KYIV, Ukraine—One year ago on Saturday, a 19-year-old Ukrainian soldier named Daniel Kasyanenko died on a battlefield in eastern Ukraine.
He died alongside one of his friends, a fellow Ukrainian volunteer soldier, when a mortar fell on them. They were among 18 Ukrainian soldiers to die in a 10-day stretch from Aug. 1 to Aug. 10, 2015.
I first met Daniel two months before his death, while I was embedded with the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Brigade in a front-line village called Pisky, just outside the Donetsk airport. The morning I departed the front lines to return to Kyiv, I was supposed to meet Daniel for one last goodbye. I waited in the courtyard of a bullet-ridden, shrapnel-shredded, abandoned home, but he never showed up.
I assumed he had been delayed by some soldierly duty, and I didn’t think much of his missing my departure, other than feeling a vague sense of regret for not having one more chance to shake his hand and wish him well.
One year after the death of a 19-year-old soldier, the war in Ukraine has not ended.
A day later, after I had returned to Kyiv, I got a slightly disjointed text from Daniel.
He said he had been in a front-line trench the morning of my departure when combined Russian-separatist forces launched a mortar attack.
Daniel dove for cover, he told me, just as a mortar impacted within the trench. His instinctual move, honed through months of what the Ukrainian soldiers call “natural selection” battlefield training, surely saved his life that day. The mortar shrapnel passed harmlessly overhead.
But the concussive blast of the explosion gave Daniel what he called a “brain contusion.” He said he had blood coming from his ears and his nose, a ringing in his ears, and would frequently lose consciousness.
He was evacuated from the battlefield to a nearby military hospital. And a few days later his commander granted him leave to recover in his hometown of Zaporizhia, only a three-hour drive from the front.
At one point, Daniel was stranded at a bus stop without any money. He texted me in a panic, and asked if I would wire some money to his bankcard. I sent him a few bucks, not thinking much of it. His effusive thanks underscored the selflessness of his military service—he couldn’t even afford to go home on convalescent leave.
I had only known Daniel for a few days in person. It was a relationship defined by our conversations in the trenches, or while sharing a cigarette during an artillery barrage.
We sat around the dinner table at night as artillery thundered and gunfire crackled outside the basement in which we sheltered. We traded stories of home, of women, of my time as an Air Force pilot and his time on the front lines. I played the unwarranted role of mentor to a younger man who knew more about courage and sacrifice than I ever would.
During the several weeks of his recovery in Zaporizhia, as we traded texts, emails, and phone calls, I could sense a change in Daniel from the introspective, yet ultimately optimistic, young soldier I had first met in Pisky.
He adopted a resigned fatalism, almost treating it as a matter of course that he wouldn’t survive the war. Yet, there were things that lifted his spirits.
Although he didn’t talk much about it, he said it was comforting to be back home and around his mother. Returning to one’s mother is often a confusing experience for many soldiers, particularly young men. The protective bonds of childhood, from which you tried to distance yourself as a measure of your manhood, become so intensely comforting. War teaches you to appreciate your parents’ love more than ever before.
I imagine Daniel felt something similar to that on his first trip back home from the war, his experience amplified by the fact that when he first left life from under his parents’ roof it wasn’t for university, or even a few months of boot camp—he went straight from his home to the front lines.
His transition from childhood to adulthood occurred under artillery fire, where one can never complain about injustice, the entitlements of others, or life not being fair. His was an education with no room for failure, and without mercy.
As I settled back into life in Kyiv and Daniel recovered from his wounds, we talked a lot about him coming to America to visit my family in Florida. I promised I’d take him to a baseball game and that we’d visit the white sand beaches. He had a cowboy hat he liked to wear into battle. I recommended he bring it to America.
“The girls will love it,” I promised.
He invited me to come visit him at home in Zaporizhia. I said I’d like to, but I had a lot going in Kyiv at the moment, giving speeches and TV interviews about my time on the front lines. I promised him I’d come visit the next time he was home.
After a while, as the prospect of returning to war began to loom over him, Daniel told me he was thinking about leaving the military. He was tired of war, he confessed. He’d like to go to university, he said, maybe even in America.
For a few weeks, we talked almost every day. And then suddenly, our communication went dark. I regret now that I didn’t reach out to him then. Life was moving fast for me in Kyiv, and I was enjoying the fact that my career was going well. My reporting from the front lines had received a lot of attention, and suddenly I was a minor media celebrity in Ukraine.
Now, looking back, I wonder what Daniel was going through at that time. The young man was likely torn between his desire to move on with his life and the gravitational pull of the war, which he couldn’t escape.
Near the end of July Daniel sent me a picture over text message. He was in his uniform, a half-cocked grin spread over his round, tan face. A wall pockmarked by bullet holes framed the background. He was back on the front lines, he wrote me in the attached message. He still had the headaches, he said, and wasn’t totally recovered, but he felt he needed to be back out there.
“It’s my duty,” he wrote me.
To Be Old Again
One of the toughest parts of being a conflict journalist is to not get emotionally involved in the story you’re covering. Your aim is to not develop such an affinity for one side that it might blind you to the faults of their cause, or their tactics, and to not reflexively condemn the opposing side as immoral or on the wrong side of history.
To those ends, from time to time I’ve taken breaks from the war in Ukraine. To step away for a while to reset, to let time and space generate perspective.
Whenever I begin to think of war as a black and white affair, I also think back to my first conversation with Daniel.
As bullets zipped overhead, he told me he didn’t necessarily think all his enemies were bad guys. “Maybe they’re not all bastards,” he said. Not a ringing endorsement for his enemies’ virtues, perhaps, but a remarkable thing for a 19-year-old front-line soldier to say.
In some ways, American soldiers of my generation have had things a little easier when it comes to our enemies.
Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State. The barbarity of these groups, their penchant for murdering civilians, committing genocide, and oppressing women make a U.S. soldier’s duty to kill a less complicated moral test than it might be for a Ukrainian soldier staring down the gun sight at a separatist fighter who could have been a university classmate. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers I’ve met even had Facebook friends in common with their enemies.
Daniel knew war was not black and white. And that is, I believe, why the things Daniel had done and seen in war haunted him so much. He saw his enemies as humans. Yet, he never failed to pull the trigger. Consequently, he told me the war had “ruined him” and his “understanding of life.” He said it would have been better for him if he had gone to war when he was an older man.
“I want to get out of these battles,” Daniel said. “I want to forget it. But I can’t.”
Anniversaries, like birthdays and holidays, are recurrent experiences in life by which we can measure the passage of time and take stock of the degree by which we and our lives have changed.
As each important date rolls by, it’s natural to reflect on the circumstances of one year ago.
I remember, as if it happened yesterday, where I was and the person I was with the morning I opened the email to learn a mortar had killed Daniel. A lot has happened in my life since then, a lot has changed. But the lesson to be gleaned from Daniel’s life has not faded or changed much in this first year since it happened.
In the week after Daniel died, I struggled to find some sort of meaning to his story. I wanted to write about him, but I had to figure out what his story was. I had to find a message that gave his death meaning. But the hidden meaning behind tragedies is not always self-evident; sometimes you have to construct it.
I went south to Odesa, and spent a few days on the beach. I couldn’t have been farther away from the war, even though I was still in the same country.
When I got back to Kyiv, I decided to write how Daniel’s death represented the grim reality of the war in Ukraine. That, despite a cease-fire that was six months old last year, and is 18 months old this year, fighting is still ongoing.
Today, more than 1.7 million Ukrainians still can’t go home because of the war; more than 10,000 are dead because of it. And soldiers and civilians are still dying on both sides.
A year later, the war is still going on with depressingly little progress toward a long-term solution. In fact, with the rise in the terrorist threat to Western Europe and Russia elbowing its way into the Syrian war, there is now the possibility that some Western sanctions against Russia could be rolled back in exchange for the Kremlin’s help in fighting ISIS, despite the lack of progress in securing a peace in Ukraine.
I wonder what things will look like along the front lines in Ukraine on the second, third, fourth, and fifth anniversaries of Daniel’s death. I hope these future milestones will reflect a greater amount of progress than this first one. That hope for a better year is, I think, the point of this story.
When I left the military to begin a new career as a journalist and writer, I was filled with doubt about my new path. So I turned to my father for advice. Was it too late to start over again? I asked him. Was it too late to change?
The measure of a life well lived, my dad explained, is not the total number of years you’ve lived. It’s better to have many years of experience, he said, than to have one year of experience repeated many times.
If I had one more night at that dinner table in Pisky to share a meal and clink glasses with Daniel, knowing what I know now, I would tell him what my dad told me. I would tell Daniel to be proud that he had crammed more experience and wisdom into each one of his 19 years than most 60-year-olds have achieved over a lifetime within safely repeatable circumstances.
As each year passes and the anniversaries of Daniel’s death roll by, I hope that we can all look back at the lessons we learned from this war and have the satisfaction of knowing that each successive year was never wasted. That we have accumulated years of wisdom and progress, and have not simply resigned ourselves to endlessly repeat a year of disappointed hopes and broken dreams.