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A land mine blasted half his body. Now a Ukrainian soldier hopes Philly can help him heal.

A remote-control mine ripped Leonid Ovdiiuk head to toe when it detonated between him and another soldier

Leonid Ovdiiuk, a wounded Ukrainian Special Force soldier, photographed in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., on April 25, 2022. He was brought to the United States by Revived Soldiers Ukraine, which seeks to get wounded Ukrainian soldiers to centers here for medical treatment and rehabilitation.
Leonid Ovdiiuk, a wounded Ukrainian Special Force soldier, photographed in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., on April 25, 2022. He was brought to the United States by Revived Soldiers Ukraine, which seeks to get wounded Ukrainian soldiers to centers here for medical treatment and rehabilitation.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Freelance

The explosion was so loud, said Ukrainian Special Force officer Leonid Ovdiiuk, that it sounded as if a building had collapsed. So bright that even in the nighttime darkness it flashed like the sun.

He landed on his back, his left leg grotesquely flipped and resting upon his chest. His left side was shredded, and when he tried to speak to the other soldiers, the air escaped from holes in his neck.

A mine had detonated, killing the commander beside him and leaving Ovdiiuk choking on his own blood.

That was May 20, 2020, in the Donbas region, as Ovdiiuk fought the Russians in a war still nearly two years away from expanding into the American consciousness and onto American television screens.

Now Ovdiiuk, 36, is in Philadelphia, and in pain, his left arm mostly useless, his left leg in a brace, searching for specialized care and rehabilitation services he hopes can restore or at least improve his mobility.

“I want to run,” Ovdiiuk said. That’s his goal.

He came here through Revived Soldiers Ukraine, a nonprofit founded in 2015 that brings seriously wounded troops to the United States for advanced treatment and surgeries at facilities in New York, Orlando, Chicago, San Antonio, and elsewhere. He’s assisted by local volunteers Roman Vengrenyuk, a Philadelphia financial analyst, and Olga Dishchuk, a licensed practical nurse in King of Prussia.

“We’re looking now for a doctor who can help,” Dishchuk said. “He’s kind of losing hope.”

She and her husband, Oleksandr, invited Ovdiiuk to stay at their Huntingdon Valley home while they seek specialists who can address the particularly complicated kind of injuries inflicted by military munitions. Ovdiiuk underwent arm surgery in Boston three weeks ago, but doctors could not achieve what they hoped.

He got to Pennsylvania about a week ago.

Sitting in a soft chair on the patio of the Dishchuk family’s home, a cane gripped lightly in his hand, Ovdiiuk said he rarely thinks of that day. Or rather, he tries not to think of it.

But the memory is as embedded as the shrapnel in his torso, the details as familiar as the faces of his children.

Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in February 2014, and the next month armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, the area collectively known as the Donbas.

Ovdiiuk, a police officer by profession, signed up to serve Ukraine. For the next six years, he and his all-volunteer unit, Battalion Luhansk-1, from the city of Luhansk, fought without respite.

That day was so normal, Ovdiiuk recalled. Just another day in the war.

His unit was operating in its regular zone of responsibility, some miles from the Seversky Donets River, the Russian forces on one side, Ukrainians on the other. The battalion’s job was to ensure no enemies crossed.

Ovdiiuk and his commanding officer drove ahead of the patrol, through a heavily wooded route. One strange occurrence: A swan flew in front of their vehicle. A white swan. It seemed to come from nowhere. Later Ovdiiuk would think of it as an omen, a warning not to go farther.

They stopped the military vehicle and proceeded on foot.

Ovdiiuk was blasted from head to toe.

Neither man stepped on a mine, he said. He believes the device was triggered by remote control, a double charge that blew up four feet in front of them. The explosion on the ground was followed almost instantaneously by a second at chest level.

Human Rights Watch announced last month that Russian forces have been using banned antipersonnel mines in the Kharkiv region, north of where Ovdiiuk was hurt. The POM-3 mine carries a sensor that detects when someone approaches and ejects an explosive into the air.

Ovdiiuk spent 2½ weeks in a coma, losing more than half his body weight, down to 100 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. It took three months before he could get out of his hospital bed, more before he could walk. His lungs still are weak, the damage to his neck and spine enduring.

Initially he was treated at the Hospital of Internal Affairs in Kyiv, the capital, followed by more treatment and rehabilitation at Next Step Ukraine, a center for soldiers with spine and brain injuries.

He came to the United States seven months ago, getting care in Orlando and Jacksonville and most recently in Massachusetts.

Ovdiiuk has so much metal in his body that he cannot undergo MRIs, he said, because the magnetic pull of the machine could dislodge the shrapnel and cause greater injury. That makes doctors reliant on other imaging techniques, even when an MRI could produce more subtle information.

That’s what happened in Boston, Ovdiiuk said. Surgeons planned to move muscles from his healthy right leg into his left arm but upon incision saw that the internal condition of his arm was not what they expected.

“Now we are looking for the best possible rehab facility for him,” said Vengrenyuk of Revived Soldiers Ukraine, “because his injuries are not civilian injuries.”

Ovdiiuk is among more than 50 troops that the group has shepherded to the United States since 2015. The organization, which has received high honors from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, took in and spent $459,000 in donations, grants, and other revenue in 2019, according to its most recent public tax filing.

Last month, as Russia pounded cities and civilians, the nonprofit provided Ukraine with $2.7 million in donated ambulances, first-aid kits, bomb-shelter generators, and bullet-proof vests and helmets for medical personnel.

Ovdiiuk has been aged by wounds and worry. His wife, Hanna, and their two sons, 11 and 4, have fled and fled and fled again, and now are staying with his mother in western Ukraine.

He wants to end this loop of surgery and rehabilitation, to get better and return to Ukraine. He wants to rejoin the fight against Russia but knows that might not be physically possible.

Still, Ovdiiuk said, he could direct other troops and share his experiences and insight with them. He’s still a soldier.

“I want to go back to the military,” he said. “I want to get back on my feet.”