Vadim Bourei's two new prosthetic legs dangled off a beige couch one recent afternoon. The brawny 44-year-old Ukrainian soldier was taking a break from grueling days of learning to walk again. He'd flown to Minnesota to get fitted for prosthetics from the Protez Foundation.
The group, formed by a Ukrainian prosthetist based in the Twin Cities, has grown exponentially in its half year of existence: A spacious new location at Slumberland's Oakdale headquarters. Thirty-six Ukrainians, mostly soldiers injured in combat, fitted for prosthetic limbs. Seven of those soldiers who've made it back to the front lines. And this March, a new clinic is scheduled to open in a relatively safe part of southwestern Ukraine, where these injured soldiers will visit every three months for checkups.
Every day, Ukrainians like Bourei walk back and forth in the Protez Foundation clinic. As devastating war stories linger in their minds, they learn to live again.
One year ago, Bourei was "just a regular guy," he said through an interpreter: an engineer in Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, married for 24 years, a father of two sons and a 5-year-old daughter — "the most amazing, wonderful, beautiful little girl."
Then Russia invaded. Bourei joined the military. His parents' town near Kharkiv was occupied by Russian troops for seven months. Bourei fought all over the country until Sept. 17, when Russian troops stormed a village near Bakhmut where Bourei's unit was stationed. A Russian rocket slammed into his car, tearing off his right leg and crumpling his left leg.
A companion pulled him from the car, then went for help. For hours, Bourei lay near the road as a battle raged nearby. At one point, he pulled out a grenade, preferring to blow himself up rather than be captured by Russians — but he didn't have the strength to pull the pin. After being rescued, both legs were amputated below the knee.
"God's will is in everything," Bourei said.
On Jan. 5, four days after Bourei came to Minnesota, a Russian phosphorus bomb exploded near Bakhmut, where Bourei's 23-year-old son was stationed. Chemicals scalded his son's eyes and throat. As Bourei sat on the couch in Oakdale, his son was still in the hospital.
"This is war," Bourei said. "I really want to believe it will be OK."
Ukraine will never be the same after Russia's invasion: Towns reduced to rubble, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, generations traumatized.
But for the lucky few accepted in Protez Foundation's program, life will be a bit closer to OK.
Nearly 700 Ukrainians have applied to the program. The donation-funded organization has been flying groups of Ukrainians here since summer: A 23-year-old Army commander missing a leg. A 9-year-old boy missing an arm. Bourei's group, the seventh the foundation has helped, heads home Thursday; eight more soldiers arrive Saturday.
Dr. Yakov "Jacob" Gradinar helped start Protez Foundation — protez is Ukrainian for prosthesis — while he was still a prosthetist at Limb Lab in downtown Minneapolis. The project quickly outgrew its space and Gradinar's time. In October, he quit his job to work full time for the foundation.
The past year has been filled with anxiety for Gradinar, who has family in Ukraine. He's heard these men speak of horrific injuries and uncertain futures while also expressing profound gratitude for life. Amid the horror, Gradinar has been heartened by the outpouring of support for Ukraine.
"This year gives me a sense that I value life more, and I see how life can be so fragile," he said. "This is a huge test for us to get this evil and to make it better, to be lights in this world."
A year ago, Artem Tsymbal was 20, a law student in Kyiv. He joined the military after the invasion. On Aug. 10, he was in a trench in eastern Ukraine when a Russian rocket exploded. He thought he was going to die. For eight hours, he lay covered in dirt and branches until Ukrainians pushed out Russian troops. His left leg was amputated.
He came to Minnesota a few weeks ago for his new prosthetic. He doesn't know his future; because his amputation is above the knee, he won't be permitted to rejoin the military.
"I would like everything: A wife, kids, a good life," he said.
For Bourei, his time in Minnesota has been life-changing.
"I had a lot of doubts whether I'd be able to get up on both legs," Bourei said. "The hardest thing right now is getting up from a chair into a standing position. You can't curl your toes and grab on. Five months ago, I was only riding in a wheelchair. It's very hard not to fall into a depression. But everything changed, coming here. I want to leave all the darkness in the past and only take light with me, and live only with that."
Bourei then put both hands on the couch and pushed. He wobbled at first, then he stood, and walked haltingly toward the door. He said he'll keep working until he can run again.
After that? Bourei hopes to return to the army, become an officer, and help Ukraine win this war.