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A center in Ukraine's northeast offers soldiers some badly needed rest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The war grinds on for Ukraine's soldiers. Military psychologists worried about the impact on their exhausted troops have opened a healing center in the country's northeast. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports it offers a brief but badly needed respite.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The healing center is tucked into an unremarkable building on the outskirts of town. And when soldiers arrive here, one of the first places they go is a room that sounds like this. Inside, the curtains are drawn. Soldiers are reclining in puffy chairs around an indoor garden.

Smells like eucalyptus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, it's eucalyptus.

KAKISSIS: It is eucalyptus.

Some are with their wives, and they're holding hands. A skinny 21-year-old named Vlad is with his older sister, Iryna. Vlad says he's been on the front line since last summer, most recently in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.

VLAD: (Through interpreter) Nearly everyone in my unit died in Bakhmut. I don't know how to describe it other than a mass grave.

KAKISSIS: He turns pale and points to a photo on his phone of a smiling young man - his best friend Nikita, one of the dead. A psychologist here, Maksym Bayda, watches Vlad closely. He says soldiers like him are at their most fragile

MAKSYM BAYDA: (Through interpreter) Many of these soldiers can't sleep. They have nightmares. There is also this enormous sense of guilt. They feel guilty about their friends who died on the front line, and they even feel guilty about killing enemy soldiers.

KAKISSIS: The first step toward healing is relaxation, something you obviously can't do on the battlefield, says Nazar, a 25-year-old soldier.

NAZAR: (Through interpreter) You hear constant shelling, explosions and shooting. It's exhausting. Here, it's so quiet, I started feeling like myself again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: The soldiers here declined to give their last names for security reasons. The program was launched last summer with the help of Western donors. The founder is Oleksander Vasylkovskyi, a lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian armed forces.

OLEKSANDER VASYLKOVSKYI: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He says he's watched fellow soldiers suffer since the fighting began in 2014 in eastern Ukraine. Some killed themselves, and Vasylkovskyi says he was also struggling.

VASYLKOVSKYI: (Through interpreter) I did not hide it. I temporarily quit the army in 2017. My family, especially my wife, encouraged me to see psychologists, and with their help, I pulled through.

KAKISSIS: After Russia's full-scale invasion last February, Vasylkovskyi recruited military psychologist and college professor Ihor Prykhodko to help him design a weeklong treatment program for the weary of soldiers. At the very least, Prykhodko says, he wants this program to show soldiers that Ukraine values them

IHOR PRYKHODKO: (Through interpreter) Because in the Soviet Union, the military cared more about propaganda than the health of individual soldiers. We want to remind soldiers that we care about them as people, about their health, their feelings, their lives.

KAKISSIS: He said the team spoke to Western European colleagues and the U.S. military to come up with a program that includes counseling as well as aromatherapy, massage, meditation...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: ...And exercise. In this class, soldiers, especially older ones, are working on strengthening their backs, which they've injured jumping out of military vehicles. A short walk away, more soldiers are gliding in a heated pool equipped with hydro massage.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

KAKISSIS: Nazar, the 25-year-old soldier we met earlier, waves to psychologist Maksym Bayda, who motions like he's going to dive into the water.

BAYDA: Sometimes the soldiers are so relaxed here that it just makes sense to jump in and just have counseling sessions.

KAKISSIS: Bayda says about 2500 soldiers have already gone through the program since the summer. At the end of their week here, most soldiers return to the front line. Bayda says he always prays he will hear from them again. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.