Olexander Vakulenko, deputy commander of 40 Battalion, was killed in combat a day after the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement was signed. He was one of my roommates in the main camp. His death occurred in the eastern suburb of Debaltseve on 15 February, around 2pm. That morning he and I had been digging the debris from our demolished room, but in the afternoon he got an order from C Sector to coordinate the combat operations of a National Guard squad on the frontline …

Debaltseve ruins major Vakulenko 40 battalion
Olexander Vakulenko explores our destroyed living room. My photo.

The NG [National Guard] unit was delayed, arriving at the agreed place two hours late, so the major and three of our soldiers had to fight against an enemy group three times larger. One of the soldiers who survived this mission told how they had awaited the NG squad inside a tunnel under the railway in the north-eastern suburb of Debaltseve. (Many in the army do not respect the NG because they often fear combat operations, while presenting themselves as real warriors). However, instead of the expected NG squad, Major Vakulenko and his soldiers saw three armed men approaching with yellow stripes on their uniforms (a sign of Ukrainian troops in those days). Thinking these men were representatives of the long-awaited NG unit, Vakulenko let them advance in order to talk. Seconds later, after Vakulenko had identified his party as Ukrainians from 40 Battalion, he was told: “If so, then surrender!”

Debaltseve ruins major Vakulenko 40 battalion
Major Vakulenko in Debaltseve between bombardments. My photo.

Suddenly the major realised he was facing an enemy diversion squad. Ten more men with yellow stripes appeared above the railway tunnel, also targeting the Ukrainians. A rifle shot rang out, followed by a burst of machine-gun fire, and the two groups joined battle. Major Vakulenko was struck by a grenade, hitting him in the chest or face, killing him instantly. A a witness remembered, a Senior Sergeant Volodymyr Kharatin fell, being probably wounded by a Kalashnikov bullet, and got captured. The two remaining Ukrainians popped smoke grenades and were lucky to escape, avoiding yet more enemies rushing to the scene in a truck.

Sr. Sergeant Kharatin has spent almost 5 months in captivity, and was released on 10 July 2015. Talking to Kryvyi Rih city newspaper ‘Domashnia Gazeta’, he told his version of that combat episode.

“We saw 20 persons of the enemy squad. Forces were unequal, because there were only 5 of us. We aimed Kalashnikovs at them, they did the same as well. If we would start firing, then we’ll simply die as inside a shooting gallery. They shouted: “Surrender!” I left my rifle to the deputy commander and rushed towards the enemy to obscure their firing sector. My guys were left behind my back. Then Separatists started firing at us. I fell down, and my guys had seconds to run. I wanted to shield my guys, rushing towards the enemy. It was my ill-considered decision, like I got crazy. However, not everybody had a chance to run. Major Vakulenko was shot down,” recalled survived Volodymyr Kharatin.

The National Guard unit finally arrived at the agreed rendezvous and discovered the aftermath of battle. They found Vakulenko’s body and returned it to us. But the major’s radio was missing. Later, the commander of the enemy diversion squad would use the stolen radio to demand that we lay down our arms and quit Debaltseve (I will write more about this in my next blog instalment). Of the wounded soldier Kharatin there was no sign.

Debaltseve ruins major Vakulenko 40 battalion
Major Vakulenko posing in front of the destroyed living room in Debaltseve. My photo.

The remaining officers of 40 Battalion, including myself, took the body of Olexander Vakulenko to the iron pavilion in our camp, and left him there in the winter cold, together with the corpse of Sergeant-major Valeriy Elefteriady, who had been killed the day before.

For five consecutive days we could not deliver the bodies of our dead comrades to the hospital in Artemivsk. Several attempts were made to get our dead and wounded out, but they were unsuccessful, as we were practically encircled at Debaltseve. One such convoy got trapped north of Novogrigorivka village and was abandoned in the fields under enemy fire. For days our guys saw those abandoned trucks but could not reach them due to constant heavy shelling.

By coincidence, the broken body of Vakulenko’s protégé, Senior Lieutenant Arthur Miskiv, was left in one of those trucks. He was shot at the frontline on the day before the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement was signed. Vakulenko painfully accepted the news of his student’s death. For several days Arthur Miskiv’s body lay in the iron pavilion, in the bitter cold. At night, with flashlights, and accompanied by the incessant sound of shelling, Major Vakulenko and I visited that place to pay our respects. But I did not imagine that in a couple of days I would be carrying the dead body of Olexander Vakulenko to the same iron pavilion, climbing up the same stairs again and again …

Our Major Vakulenko did not lay down his arms. He fought and stopped the enemy. He sacrificed his life for us, as a hero. He is a true example of a Ukrainian Army officer. Eternal respect and memory to him!

Major Vakulenko Debaltseve 40 battalion
Olexander Vakulenko in front of the iron pavilion at our base in Debaltseve. My photo.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

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