RUDNE, Ukraine – Yurii Brukhal, an electrician by trade, did not play a very dangerous role when he volunteered to join Ukraine’s territorial defense forces early in the war. He was tasked with making deliveries and manning a checkpoint in the relative safety of his sleepy village.
Weeks later, his unit was deployed from his home in the west to a front line in eastern Ukraine, the epicenter of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. He was murdered on June 10.
Andrii Verteev, who worked in a grocery store in the village, spent the early months of the war guarding a small viaduct after work, returning to his wife and daughter at night. Then he also volunteered to go east. He died in battle in Luhansk just weeks before Mr. Brukhal.
Their deaths have highlighted the extent to which the war is reaching every community across the country, even those far from the front. It has also underlined the risks faced by volunteers, with limited training, who increasingly engage in the kind of combat that puts even the most experienced soldiers to the test. Their bodies are being returned to fill cemeteries in largely peaceful towns and villages in the west of the country.
“He went there to protect us here,” said Vira Datsko, 52, Mr. Brukhal’s older sister, praising her brother’s patriotism. “But it is a tragedy for us – so painful – that the best of our nation will die in this war.”
At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave the country, but were not automatically conscripted, and many volunteered to fight. Volunteers from the country’s territorial forces, reserve units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were initially assigned unglamorous but safe tasks in relatively quiet regions such as western Ukraine, where the Russians did not invade. But the serious loss of manpower in the Donbas, where Russia continues with ferocious bombing and shelling, has forced the Ukrainian army to bring reinforcements from the West.
Many of the fighters, such as Mr. Brukhal, who had no previous military experience, are simply unprepared for that escalated level of fighting. And the training they receive is limited — sometimes two weeks or less.
Volunteers from the Territorial Defense Group are not forced to rearrange their units, but many do, spurred on by patriotism or a sense of duty, and perhaps a desire not to abandon their comrades. And while they know things will go badly at the front, there is little to prepare them for the violence of the front lines, veteran soldiers say.
“These are people of peaceful profession, people from peaceful areas,” said Colonel Valeriy Kurko, the commander of the 103rd Brigade of Territorial Defense, where Mr Brukhal served.
Colonel Kurko said most of the people who had joined his group had never served in the military. The idea that people could simply spring into action as war crept closer is wrong, he said; then it’s too late.
His brigade, currently stationed in the eastern region of Donetsk, consists of men from the Lviv area. Several men have died in the past month, Colonel Kurko said, and at least three were buried in Lviv in early June.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Despite being short on time, they receive basic skills and training, he said, but he acknowledged that the unit’s morale had undoubtedly changed.
“I will not hide from you that some people were not ready to leave the territory of their region,” he said in an interview, adding that there were no soldiers from his brigade who refused to go east.
He acknowledged that the relentless artillery shelling is “a challenge not everyone can handle” and added that some families had asked why their husbands and sons should be deployed outside their home region without training.
Attempts to move more territorial soldiers east with limited training have devastated some units.
A territorial defense company, made up of 100 soldiers from the Kiev area, suffered 30 percent losses on its first day on the Eastern Front, around the town of Bakhmut, in late spring, according to soldiers from the unit.
Territorial defense soldiers had not expected such fierce engagement, said one soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics. “And this is where we ended up on the front line, like infantry sitting in the trenches,” he said.
The stories of half a dozen territorial defense soldiers interviewed for this article are much the same: they were trained as glorified guards during the early months of the war and then, as more casualties fell, were sent to the front.
The Kiev unit was also given the choice of going east, and those men were soon added to a regular Ukrainian army unit. The territorial defense soldiers said they had only rifles, machine guns and few anti-tank weapons supplied by the West.
They lacked the only weapon that has defined the war in recent months: artillery. They also had few ways of communicating with the units that had those heavy weapons.
Basically, the soldiers said they were mostly on their own.
“We are being torn to pieces, people are falling like flies, and why are we here?” said the soldier. “It is unclear.”
This type of broadcast is starting to meet with minor protests as wives, mothers and daughters of some of the dead express their dismay.
But others, such as Mr Brukhal’s family, said they supported their relatives’ decision despite their grief.
Before he left for the war, he had built a house for his two daughters. At a memorial service two weeks after his death, villagers gathered in prayer around a long table in the house, the walls of the cinder blocks still visible, a spread of food laid out in front of them.
It was the first unfinished meal in the house, said his sister, Mrs. Datsko.
“It’s just awful when you see what’s happening in the cemetery, and you don’t know when it’s going to end,” she said, reflecting on the rows of new graves that have appeared in Lviv’s military cemetery since her brother’s funeral. “We will have many wives without husbands and children without fathers.”
Oksana Stepanenko, 44, is also dealing with grief, along with her daughter Mariia, 8. Her husband, Andrii Verteev, was murdered on May 15.
Like Mr. Brukhal, he’d volunteered and had to protect an overpass just down the road in the early weeks of the war. He then joined an army anti-aircraft unit and was redeployed to the east.
His death added a new level of pain to the family. Mrs. Stepanenko’s son, Artur, died of an illness three years ago at the age of 13. Now a corner of their small living room has become a sanctuary for the boy and his father.
Ms Stepanenko said she takes comfort in her faith and the fact that it was her husband’s choice to go to the front. But, like so many others in Ukraine, she asked, “How many boys have to die before this ends?”
Despite the losses, families of fighters sent east said they saw it as their patriotic duty to defend their nation.
Natalia Rebryk, 39, who married her husband, Anton Tyrgin, just three months before the Russian invasion, said she naively thought she would be spared any personal connection to the war.
“This war started twice for me,” said Mrs. Rebryk. “The first time it started was the day of the invasion, and the second time was when Anton joined the arm
Mr. Tyrgin worked in the music industry before the war and had no military background when he volunteered to join the Ukrainian National Guard. He spent the early weeks of the conflict guarding strategic locations, but in early June his unit was told it could also be sent east.
Ms Rebryk said she’s concerned he’s not getting enough training and braces herself daily for that phone call she hopes never comes.
“We expected it to end in two or three weeks. Then in two or three weeks,” she said. “When you talk to the soldiers, you realize it might not even end this year.”
In Rudne, far from the chaos, destruction and death on the front lines, the brutality of war sometimes seems far away. With the air raid sirens still going off, it’s been months since they let residents clamber into shelters.
But the funerals of men like Mr. Brukhal bring it surprisingly close, and others from Rudne’s small community are still fighting in the east.
Yordana Brukhal, 13, said her father felt it was his duty to join the war, even though he was her main caregiver after separating from her mother last year.
“Until recently, I only felt this war mentally, not physically,” she said. “And since my father died, I feel it physically too.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Druzhkivka, Ukraine.