and after 19 months of war, Ukraine’s defense ministry has recently announced the creation of a medical department within its ranks. Deputy Defense Minister Natalia Kalmykova states, “We are working with our Western partners on the possibility of a rapid decision to confirm the quality of tourniquets produced in Ukraine.”
During the training, Mossy advises soldiers to scrutinize the origin of their equipment. He notes, “I can’t read the language on some” first aid items, emphasizing the need for clarity in equipment. Most soldiers have undergone first aid training and applied it in combat, but trainers stress the importance of regular practice.
To illustrate the necessity of this training, Mossy recounts a tragic incident where soldiers had applied a tourniquet to a wounded man, which later loosened during transport. “They didn’t think to check the tourniquet while they were transporting him. It came off, and their friend died on the stretcher,” Mossy mournfully recalls. He emphasizes the critical nature of constant review, stating, “You have to continually revise (knowledge). It comes with training and experience, but unfortunately, these lessons are learned in blood.”
For soldiers like Vasyl, a 52-year-old sergeant who has been wounded three times in this ongoing conflict, basic medical knowledge has been a lifeline. Vasyl has learned that this knowledge “enabled me to survive three times.” As the second year of the war draws to a close, he acknowledges that those who remain have learned to survive.
Similarly, for 39-year-old Arkady, the chaotic nature of combat makes it difficult to always understand what one is doing in a stressful situation. He emphasizes the importance of being constantly reminded of these first aid gestures, as they can save lives – their own and those of their comrades.
In this grueling conflict, the ability to provide first aid has become a critical skill for Ukrainian soldiers, not only as a means of preserving their own lives but as a lifeline for their fellow soldiers. The ongoing battle underscores the importance of well-maintained and quality medical equipment, and the significance of regular training to ensure that soldiers can perform these vital tasks in high-pressure situations. As the conflict continues, Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines are determined to be ready to save lives at a moment’s notice.