In a war where many of those fighting are barely out of their teens, Konstantin, at 35, was already considered a veteran.
His military CV read like a scroll of the most brutal frontline postings in eastern Ukraine: Bakhmut, Lysychansk and other small towns that have been pulverised by Russian artillery.
Then, one day last August, he stepped on a landmine. In October doctors gave up trying to save his foot and amputated his lower leg.
When I met Konstantin at the Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedics in central Kyiv a little over a month ago, he was waiting for a prosthetic.
“I don’t know what happens next in my life,” he said. “But if I can’t go back to the army I want to set up a private rehab centre for veterans. There are lots of others like me out there and they need help.”
In 2021 we ran our first wounded veterans programme at Wild Bear Lodge. In September that year, with the business closed because of Covid, we brought five injured veterans – two Canadians and three Brits – to the lodge.
The idea behind that programme was to share wilderness skills. The veterans teamed up with four of us – all professional outdoor guides - and for a week we each showed each other what we knew: how to track animals, how to move undetected in the alpine, advanced chainsaw skills.
I have never much believed in treating people purely as victims. Even when we are hurt or injured we still have a role to play, and my experience has been that contributing is often beneficial for the donor not just the recipient.
So the programme was based on the idea that while we were offering the veterans something, we were also asking them to give a little of their knowledge and experience in return.
It seemed like a good use of the lodge at a time when it was sitting idle, but, for me, it was also deeply personal. I had moved to the British Columbia wilderness with my wife Kristin in 2006. After 15 years on the world’s frontlines as a war correspondent I felt punch-drunk.
I needed some peace, space and nature to settle my demons and find my balance again. It took time but eventually it seemed to work. I began to sleep better, my panic attacks became less frequent, my vitality returned.
The 2021 programme went well. All the vets seemed happy and some of them said it was an important milestone on their journeys to recovery.
We were mulling another programme of its kind. And then on 24th Feb last year Russia’s Vladimir Putin sent his tanks into Ukraine. For the first time in living memory a large-scale war broke out in Europe. Soldiers were soon dying in the tens of thousands.
And for every death there were probably two or three seriously injured. With such an overwhelming need, it seemed natural that we try and do something for Ukrainians.
But the question has how to find a multiplier – a way to ensure that the half a dozen veterans we can realistically host at the lodge at one time are in a position to pass on some benefit to others like them.
We played with different ideas. We partnered with a charity called Mindy in Ukraine which provides a range of services to injured veterans and is run by two admirable and energetic individuals: Taras and Bohdan.
I travelled to visit clinics for the injured in and around Kyiv, and headed into the Carpathian mountains in south-western Ukraine to talk to professional guides. (I even visited a bear sanctuary, not strictly part of the agenda but fascinating nonetheless. More about that another time.)
And finally we refined our concept to something we think will be powerful, effective and – most importantly – ripple outwards to benefit those far beyond our programme.
The gist of if it is this: we are going to bring half a dozen injured Ukrainian veterans to Wild Bear Lodge this September and give them 10 days of wilderness skills training, recuperation and inspiration in nature.
We are then going to support and encourage them to set up volunteer veterans organisations back in Ukraine that lead day and multi-day trips into the wilderness for others suffering from physical and mental injuries.
As well as our guides, Joe and Andy, two of the British veterans who were part of our 2021 vets programme and are both former Royal Marines, have volunteered to come to Canada, without compensation, and help run the programme.
Philip, a British psychiatrist with an interest in eco and nature therapy, will come too and has offered to do everything from washing-up to stacking wood, to providing a workshop and individual sessions on post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery.
Kim, a London-based project manager with a strong interest in the outdoors, will help with the coordination of activities and logistical support.
We are now fully staffed – in fact we had more volunteers than we could realistically taken on or house – but we are still a little short on the funding side.
We at the lodge will contribute in cash and kind and we have one extremely generous donor. Kristin, my wife, died of cancer in 2020, but Janek, her brother, has donated several thousand euros to the project. We are also running a Crowdfunder campaign (see below).
The second clinic I visited in Ukraine was a place called Lisova Polyana about half an hour’s drive from Kyiv. Kseniia, the chief doctor there, told me about all the different therapies they are using to treat mental trauma, or what she called ‘invisible wounds’.
They even have a conference planned at the clinic that is going to look at the benefits for veteran’s mental health of time spent in nature and doing outdoors activities.
At the centre I met Sasha, 36, who was shot in the back last year not far from the southern city of Donetsk. He was lifting small weights as part of his rehabilitation.
“I used to be a PT teacher at a school,” he said. “After I was shot I spent two months in intensive care. But I am one of the lucky ones – I still have two legs.”
When I asked what he thought about nature therapy, he exhaled audibly.
“Nature is the only place I can really find calm,” he said. “It is the place where I finally start to relax.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
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LINKS & NEWS
+ I am in Budapest teaching at the moment but will be returning to Canada once the snow is off the ground to prepare for the upcoming bear-viewing seasons. We still have quite a bit of space for our Autumn Grizzly Viewing season if you are interested.
+ In late May and early June we will also be running our Spring Bear Viewing season which is a wonderful time to see bears that have recently emerged from hibernation.
+ Upcoming post: I visit a Ukrainian bear sanctuary where several dozen bears, rescued from circuses and restaurants, roam in a large outdoor enclosure. It is simply incredible to watch the same bear behaviour you see in the wild on such a small canvas.
+ If you are interested in following my journalism you can sign up to Back to the Front which appears approximately weekly and is mostly free.
you continue to inspire with your energy, your caring, your risk taking et all. I will send you money in the future for the Injured U. soldiers once there is an easy $ transfer, I know the platforms are effective I hate how much they charge for the service! take care of yourself and hope to see you this fall in Canada. Love Pauline