First combat (of Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Budko)

April 18, 2023
This essay is written by Oleksandr Budko. Age: 26 years. Code name: Teren.
Photo credit: Oleksandr Budko (Teren)

About the author: served since 2022. Mortar, fire support platoon commander. He was injured, resulting in two legs being amputated below the knee. In civilian life, he is a graphic designer and a chef barista. He is actively engaged in sports.

First combat

My eyes flew open, as I woke to a ground-shaking barrage.

I exchanged glances with the other soldiers. Our bed was clearly divided by our four sleeping pads, made up of planks covered with a mattress and sleeping bags, and finished off with pillows placed in a row along the wall of the dim cellar.

Those shells were neither distant or rare. This was a barrage that could hit the cellar the very next moment, and none of our barricades would help us. Everything was shaking and even the shadows from the lantern were waving on the wall.

Something we still couldn't comprehend was happening. After an hour of permanent barrage we understood that they weren't just trying to "scare us". The whole team started packing and getting dressed. Our radio was silent.

"Tank," said March confidently.

"No, that's no tank, it sounds like clusters!" said Sinner, cautiously looking out through a hole in the blanket that served as a curtain in place of a door.

"Definitely -- clusters. There's too many explosions," agreed March, not so much because it was true, as just not knowing what it really was. 

And so the guys tried not to think about the possible results of the shellings, distracting themselves with chatter about anything at all, even the shelling itself.

The minutes were passing way too slowly. It was already 6 in the morning and the radio went on: "Stand-to. To all. Stand-to". What do we do?! Where do we go?! How can we work alone, without the mortar squad's hints?! After another hour, the barrage grew quieter, but didn't stop. We started to leave the cellar. We could hear the rattle of a machine gun quite close, but couldn't tell if it was ours or the enemy's.

The sun had already risen and was flooding the yard with light, its beams glinting off the dew. Chickens were walking calmly around the yard, only the dogs ran off to their hideouts with their tails between their legs after every outgoing blast. We were all looking around, trying to guess if shells were coming our way or not.

I suggested that we all go to another squad, we could defend our positions better together. Besides, we only have one tablet for two squads. I try to convince the rest of them. Nobody is supporting me, the guys insist that we start working, despite our lack of experience. We pull ourselves together and go over to our mortar and get the enemy coordinates. I'm covered in goosebumps.

I hold a 16 kg shell in my hands, drop it into the mortar, crouch down and feel the earth shake under my feet. All doubt instantly vanishes, adrenaline squeezes my heart, fear recedes, and excitement takes over. We look at each other and smile. You can hear the outgoing shell and a later we jump into the trench and break out laughing. There are explosions very close -- the trench saves us. Seconds later, we;re back at the mortar, doing our jobs. New coordinates, new targets, and we already know what to do. Something whistles over over our heads, but nobody cares, the work is in full swing, the radio doesn't stop, sweat pours down my face. Several hours pass and the enemy shelling stops. We all slow down. Fatigue takes over.

Here it is -- the war! So scary and so exciting. We understand the task and we are eager to do our job.

Your heart pounds from the insane blood pressure, your brain registers danger -- the whistling shells, and there's nothing else -- just you and death. And whose death? That depends on you as well. As it grows quiet, your heart slows down, and your brain starts to think, what would happen if...

We look at each other in satisfaction and mask our position: cover it with some shingles, throw some rubbish around. From above, it should look like a pile of rubble. I thank everyone for their work, we shake hands with each other. That was our first combat, our first independent work that could turn out to save lots of peoples' lives. We took the fight and each overcame our fears. Now we're stronger and more confident. After that, we never had doubts when making decisions. After that, we became one mechanism, one family.

This essay is made possible by the support of IREX Veteran Reintegration Program. The contents are the "sole responsibility of Recipient" and do not necessarily reflect the views of IREX.