Vasyl Shtefko: I lied that I have one prosthetic leg, not two

Vasyl Shtefko: I lied that I have one prosthetic leg, not two

Resident of Zakarpattia region Vasyl Shtefko without both legs managed to join the army because he had a great desire to defend Ukraine

Vasyl Shtefko's story went viral all over the world in March. He surprised everyone by going to war with two prosthetic legs: Vasyl lost his legs in 2008. Of course, with such special needs it is difficult, almost impossible, to join the army. He had been trying to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine since 2014, but as soon as the commanders learned about his prosthetic legs, they refused to take Vasyl into their units. Therefore, he had to use a trick.


Of course, starting the conversation, we turn our thoughts back to February 2022. At the time, all the men in Ukraine stormed military recruitment centers, realizing that it was necessary to stand up for the defense of their homeland. Vasyl Shtefko was among them.

- I came to our military recruitment center on the very first day, February 24. But the fact is that a military commissar knew me well as a soldier, and he would never have drafted me. I approached him many times. I told him that I stand firmly on my feet, that I am a good driver, hardy and motivated. But every day I received a refusal from him, so I just helped there, on the spot, with the transportation of boys or products, water for the military recruitment center. And then one day I came up to the girls and began to convince them: you see, he knows me, he doesn't want to call me up and he won't. I told them that I have one prosthetic leg. I can walk, drive. I have good sight and can shoot well. In short, I persuaded them to put me on the draft list.

When we already lined up for dispatch, I stood behind the boys. I crouched down and hid so that the military commissar wouldn't see me - he would have turned me back immediately! And when I got to Mukachevo from my hometown, I didn't worry, because nobody knew me there. Strangers will not say that I am any different from men of my age.

There were a lot of people then. They asked those in doubt to leave, but no one left. Everyone knew why they had come here. That's how I joined the army, says Vasyl Shtefko about his cunning for the sake of the army.

The man says that he asked to serve in the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, along with his boys. That's how he got into the first mountain assault battalion. Already in a front-line town, he found himself in his unit. He stayed there for six months, and now he was transferred to the Zakarpattia region to work as a driver in a military unit.


Of course, every deception is revealed at some point. Once in the unit, he did not tell management about his special needs. He says that he expected problems from the commander, so he did not show his artificial limbs during the first weeks.

- I was first given a GAZ 66. It's quite an inconvenient vehicle for me - it's tall. So I asked the management to change it, as it will be difficult for me to climb and jump off it. They asked me if I had knee problems. Yes, I say, knee, knee, Vasyl recalls a typical case.

But prosthetic limbs must be removed so that the legs can rest. For this, the soldier chose the right moment.

- It was quite easy, because we slept without undressing. It was cold, so some did not even take off their shoes. You cover yourself with a quilt and sleep. I did so. But I need my legs to rest from the prostheses. So I waited until the guys next to me fell asleep and started snoring, and then I took off my shoes and prosthetic limbs, rolled over on one side, and slept soundly. And in the morning, I got up faster than others in order to have time to put on my prostheses, says Vasyl about the specifics of his conspiracy.

And suddenly he starts laughing. Oh, he says, I will tell you a funny incident.

- One morning I wake up, and my comrade, a man from Svaliava, approaches me and says, "Well, I almost had a heart attack last night because of you!" I ask him what happened. He says, "I wake up at night and see that your legs are lying next to you. And it was quiet inside and outside, no explosions were heard - and your legs are apart!" So, he saw my prostheses from the side, because the blanket did not cover them at night. Frightened, poor fellow! Vasyl Shtefko laughs.


I ask the military man how he was finally exposed and whether he had problems with the commander.

- I was exposed in the third week. By that time, I had already repaired my vehicle - I was given a ZIL 131, it is easier to get in and get out of the vehicle. And I see that something is wrong with my right leg. I looked at the prosthesis and saw a broken screw. I tried to pull it out - the thread is broken. I called my partner to help me get to a pantry. I have the tools there, I'll fix it now. But I could not fix it. I needed a fastener, so I sent my partner to an Epicenter store to buy that fastener for the screw. I thought, he will bring it, I'll lubricate and tighten it and it will continue to function.

But he went to the commander to ask permission for a visit to the Epicenter, and he began to ask me why he needed to go there. "Uncle Vasia has a broken screw in his prosthesis," he said honestly. The commander runs up to me: "So you have a prosthesis?!" I say: "Why a prosthesis? Two!" He then began to shout: hand over the weapon, take off the bulletproof vest, get in the car and go to the hospital!

We found a prosthetist in the hospital, he took a look and repaired everything for me. Well, they ask me if I go home. Nobody is talking about going home, I tell them, my vehicle isn't finished there, there's a lot of work to do. They let me go, so I left.

The next morning, there was a line-up, as usual, everyone went to the parade ground. The commander pointed at me and told everyone that there was a man in our ranks who had come to fight with two prostheses. "I was shocked, but we have such a thing," the commander said at the time, Shtefko recalls.

- Did the attitude towards you change after that — from your peers, management?

- They kept repeating: how did you manage to deceive us all? But, I say, I prayed to God every day that I would not be exposed and sent home. Because I would not sit at home at this time! Although I know that I will not go in reconnaissance, I will not go in a dugout either - because it will be difficult for me to jump in and out. But I was given a vehicle and I drove. I can be useful in the army. And I want to serve and protect my homeland.


It is noteworthy that in the history of the Shtefko family, this is already the second case when men go to war "by deception." At one time, during the Second World War, Vasyl Shtefko's father also was a volunteer fighter at the front, slightly lying about his age.

- At the time, my father was only 15 years old, but he was tall. And people had no passports, nothing: as he said, so they wrote. That's how they took him into the army, says Vasyl.

Vasyl's father then fought together with the Russians, and Vasyl himself, as it turns out, is already fighting against them now.

- That's how it works. Russians are nasty people. I knew this for a long time, because I spent a long time working in Russia, like all residents of the Zakarpattia region. But what I learned about them during this war surprised even me.

Although, you know, my father told me an interesting story about his war. The Russians fought then as they do now: without sparing their own soldiers. My father was in the army together with a godfather of his child. And here is the battle, they advance, and a German machine gunner hits everyone who walks, just mows them down from the position. And our commanders are chasing their soldiers behind with bullets. And the one who lay down on the ground and does not go forward so as not to fall from the machine gunner's bullets, the Russian commander approaches him and orders him to get up. And those who do not get up are shot on the spot. My father and his comrade then looked at each other as if asking each other what to do: if they stand up, the machine gunner will kill them, if they don't, the Russian commander will shoot them. They found a way out: to shoot the commander. That's what they did. They then remained alive, fought until the victory over the Germans, returned home from the front, got married, and had children.


I ask the military about the nuances of serving in the army with two prostheses.

- They are almost gone, because I have been wearing prostheses for a long time, they are like my own legs. But there is a certain regime that is easy to follow at home, but more difficult in the army. At home, I worked, and when I feel that my legs are tired, I removed the prostheses for literally half an hour, rested and continued working. But it's not like that in the army, and I knew it. But all the same, I wanted to join the Armed Forces. I wanted this since 2014. I went to see our guys in Shchastia, I knew many guys from the Aidar battalion, I really wanted to join them. They nearly accepted me, but then I got a refusal, the company officer said "no".

But I was telling the truth then, and now I lied. Yes, I deliberately deceived the girls at the military recruitment center. And I know they had problems later. But it's good that there was a publication from the 128th brigade, there were my words of apology to the workers from our military recruitment center. I know that official sanctions were not applied to them because of me. Yes, I understand that my example motivated many to join the ranks of the Armed Forces. Because I really wanted to defend my homeland! You see, this horde that is attacking us has neither conscience nor honor. We have to stop them, Vasyl Shtefko says.

The man says that his fellow villagers from Kushnytsia, in the Irshava district, supported him in the army. Before the war, Vasyl Shtefko was engaged in the removal and sorting of garbage in Kushnytsia, worked as a sole proprietor and paid salaries to three employees. Now, people rushed and bought a "van for Uncle Vasia". He drives this van even now. He loves the vehicle like a woman - he takes care of it, he says, and his father taught him to always keep the car in order so that it drives well.


I ask Vasyl's opinion on whether motivated people with special needs can serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

- I can't tell you for others, everyone has to make their own decisions here. Sashko, a soldier from our fire support company, was wounded by cluster munitions. You practically cannot be killed by them, but there are many mutilations: arms and legs can be torn off. I know that he is currently undergoing rehabilitation in Germany, they made a prosthesis for him, he is already on his feet, but he is still training. He called me and said that he was going to return to the army. "They are surprised," he said on the phone, "and I tell them that we have one uncle Vasia who served - so he has two prostheses!"

Vasyl Shtefko believes that in such cases everything depends on the circumstances, as well as on people - not only on the soldier himself, but also on the company commander, on the battalion commander, because they take responsibility for him. But, Vasyl says, if they know the person, trust him, see that he is motivated and can do the job, then why not?

There is no such article in the law that prohibits people with prostheses from serving in the army, says Vasyl Shtefko. There is a concept of "limited suitability" - that is, a person can serve, but without excessive load.

- The battalion commander saw that I drive, that I am not afraid of work. If I have to get up at four o'clock in the morning to go, then I'm going, and if I have to go at two o'clock in the morning, I'm also going. Everyone wondered how I could drive trucks, because it is hard to push the pedals. I explained to them that prostheses are just like your own legs, you learn to control them over time. Moreover, prostheses are different — there are ordinary ones, and there are expensive, more functional ones. I was offered to have one of these now, but why would I rob my country? I have these prostheses for 41,000 hryvnias, they are good and suit me, so why should I spend state money and buy a prosthesis that costs up to UAH 100,000? he said.


I am interested in one more opinion of Vasyl Shtefko about life with prostheses, because after half a year of full-scale war, we have a lot of crippled boys. For many, this is a psychological trauma that is difficult to cope with. So I ask Vasyl what he would advise such people.

- You know, I knew such people even before this big war. Injuries are seen differently, it depends on the character, on the attitude of the person, on the life situation he or she is in, on the support of relatives and friends.

Once I was in a sanatorium with people like me, wearing prostheses. There was one soldier among us, he lost both legs in the battles and he was in a wheelchair. So we get up one morning in the ward, everyone is telling something, joking, and he growls: why can't you stop talking, I can't sleep because of you! And everything like that. We reacted to him with understanding, I even helped him sometimes, brought something, helped him get in and out of the room on that wheelchair. And somehow he saw my prostheses. "I didn't understand, you are also without legs?" I told him then to think about how to yell at people next time. I explained to him, "man, you shouldn't show yourself as a hero, because if you continue to behave like this, you will remain alone and angry with the whole world. You are able to take care of yourself, and you don't need someone to do it for you. Not your wife, not your children, not your parents. They should have their own lives, and you should not be a burden to them. Take care of yourself!

There was another man, and I told him the same thing. And he said to me: "And what? I get good money, and my wife can live on it!" I don't understand that. If you need a maid, hire one! Why should a woman who loves you suffer? Vasyl Shtefko says.

By the way, he is now in his second marriage. He met his current wife when he lost his legs. They have a daughter, Sofiika. He says that he did not fool his wife in his time as he fooled the military commissar - he immediately told her everything about the prostheses as it is.


Now, in the deep rear, Vasyl Shtefko says that it is difficult for him - because of a counter-offensive, many guys from their battalion, whom he knew, are dying.

- They have advanced well, but with such losses, this news cannot be accepted joyfully. We have many people injured and there are dead. I know that they also destroyed many Russian invaders there. The guys sent me videos: they came across positions with well-prepared Russians - guys nearly two meters tall, in full gear, they did not give up... The battles were tough, so our guys are proud that they defeated them and cleared their positions. I am happy for them, but the death of my brothers hurts more. Such guys are young, they are just beginning to live. Serhii, a healthy, strong guy, used to come to me, even when I was in Zaporizhzhia, to repair his car. Oh, if I knew then that he would die in that car, I would have poured salt into it, he says with pain.

In the rear, Vasyl Shtefko also works as a driver.

- I am transporting personnel — to the training ground, to dispatch. Sometimes I am asked to say something motivating to the boys. Many people are afraid to go to war. And that's normal. Only fools cannot be afraid, because this is a war, and a terrible war! When guys see me, many say: oh, I read about you, I heard about you. I try to calm them down, I say that there is no fear in war. There is a task that it must be fulfilled. If you're afraid, you won't be able to do it, and if you push too hard, you'll die. So just do your job. But there is no need to be afraid, because we are all mortal and you never know where death awaits you. But now the time has come when we must defend our homeland. Otherwise, we will not exist, the enemy will destroy us. And going to the army now is not even an obligation, it is a great honor for men.

Tetiana Kohutych, Uzhgorod

Photo credit: Serhii Hudak

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