UNBREAKABLE / NEZLAMNI
First Lieutenant Yulia Mykytenko: “Men no longer refuse to serve under my command because I am a woman”

Yulia Mykytenko

Yulia Mykytenko joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine on a contract in 2016 together with her husband. After doing the “work for women” at the headquarters, she entered The Hetman Petro Sahaidachny National Army Academy, returning to the front as a combat officer. After the death of her husband in February 2018, Yulia went to work at the Kyiv Military Lyceum. The next day after our interview, the unbreakable Yulia Mykytenko was sent on a combat mission to the East of Ukraine.

In the “Unbreakable” special project, Yulia shares about how the Ukrainian army has changed and how important it is to be the right person in the right place.

Six months of peaceful life

I resigned from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) six months before the full-scale invasion. Before that, I worked as a platoon commander at the Kyiv Military Lyceum. I had come to a conclusion that there is sense in being in the army only if you are fighting. I had never planned to be in the army, it’s just how life worked for me. To go to the war in 2016 was our joint decision with my husband. As I resigned, I believed that I fulfilled my mission and it was time for me to go back to a life of a civilian.

I am a linguist by profession. I graduated from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In the six months of peaceful life, I worked as a project manager of an IT project for veterans and for the Invisible Battalion, which works with the issues of gender and sexual harassment in the army. So, I didn’t completely leave the military. During the first month of retirement, it was strange for me not to put on my uniform and run for the line-up. I no longer needed to ask for a leave of absence and write reports. I felt more freedom. I really liked this job and, if it weren’t for the war, I would have loved to continue working.

Return to the line

I was also shocked by the start of the war. All the military knew that this armed conflict could not continue in the form it was going on in the East of the country, and that an escalation should be expected. Many of my western colleagues spoke about it as well. But nobody had thought that it would start the way it did and at the time it did. I was sleeping in Kyiv and didn’t even understand that there were explosions, although I know how things explode better than anybody. The second time around I jumped from my bed; there were explosions in Vasylkiv.

When I was retiring from the army, I gave myself a promise that I would return to service if a full-scale war began. I also knew that I had the right psychological and professional training. I knew I would be needed. The war is more difficult now, because the enemy is using missiles and you can’t hear when they are launched. With artillery in the East, you hear when it’s launched and can calculate the time and hide. Now, you won’t even hear that something is coming at you. This fear of uncertainty is far worse than the continuous firing of the artillery. 

We, the veterans, are more prepared for it. I believe that this is why many of us rejoined the army. Also, the desire to defend your loved ones is a strong motivation, as we are now talking about the threat to all regions of Ukraine.

When Kyiv was under threat, it was important for me to stay here to protect the city and my loved ones. I also fought a bit in Kyiv Oblast. I have not seen so many victims among the peaceful population in my entire time of fighting on the front in the East. I have relatives from Bucha and Irpin; they were under occupation there, when I was nearby; there are victims among them. It was easier for me, when I was fighting in the East, knowing that my family was protected in Kyiv.

Women in the army

In my opinion, the attitude towards women in the army changed compared to 2016. Back then, our commanders thought it insane that I wanted to join a combat unit instead of sitting somewhere at the headquarters with documents. In fact, I was not allowed to join a combat unit then. I was appointed to headquarters with an argument that I was a woman and that was my place right there. Now, the commanders are ready to accept me to a combat unit and not ask questions about my readiness to carry out assignments. I think we have the media to thank for this change, because, for example, we got everybody to say “male and female defenders of the Motherland”. Here’s how it looks in reality: we have a powerful percentage of women in the army. We are 37,000 – that’s 25% of the army. Not everybody participates in combat, but each of us, working in their position, makes sure the army functions.

I feel the change in the attitude towards women in the army also on part of volunteers. For example, now, without even knowing whether there are women in a unit, they bring personal hygiene items and women’s underwear by default. This wasn’t the case in 2016; nobody thought about hygiene pads when considering the needs of the soldiers on the front line.

There’s been considerable change in the attitude of male colleagues as well. In 2017, I was appointed a unit commander. I was met with a very strong rejection, up to being told: “You are a skirt, I refuse to be under your command.” Now, I’ve been appointed a commander again, because I am an officer. This time, I was met with restraint; everybody kept their thoughts to themselves, as if saying “we’ll live and see what kind of a commander you are”. Over time, things settled down and I am treated now as a professional, with due respect. There are many people in the unit I used to serve with previously, but there are none of the old feelings of disrespect.

Юлія Микитенко
© Юлія Микитенко | Yulia Mykytenko | Julia Mykytenko

Support from the rear

The rear should not forget that there is a war in the country. I personally have nothing against Instagram stories with coffee and cats. If you go to a coffee shop, it allows the shop to operate and pay taxes, which are used to provide for the army, to pay our salaries. Fighting is not for everybody. It’s just, along with all of that, don’t forget to post the important things about the war, write to your foreign friends, insert important hashtags, like #ArmUkraineNow. We really need the weapons now. This is the war of artillery, the war of missiles. We cannot “fight with live meat” like Russia does, and therefore we need weapons. If you speak other languages, join in creation and translation of important information.

In the period of being in the army, I have grown a lot professionally. I joined the army without any particular skills. In the war that is unfolding now, a person without proper training is just ‘cannon fodder’.

Юлія Микитенко
© Юлія Микитенко | Yulia Mykytenko | Julia Mykytenko

How not to break during the war

I am now very thorough about my training as a service person: it is critical to survive in the first two minutes of a combat, and that requires training your body and mind. As an officer, I’ve grown a lot as well. The lyceum was a great help in this. Psychologically, I became more mature. I know that now, unlike the combat actions of 2017, I have a higher chance to die, just like anybody else. I rely on fate and am prepared to die. I know that I haven’t done a lot, but I did it the best I could.

When my husband died in combat in 2018 in the East, I went through a long period of stress. The work was the only thing that kept me going. Work helps a lot in suppressing bad thoughts. I also wouldn’t dismiss psychological support. There are specialists in Ukraine now, both domestic and from international organizations, providing support and advice. So you need to see them, otherwise you can easily burn out.

Believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and in our victory!

Юлія Микитенко
© Юлія Микитенко | Yulia Mykytenko | Julia Mykytenko

This article was prepared by the editorial office of Ukrainian women´s magazine WoMo as a part of the "Unbreakable" author´s special project in cooperation with Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom in Ukraine supported by the Federal Foreign Office.

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