N.S. veteran injured in Ukraine war makes 'good and gut-wrenching' return home

·4 min read
N.S. veteran injured in Ukraine war makes 'good and gut-wrenching' return home

The last thing Dustin Rekunyk remembers is a loud explosion on his left-hand side.

The wall he was standing about 20 metres from blew up, breaking his shoulder, bruising four of his ribs and leaving him with a concussion.

The single father from Halifax didn't find out these details until he woke up later in a recovery area for injured foreign fighters in Ukraine.

Rekunyk, a fourth-generation Ukrainian who served with the Canadian Armed Forces for 15 years, took his first trip to his family's ancestral homeland in April to help defend it against the Russian invasion.

He's among a group of Canadians leaving their homes behind to volunteer in the war effort.

Rekunyk returned to Nova Scotia late last month so he could get medical care for his injuries, but he said his mission in Ukraine isn't over. Landing back in Halifax felt both "good and gut-wrenching all at the same time," he said.

"It feels like I've left a piece of my heart in Ukraine," Rekunyk told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week. "There's still a job and a mission to do there, and I've got to see that through."

Hear Dustin Rekunyk's full interview with Mainstreet:

He didn't want to wait

Rekunyk first signed up with the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine (ILDU), an organization created by Ukraine for foreigners who want to volunteer to fight in the country.

He was put on a list of people waiting to be deployed, but after being interviewed by Mainstreet last month, someone reached out and told Rekunyk they knew a quicker way for him to get there.

"Within about five days of telling them, 'Yup, I want to go,' I was in Ukraine," said Rekunyk, who ended up fighting with an organization similar to ILDU made up of soldiers from Canada, the U.S., Britain and elsewhere.

Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press
Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press

He said the group was independent from the Ukrainian army, but the country's military knew they were there and gave them supplies.

After landing at a safe house in Lviv, in western Ukraine, Rekunyk travelled to a base of operations in Dnipro and eventually to the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia is now focusing much of its attack.

The first week he heard air raid sirens almost every night but it was relatively quiet in terms of fighting, said Rekunyk.

"But the second week, kind of that Monday local time, Ukraine ... it all kind of started off. It was absolute chaos and hell on earth," he said.

Rekunyk previously spent 15 years in the Canadian Army, including with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, but said he's never experienced the "World War II-esque" style of combat he saw in Ukraine where it was just soldier after soldier coming at a person.

"There's no amount of training and no amount of psychological build up that can really, I would argue, prep you for what comes."

About 72 hours after Russia began its assault on the region of Donetsk and Luhansk, Rekunyk was injured and made the decision to travel home to Nova Scotia to get medical care.

Because he wasn't part of the ILDU, he wasn't able to go to a military hospital in Ukraine, he said.

"I haven't yet fully processed just how truly blessed and lucky I am. It will sink in, but it hasn't yet," he said.

Reuniting with his son

For Rekunyk, fighting for Ukraine has given him a new sense of belonging and connection to his heritage.

"I want to reconnect with that a lot more now ... picking up language courses so I can learn the Ukrainian language a lot better and kind of get back in touch with those roots," he said.

But he also wants other Canadians to think very carefully about what joining the war effort means.

He has a 12-year-old son he feared he wouldn't see again.

Submitted by Dustin Rekunyk
Submitted by Dustin Rekunyk

When the two reunited at the end of April, "it was just tears, a huge hug, and he was just really, really happy I was home and safe," Rekunyk said.

He plans to return to Ukraine when he's strong enough, but for now, he's not thinking that far into the future.

"Right now, it's more focusing just on spending time with him here and now," he said.


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