Local Catholics help Ukrainian soldier find healing

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, January 10, 2016

Alexei Kondratenko was more or less alone in the world when he was drafted into military service in Ukraine in August 2014.

Kondratenko, now 31, was living on his own in Kiev, the capital, working as a welder. He had served in the army from 2003 to 2005, and, he said through interpreters, he wondered why it took so long for him to be called up when his country began fighting Russian-backed separatists and Russian troops in the spring of 2014.

“I wanted to defend my country,” he said.

Six months later, while driving through Luhansk, the vehicle he was riding in was blown up, killing a fellow soldier and injuring several more.

Of the survivors, Kondratenko had the most severe injuries, said Father Stepan Sus, director of the Center for Miliary Chaplaincy of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Lviv. Sus, who visited the Chicago area for an Advent mission in December, first met Kondratenko when he was recovering from his injuries in a military hospital in Lviv.

Kondratenko lost his left hand and part of his arm, had his spleen removed and still has shrapnel spread through the left side of his body, said Sus, who helped translate for Kondratenko. His vehicle — something like a Humvee — was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, according to Kondratenko.

He has been in the Chicago area since September, working on rehab and most recently being fitted with a prosthetic hand that uses the electrical impulses generated by his arm muscles to control its movements. He arrived in the city through the generosity of the Ukrainian community here, as well as with some help from Archbishop Cupich and other members of a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation who visited Ukraine in June.

Archbishop Cupich and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the USCCB president, visited to see the scale of humanitarian suffering in Ukraine, where clashes between armed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces continue despite a peace agreement.

Ukraine, which was ruled mostly by Russia and other neighboring countries for centuries, regained full independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but relations between the Russian Federation and Ukraine deteriorated with the annexation of Crimea by Russia and incursions in another nearby Ukrainian territory in 2014. Separatists continue fighting in the eastern region of the country.

A delegation of Ukrainian religious leaders visited Washington, D.C., in November to plead for more humanitarian aid from the U.S. government. According to a statement they released, 8,000 people have died and more than 17,000 have been injured and wounded. The number of those displaced is over 1.39 million, with 174,000 children among them.

“Ukraine was not prepared for this war,” Sus said. “Ukraine was not expecting this war.”

Sus and the military chaplaincy were already working with Ukrainian Catholics in the United States, especially with St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church, 5000 N. Cumberland Ave, before Kondratenko’s case came to their attention. Parishioners at St. Joseph had already raised money to send one wounded Ukrainian soldier to London for a prosthetic leg.

“We have already raised around $300,000 this year,” said Father Mykola Buryadnyk, pastor of St. Joseph the Betrothed, “from many people, many people who do not want to be recognized.”

Jaroslaw Dzwinyk, an orthopedic surgeon at Swedish Covenant Hospital worked with orthotist Gene Bernardoni and Ballert Orthopedic, a clinic that provides prosthetics, and approached Buryadnyk and said that they could to help a wounded Ukrainian soldier here, if the parish could sponsor someone.

Buryadnyk contacted Sus, and they identified Kondratenko as a good candidate.

“There are so many people who need help,” Sus said. “We are looking for those who are most in need.”

Kondratenko, whose mother and grandmother are both deceased, had no family to help him. Ukrainian Catholics in the United States and the military chaplaincy in Lviv got all the paperwork in order to request a visa.

Then the U.S. State Department turned down the visa application, apparently for the same reasons Sus thought he was a good candidate for help: he had no job or family in Ukraine.

“They thought he wouldn’t come back,” Sus said.

That’s when Archbishop Cupich and Archbishop Kurtz of the USCCB came into the story. Sus escorted them on a visit to the military hospital in Lviv as part of a trip to Ukraine in June, and he asked them to bring the issue to the attention of U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt when they met with him the following day.

“I saw that Archbishop Cupich was from Chicago, and I thought he would be interested,” Sus said. “He saw that everything was prepared, and he said, ‘This is the reason for my trip to Ukraine.’”

“It was providence,” Buryadnyk said.

Two hours after the archbishop’s scheduled meeting with the ambassador, the phone call came: Kondratenko’s visa had been approved.

Kondratenko arrived in Chicago in September, and has been undergoing rehab. He was first fitted for a mechanical prosthesis, and more recently, with the “bionic hand” that allows him move it with the electrical impulses in his arm, at the cost to the clinic — a discount of $50,000 to $60,000.

He has also enjoyed the hospitality of families from St. Joseph the Betrothed and has toured the sights in Chicago.

“He’s met lots of people who provided him mercy,” Buryadnyk said. “He’s been taken care of by people he had never met before. It’s a good sign for the Jubilee of Mercy. The community welcomed him with warmth.”

Sus said Kondratenko’s visa is renewable for up to 10 years in six-month increments, as long as Kondratenko needs treatment. The military chaplaincy is staying in touch, and Sus said there should be no worries that Kondratenko will violate the terms of his visa.

“We’ll vouch for him,” he said. “We want to be able to send more people.”


  • cardinal cupich
  • ukraine
  • war
  • military chaplaincy
  • ukranian rite

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