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Ukrainian officer is rare foreign patient at Walter Reed

By IAN DUNCAN AND JEFF BARKER | The Baltimore Sun | Published: March 23, 2015

SILVER SPRING, Md. (Tribune News Service) — The Ukrainian colonel's journey to Maryland began on a hilltop a few miles from the Russian border, artillery shells crashing down all around him.

Col. Ihor Hordiychuk was sent to hold the strategically important hill last August against Russian-backed separatists. His mission was to stop the advance of the rebels, who were trying to wrest the eastern part of the country away from the central government in Kiev.

He did not succeed.

Surrounded by the rebels, Hordiychuk's special forces unit held the hill for a week, according to a Ukrainian government account. As comrades broke through the encirclement to rescue the troops, Hordiychuk was badly wounded. He said Sunday that he was hit in the head by shrapnel from a multiple launch rocket strike and lay bleeding on the battlefield in the summer heat for two days.

The government of Ukraine asked the United States to treat him.

With the approval of then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Hordiychuk, 42, became the beneficiary of a little-known program that the Defense Department uses to care for soldiers from friendly nations on American soil. He is now at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda recuperating from a brain infection that has affected his vision, hearing and motor skills.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the program serves both medical and strategic roles.

The "program provides an avenue for the department to treat those who wouldn't otherwise be eligible for treatment in one of our facilities, often providing specialized, unique medical treatment that is otherwise unavailable," Laura Seal said.

"In addition to this being the right thing to do," she said, "it also provides an avenue for strengthening international partnerships."

For Hordiychuk, the program provides hope that he will become healthy enough to be reunited with his 19-year-old daughter in Ukraine in several months and one day train future military officers. "Thank God I am alive," said Hordiychuk, who wept as he spoke from a wheelchair to congregants at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral here about the democratic values that he said Ukrainian people are dying for. "I'm almost ready to learn again how to walk," Hordiychuk said afterward.

The United States hosts an average of about 17 foreign soldiers a year under the medical partnership, Seal said. Each one needs the OK of top diplomats and defense officials, and treating the patient must fulfill a "compelling … mission interest," according to Defense Department regulations.

Kevin Kiley, surgeon general of the Army, said the program has been used only rarely in recent times. In previous decades, when American medicine was more advanced than what was available in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, bringing foreign officials to Washington for treatment was more common.

It was the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington that revealed Hordiychuk's presence in the United States. A picture of him meeting with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at Walter Reed appeared this month on the embassy's Facebook page.

"The Embassy of Ukraine is grateful to the U.S. for the readiness to help the person, who bravely protected his country," the post reads, "and expresses sincere wishes to Colonel Hordiychuk of the soonest recovery."

It has been a year since Russia-backed rebels invaded the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine and voters decided in a referendum to join Russia. The rebels now are fighting with Ukrainian forces for control of Eastern Ukraine.

The United States has condemned the invasion and the annexation of Crimea, worked with Western allies to impose sanctions on Russia and reaffirmed its commitments to NATO members on Russia's border. But President Barack Obama has resisted calls to send arms to Ukraine.

Seal said caring for Hordiychuk is consistent with the kind of aid the United States is giving to Ukraine, including medical training and treatment.

"The department has a long-standing defense relationship with Ukraine," she said. "We are providing support to Ukraine during this crisis in several ways."

John E. Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, says the United States should be doing more.

He called the treatment of Hordiychuk "a nice gesture," but of little help overall.

The colonel's grit has been a rare bright spot for Ukrainians in what has been a string of defeats delivered by the separatists.

The hill his unit was sent to hold has special significance for Ukrainians. Called Savur-Mohyla, it was the site of fierce fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has hailed Hordiychuk as a hero.

Before Hordiychuk left for the United States, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited him at his hospital bedside to present him with the Star of the Hero of Ukraine, one of the country's highest honors.

"I thank you for the feats you've done to defend the independence of our state and for the courage and braveness you've demonstrated when protecting Ukraine," the president told the colonel, according to his office.

"The entire Ukraine is proud of you. Next generations of Ukrainian warriors will be raised at your example."

The Ukrainian government later asked the United States to accept Hordiychuk for treatment, Seal said. He arrived in the country in February.

On Sunday, a side door swung open during services at St. Andrew and Hordiychuk was wheeled to the front of the cathedral. Congregants took pictures with their phones and one presented flowers. A rear section of Hordiychuk's head was shaved and uneven where he was struck.

He spoke into a microphone in his native language about the importance of young Ukrainians growing up with freedom of speech and assembly. A tear rolled down his cheek as he told of asking his military command if he could continue in the service after his recovery. "I would like to rejoin and I would like to give everything I can for future generations. There is no order yet, but I applied," he said later in English, which he learned years ago at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

The Rev. Volodymyr Steliac said Hordiychuk was welcomed at the cathedral as a Christian rather than a military man. "It doesn't mean we endorse combat," Steliac said.

The church has become a focal point for the Ukrainian community in the Washington area during the conflict. Many members of the congregation have relatives who have been affected by the fighting. The cathedral has been raising money to support war widows and orphans, Steliac said.

While it's an honor to have a decorated soldier attend services, the priest said, his congregation is praying for peace.

Hordiychuk "got in a battle and the chances were higher that he would die than that he would live, and that was known from the beginning" Steliac said. "If you come out alive, it's a miracle."

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Col. Ihor Hordiychuk
IHORHORDIYCHUK.COM

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