From the front lines, a group of Ukrainian war amputees recently arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. They were greeted like heroes by dozens of adoring locals — many of many of them of Ukrainian heritage.
With their morale boosted and with no time to waste, the soldiers quickly made their way to the , a nearby prosthetics clinic.
As the war overwhelms Ukraine’s medical field, the Minnesota nonprofit has been flying in groups of Ukrainians in need of new limbs.
“Each time we see these people, we need to say to them: ‘Thank you for your service. Thank you for those peaceful skies that we have above us'” said Yakov Gradinar, the co-founder and chief medical officer of the foundation.
On the eve of an intense three-week program, Gradinar helped the jet-lagged soldiers put on compression socks to control the swelling of their wounds.
The next morning, Gradinar, his seven children and other staff members start building from scratch new legs and arms customized for each soldier.
When Russia invaded his native country, Gradinar, who’s been a prosthesis maker in America for 15 years, felt an intense desire to help.
“I was just like, okay, God help me to understand what I can do in this?”
What started as a small operation from his kitchen is now a state-of-the-art clinic, which includes a gym for physical therapy. The foundation, which relies on donations, pays for everything: Travel, lodging and the entire rehab treatment.
“It’s not about just prosthetics, it’s to show love, it’s to show care,” Gradinar said.
The new group of soldiers, the 12th to arrive at the foundation from Ukraine, includes men with harrowing war stories.
One of them, 30-year-old Hryhorii Vorobiov, tells Scripps News he lost his leg in March during the brutal battle for the city of Bakhmut.
Rakhel Gradinar, one of the doctor’s daughters, helped us translate.
She said: “Initially he still had his leg, but he had a lot of surgeries and with every surgery, he would look down at his leg to make sure it’s still there. Because at 30 years old, who wants to be left without a leg?”
Rakhel is only 16. But like her siblings, she works hard to help her dad and cheer up the soldiers.
“It’s very heartbreaking to hear those stories and sometimes I can’t do anything, but I just try to show them a little bit of light,” she said.
Another soldier, 35-year-old Dmytro Starikov, tells Scripps News he stepped on a Russian mine in the Donetsk region.
Starikov says he’s thinking of going back to the front lines after the rehab program. According to Yakov Gradinar, 20% of Ukrainian soldiers treated here go straight back to combat.
“When it’s hard,” the doctor said, “I compare myself to those soldiers on frontline, they are without food, without comfortable beds, but they are defending country.”
Since its creation in 2022, the Protez Foundation has spent roughly $1.7 million fitting around 90 Ukrainians with new prosthetic devices.
Most of them are soldiers. But there are also children who lost limbs to Russian rockets.
“And I will say that it’s one thing to work with adult soldiers. And another thing when we’re working these kids, and it’s very upsetting to see. But that gives us more drive,” Gradinar said.
After a well-deserved lunch break, some soldiers tried their brand-new prosthetics, and for the first time in months managed to comfortably walk again.
For the next three weeks, Gradinar and his staff will make constant adjustments to the soldiers’ new limbs.
Meanwhile, the soldiers will train hard to build strength and stability.
Once back in Ukraine, they’ll have access to a new satellite Protez clinic. In the U.S., Gradinar and his family will inevitably miss them.
“You meet strangers at the airport, and week after week become like your brothers,” said Gradinar.
But soon enough another group might arrive.
As Gradinar puts it: Until Vladimir Putin decides to stop killing and injuring Ukrainians, he, his family and everyone at the foundation will be ready to take in more amputees and help them heal.