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Proud 08:30 06 Dec 2022

"We're always on duty." Stories of Air Defense Heroes who keep our sky safe

On the occasion of f Ukraine's Armed Forces Day, we talk about people who protect our sky.

On land, water, and in the sky. Thousands of defenders from the Ukrainian Armed Forces protect Ukrainians from the war with their backs. These men and women have been on round-the-clock duty for more than nine months, sacrificing their sleep, health, and sometimes their lives to protect their country.

"Warning! Air raid," "Missile danger," "All-clear," and "Air defense is working" — these are the words that have firmly entered our daily life. Who is behind these messages?

On Ukraine's Armed Forces Day, we talked with defenders from the East Air Command.

"I also tell my guys: the goal is key. I've moved toward it and continue to do it"

Сергій Воронін з Одещини, старший лейтенант радіотехнічних військ Повітряних сил ЗСУ

Serhii Voronin from the Odesa region, a senior lieutenant of the radio engineering troops of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Since his teenage years, Serhii Voronin from the Odesa region has been hanging around family cars. The boy learned to drive quickly; he had a knack for it and liked to repair cars. He could work on his father's Zhiguli car for hours. "I was interested in working with technology," says Serhii Voronin.

2013-2014. 17-year-old Serhii watched what was happening in his Ukraine. Peaceful rallies, shootings in the center of the capital, the Maidan protests across the country, the occupation of Crimea, and russia's military aggression…

The boy barely waited until he was of age to say, "I want to serve," at the military enlistment office. And then, he began his military career in the radio engineering troops of the Air Force of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. "The main task is providing radar information, combat work, and intelligence," says Serhii. And, of course, at radio engineering troops, the critical thing was working with technology, which the young man liked so much.

Radio-engineering troops are troops within the Air Defense Forces, the Ground Forces, and the Navy. It's intended for conducting radio-technical surveillance of air, land, and sea enemies, identifying detected targets, and notifying the Air Defense Forces of the country, other types of armed forces, Civil Defense, ensuring the guidance of fighters on the target, the actions of anti-aircraft troops and the performance of different tasks.

After training in the unit of the radio engineering troops, Serhii, together with his comrades and equipment, went to the anti-terrorist operation zone. It was the beginning of 2015. Serhii Voronin was a grenade launcher in the Donetsk region. The guy remembers that he had not many tasks: to protect the unit from attacks, sit in a trench, and shoot. Following these simple duties, private Voronin observed how everything was built into the service members' work and noticed how his managers worked. The boy had a strong desire to become a part of the army system in the future.

"I wanted to be a good, understanding, intelligent commander who makes decisions. I wanted to learn this," says the senior lieutenant almost eight years after those events. The guy felt ready for frequent moves, new cities of service, and many tasks. The desire to defend his country was more potent than anything else.

Serhii Voronin entered the Radio Engineering Forces Faculty at Kharkiv National Air Force University. During his studies, the man married. Then a son was born into a young family.

After graduation, the defender chose to serve in the Kharkiv brigade, considered the best among the graduates. Voronin performed combat missions in Kramatorsk, the position closest to the enemy. Service, uniforms, work with the equipment, and rare visits to the family—the everyday life of an officer changed one after another. It was like that until February 24.

On the night of the full-scale invasion, the enemy shelled the positions of Serhii Voronin's company. The senior lieutenant was engaged in ground defense, placing people in positions to repel an attack. Due to the lack of communication, it was not clear where to expect an attack. "We knew that rocket attacks were coming, and, as books say, an attack by the ground enemy forces comes after such attacks," says Serhii Voronin.

The defenders were waiting for the enemy, but nothing happened. So they returned to performing tasks of a different nature. "Missiles are landing near us; we will get out of the warehouses, shake the ground, and continue to repair the equipment. It has worked overtime since the beginning of the war. And as is typical of any technical means, it broke down," says Serhii Voronin.

The senior lieutenant says that the work of radio engineering forces is painstaking and, at first glance, not very noticeable. "Enemy planes are afraid when air defense stations highlight them because it means they will be hit. Our radar field is not so visible. However, by giving the necessary information to other units in time, we cause them great damage. That is why, from the first hours, the enemy tried to destroy units of the radio engineering troops throughout Ukraine to take over our skies," says the senior lieutenant.

In September, a team arrived to redeploy Serhii Voronin's separate radar platoon to the liberated land of the Kharkiv region. On September 14, the defenders set out in two cars to inspect the area, looking for and determining new positions for the fighters. While checking the site in the Izium district, the vehicles drove into a field with anti-tank mines. There were no signs.

Several mines didn't work, but one still detonated just under the passenger seat of Serhii Voronin. After the explosion, the man quickly regained consciousness. He immediately understood he had lost his right leg. "There was a lot of blood. The second leg was also crushed. The boys clamped my leg as hard as they could and took me to the nearest medical center. The doctors provided first aid, collected my left leg, bandaged my right leg, and gave me painkillers. Then I remember everything in fragments. Sometimes I woke up; then I lost consciousness."

Serhii stayed in Kharkiv for a day. Then he was taken to Kyiv by helicopter. When he woke up in the hospital, he saw that he no longer had both limbs. The doctors could not save the second leg, so it was amputated.

Сергій Воронін із сином

Serhii Voronin with his son

"Surgeons saved knees in Kyiv. When one has knees, it is good for prosthetics. I was sent to the Lviv region a little over a month later. Here I am undergoing rehabilitation and doing sports to get back on my feet sooner," says Serhii Voronin.

Massage, therapy, rehabilitation, and gyms are the defender's daily schedule. The man is feeling well, little by little preparing for prosthetics. He says that wanting to walk alone will not be enough. The critical thing is the quick adaptation of the body to the steel legs. Serhii Voronin hopes to be on his feet in a few months.

"I also tell my boys: the goal is key. I've moved toward it and continue to move. I learned, studied techniques, aspired to some heights, and achieved them. I dreamed and still dream of becoming a great boss and commander. One who carefully plans and considers everything and has everything working like clockwork. I have everything ahead of me! Missing some body parts is not a sentence, and I'm not going to stop!"

"If we shot down a missile, no one knows how many were saved"

Ігор з Полтавщини, майор зенітних ракетних військ Повітряних сил ЗСУ

Ihor from the Poltava region, a major in the anti-aircraft missile forces of the Air Force of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

Ihor from the Poltava region joined the armed forces at 21. The young man was persuaded to apply to the anti-aircraft missile forces faculty during admission to the Kharkiv National Air Force University. After graduating from the university, he served in Dnipro in the 138th anti-aircraft missile brigade. From 2014 to 2020, he went through many positions: deputy commander of the weapons division, battery commander, department head, and department service chief. But in 2020, the man had to leave the service due to family circumstances.

Ihor was out of military service for a year and a half. He missed what he was good at and what he liked. He was constantly in touch with former colleagues, often calling them. The full-scale invasion of February 24 caught the man abroad — he was working in Poland. But he quickly returned to Ukraine.

"If we can do it, love it, and know it, then why not. Why not go and defend your native country? This is our duty," says Ihor. Since March 22, the major has been on 24-hour duty in the anti-aircraft missile forces. He managed to return to his native brigade.

"I remember the launches of our first rockets at enemy targets; it was such a pleasure. Because until 2022, the test site and launches were something like 'wow' for us, but now it's practical."

Per estimates, he shot down about 50 air targets, and the brigade had 200. The man says that at the beginning of the full-scale war, the enemy launched missiles in a straight line, and now they are maneuvering, trying to evade Ukrainian air defense: "The speed and height of the missiles change." The enemy is learning and using new weapons and drones, but air defense is constantly improving.

Defenders from anti-aircraft missile forces worry when they fail to shoot down an enemy target. They understand that their complexes are not all-powerful, but they still analyze every enemy launch and how they could have avoided it.

"If we shot down a rocket, no one knows how many were saved; how many apartments, houses, and factories survived. And when you miss or lose your goal, it's hard. Especially if we find out that there are 200s, 300s (killed and wounded, — ed.). After the shelling, we think about improving our work to avoid it," says Ihor.

Many types of missiles and drones passed through the "hands" of Ihor and his brothers during these nine months. The major jokes, "It's good that the Shahed [Iranian drones] appeared in the fall. Not in the summer, when people walked around with mowers. Then everyone would have scythes sticking out of their backs."

During large-scale air raid alarms, equipment readiness lasts 5-6 hours. Tea break, and again 5-6 hours. If there are no air threats, the defenders give the equipment a rest, check the weapons, repair them and deal with paperwork. Ihor says that everything depends on personnel who understand their responsibility.

Major Ihor himself travels from the Dnipropetrovsk region to his native Poltava region once a month to spend some time with his family. He says they try to let everyone go from time to time to rest. Currently, a kitten, Mukha, was adopted by the air defense unit; a volunteer brought it. The boys thought he would catch field mice, but while the defenders protect the sky over Ukraine, the cat only plays, eats, and sleeps. 

Major Ihor says, "We are always on duty. The service staff was put on duty after restoring armament, out of order on February 24, and has been on duty until today." 

"Our work can be compared to a submarine that has buried itself under the water. From there, it quietly analyzes everything"

Іван Шрамко з Вінниччини, бойовий медик радіотехнічних військ Повітряних сил ЗСУ

Ivan Shramko from the Vinnytsia region, combat medic of the radio engineering troops of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Ivan Shramko is from the city of Nemyriv. The guy is a doctor, received a specialty in orthopedics and traumatology, worked in a private clinic, and then as a pharmacy manager. At the beginning of 2022, Ivan Shramko planned to move to Germany with his family. He had already passed the language exam and had a contract with a foreign clinic in hand. But russia's full-scale invasion began.

The husband immediately sent his wife Valeria and two daughters abroad while he remained in Ukraine. The doctor volunteered and conducted tactical medicine training for soldiers. When he got a call from the military enlistment offices, he mobilized.

Ivan Shramko admits it was scary because, at the end of spring, there was much news about the losses of Ukrainian defenders. The man was offered to become either a rifleman in the infantry or a combat medic. Ivan decided to join the army according to his specialty: "Why disperse potential if I can bring benefit in my place."

A month of training, exams, and division into teams has passed. "I joined the radio engineering troops. The focus was on where there is a need for medics, not where you want to go," says Ivan Shramko.

Military baptism, as the man himself calls it, happened shortly after taking the oath. Ivan was not far from the place where the enemy rocket landed. "From the strong explosion, I had an impression that we were hit right at us. But no, a little further. With the permission of the commander, I went to help."

That was the first time Ivan Shramko encountered the victims of a rocket attack. The medic sorted the rubble, got people out, and provided them with assistance. "It was very stressful. At that time, I had no combat experience. Although I am a traumatologist and have seen various injuries from accidents, here, everything was different. People are running around in a state of shock, the remains of the building should be sorted out, and help should be provided quickly," says the medic.

Now Ivan Shramko is in positions in the Donetsk direction. "Radio engineering troops are the eyes of the Air Force. Everything starts with them, " says the doctor and adds: "We announce the air raid siren you hear in your cities. We are the ones who see threats and report them. "Girls and boys, hide. Scoundrels are flying." Our boys are entrenched in the soil of the Donetsk region, Kharkiv region, and Zaporizhzhia region."

Thanks to the technology, defenders from radio engineering troops collect information about enemy targets in the sky, then pass it on so that other defenders prepare to shoot them down.

"Our work can be compared to a submarine that has buried itself underwater, quietly analyzing everything from there. We are in secret positions that no one should know about. They say that we are not in direct contact with the enemy. But our troops are the primary targets for enemy air forces and reconnaissance and sabotage groups because we hold the airspace. The enemy aircraft will feel very free if we are not on duty. If planes fly in, who will stop them?"

Ivan Shramko recalls that there were cases when the enemy could launch a dozen drones at one position to eliminate at least one radio engineering troops locator. "We are in relative safety, but it is illusory safety. Something can fly in at any moment," says the doctor.

Among the tasks of Ivan Shramko is to monitor the state of health of the military and to worry about their lives. "The work of a military medic in the artillery troops, air force, and infantry is almost no different. People die from the same thing: bleeding, respiratory arrest, or heart failure. And it doesn't matter how a person got this injury."

Ivan's position is in an open area; during several hours of shifts with equipment in the steppe, the defenders are windblown to their bones. "Arctic wind," says Ivan. Because of this, during the autumn-winter transition period, the military got sick a lot. But now they are used to the cold. They warm themselves in a small dugout between shifts.

During the break, Ivan Shramko communicates with his daughters via video link. They resent him because they haven't seen their father for a long time. They ask how dad is doing. Did he wear a hat? And how many rockets did you shoot down?

"You can't explain why I need to be here to small children. We all have already lost something in this war. And the worst thing is that everyone lost not something but someone. And I think we have no right to sit on the sidelines," says the doctor. Ivan is greatly inspired by his brothers, whose health and lives he takes care of. These are men who left occupied Mariupol.

"They saved their lives and equipment, which brought many benefits to the anti-aircraft missile forces. But the boys themselves have nothing: families, houses, and cars. Everything remained in Mariupol. No matter what, these heroes are with us in the field. When rotations happen, guys don't even have anywhere to go. Imagine how difficult it is to serve them and how much pain they experience and feel. They gave everything to the state."

Ivan is sure that thanks to such defenders, everything is holding on in the free lands of Donbas. "They are quiet and inconspicuous, but they do an essential job. It's like electricity. There is light; that's good. But as soon as it disappears, you immediately notice something is wrong, and it's not what you wanted anymore." 

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