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After eight months of fighting, Ukrainian infantry soldiers are exhausted

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Ukrainian forces are tired after more than eight months of war. Commanders say their forces' motivation to protect the homeland is the most important weapon in the fight, but many soldiers have not been home since the war began in February. NPR's Franco Ordoñez spoke with infantry soldiers about how they're dealing with the anguish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: The Ukrainian instructor yells at a mix of new and seasoned troops that will make up a new battalion heading to the front lines the following week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: The officer tells them to bend their knees and keep their eyes on their targets. Private Roman Semysal steadies his rifle, his aim just over another soldier's left ear. Semysal has been fighting since the first days of the war. As a medic, he's seen his share of trauma and experienced plenty himself. Speaking in a mix of Ukrainian and English, he holds up three fingers.

ROMAN SEMYSAL: Three times. (Speaking Ukrainian). I was really close to death.

ORDOÑEZ: An actor by profession, Semysal has played soldiers in movies. But he says the front line is not like any movie. There are no heroic tough guys, no Rambo-like soldier running into a fight with abandon.

SEMYSAL: (Speaking Ukrainian). They're, like, crumbling together, hiding together. (Speaking Ukrainian). They cry when they hit, when they get wounded. (Speaking Ukrainian). And they call for their mother sometime.

ORDOÑEZ: At the training camp headquarters, Junior Lieutenant Anton Penduk (ph) says fighting is not an option. He's got to do it, but that doesn't mean the war isn't taking a toll on him.

ANTON PENDUK: The biggest problem is heavy losses.

ORDOÑEZ: When he was a civilian, he says he understood that lives were lost in the war. Now he's felt it.

PENDUK: And I see it with my own eyes. It's in your soul. I understand that this happens, but when I see it, we will not be the same - never.

ORDOÑEZ: He considers himself lucky. Friends of his have been on squads who lost more than half their members.

PENDUK: Lots of problems, even psychological problems that - some people from that formations - they just need psychological help after this, very serious help.

ORDOÑEZ: Commanders are turning to morale officers and psychologists to keep up soldiers' spirits.

ANTON ZOLOTARYOV: (Through interpreter) Low morale not only kills. It also corrupts.

ORDOÑEZ: Junior Lieutenant Anton Zolotaryov is a morale officer for the battalion training at this camp in eastern Ukraine. He works to prepare soldiers for the mental hardships of a long battle. He watches over them, keeping them focused on the fight and pulling them back if their minds stray into dangerous territory.

ZOLOTARYOV: (Through interpreter) Toxic leaders or soldiers with low morale, they can be poisonous.

Toxic leader.

ORDOÑEZ: Ludmila Volter is a psychologist with the aid group Soldiers Shelter in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. She says bad morale on the front lines is contagious.

LUDMILA VOLTER: (Through interpreter) It'll spread like rings on water.

ORDOÑEZ: She says that younger soldiers have fewer reservations to speak with medical professionals than older ones do. They're more open. They share details about panic attacks and family matters back home. But the biggest challenge Volter sees most in them is survivor's guilt.

VOLTER: (Through interpreter) It's when your brother dies, and the soldier starts to condemn himself. I was in the wrong place. I should have been there.

ORDOÑEZ: That, she says, can limit their will to keep fighting.

ROMAN KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) I believe that morale and spirit in this war play a bigger role than any professional aspect.

ORDOÑEZ: Major Roman Kovalev heads the battalion. He'll lead them when they go to fight. And he says he faces challenges himself. He tells his soldiers what he tells himself.

KOVLEV: (Through interpreter) I'm telling them two things. When it's really hard and you are really tired - that is to ask yourself, why are you here, and for what reason?

ORDOÑEZ: To Anton Penduk, the answer is his family. He's tired of living out of a tent. He's tired of facing daily artillery fire. He misses his mom and her cooking. He has a pie in his tent that she recently sent him.

PENDUK: Here, I have a pie. And I eat it, and sometimes I cry. And I - so I miss it, yes.

ORDOÑEZ: Even though he's emotional, being there, he says, actually helps him. The attacks on his country drive him. One of them hit his home, the Kyiv apartment he shares with his girlfriend.

PENDUK: She told me how she survived that attack. She helped injured in those attacks. So I'm angry. I'm getting more angry every day.

ORDOÑEZ: And, he says, that is why he needs to be here.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Dnipro, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN RENNICKS' "GONE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.