KUSHNYTSYA, Ukraine—Like thousands of Ukrainian men, Vasil Shtefko volunteered to fight after Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade his country in February. The fact that Shtefko is 55 years old and lost both of his legs nearly 20 years ago did not stop him.
“I was making pelmeni, traditional dumplings, when he called saying he had enlisted and is heading to the east,” his wife, Oksana, told The Daily Beast from the kitchen of their home in the village of Kushnytsya in central Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s westernmost region.“I didn’t believe he would do it. I cried a little,” she admitted. But then she regained her self-control. “And I went back to my pelmeni.”
From Kushnytsya alone since the start of the war, six freedom-fighters-to-be, including Shtefko, have joined the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, an elite military unit of some 6,000 soldiers with headquarters in Mukachevo, Transcarpathia’s second biggest city.
Throughout the region, the brigade—known as the “Transcarpathian Legion”—enjoys legendary status. The brigade already has an indelible place in Ukraine’s history.
In 2014, the brigade was at the core of the defense of Luhansk Airport, and in 2015 it fought in Debaltseve, one of the biggest combat zones in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern region. Its war-weary fighters were awarded several state honors, including Hero of Ukraine, the highest national title, for Serhiy Shaptala, the brigade’s commander and current Ukrainian Chief of General Staff.
In a video recorded from the front, Shtefko told The Daily Beast that he thought about enlisting the moment he had learned about the war. “I love my country,” he said. “Whatever obstacles I’m facing, I’ll overcome them in order to defend Ukraine. [My country] put me on my feet helping to get prosthetics, she offered me a pension, moderate as it is, but still.”
The brigade was effective against Russia-backed separatist groups on Donbas’ plains, but what makes it unique is “its special training for fighting in the mountains,” Yaroslav Halas, a journalist-turned-soldier and the brigade’s press officer, told The Daily Beast.
It’s hardly surprising: Transcarpathia is a mountainous region separated from the rest of Ukraine by the bend of the East Carpathians, while the traditions of its military mountaineering are rooted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The “Transcarpathian Legion” also represents the region’s ethnic diversity: many Hungarians, Rusyns and Romanians enlisted to fight for Ukraine, as well as local Ukrainians. “There are women too, mostly as doctors and psychologists,” said Halas.
To wear a beret with an edelweiss flower—the brigade’s insignia and a dream for many Transcarpathians—one must complete a grueling obstacle course in full combat gear.
Shtefko, a car mechanic, lost both his legs at the age of 38 (he asked not to reveal the details of the event) and has since relied on prosthetic legs. After joining protesters at the Maidan in Kyiv in 2014—a wave of demonstrations that ended up with deadly clashes with the security forces—he was rejected by the brigade due to his disability, despite having completed military service in Kharkiv in the Soviet era.
Now, even more determined to become a part of the “Transcarpathian Legion” during Putin’s war, he chose the simplest possible strategy for his advantage: a lie.
“My soul is happy to be here.”
He informed the committee that he has only one prosthetic. “Without pulling up his pants it’s almost impossible to know,” Oksana said. “They all found out in the combat zone when he accidentally broke one of the prosthetics.”
Working on Ukraine’s eastern battlefields as a driver and mechanic, Sergeant Shtefko—as he’s now known to his compatriots—is continuing his family traditions of semi-legal military service: his father drifted into the Red Army during World War II claiming he was 18 years old, though he hadn’t yet turned 16.
“Transcarpathia is proud of its boys,” Lyubov Povadaychyk, a volunteer who’s been helping the brigade for eight years and whose son is also fighting in Ukraine’s east, told The Daily Beast. “And not just of those who fight, but of everyone who does something, either contribute with money or just pray. Only staying away is immoral.”
The son of a Russian mother, Shtefko is outspoken about his attachment to Ukraine.
“In the army different things happen… There are often conflicts, especially when people come from different districts,” he said in his video message to The Daily Beast. “But here is different. My soul is happy to be here. There are many youngsters around us, but all the boys are patriotic and well-integrated. It’s a joy to serve with them and to see a united Ukraine fighting for a common goal.”
His wife described him as a person with a deep interest in politics and the law and a restless soul who has long been following the political developments in Ukraine and was looking for an opportunity to make his mark.
When they speak by phone, Shtefko and Oksana try to avoid discussing horrors of the war. Instead, they focus on the wellbeing of their 11-year-old daughter Sofia and their cat Frozca, in addition to household chores. Shtefko recently sent her instructions on how to take care of the plum trees in their yard. “He even made an instructional video from the front,” Oksana said. “Love is when you understand and feel one another.”
When asked what plans she had for her husband’s return, Oksana is quick to return to her usual matter-of-fact attitude.
“Renovation at home has to be done,” she said, smiling and pointing to a burnt-out wall outlet. “The first task is to replace the electrical system.”