Decorated ‘Hero of Ukraine’ learns to live with bionic arms


Valeriy Kucherenko is a decorated “Hero of Ukraine” but the battle he is currently fighting is learning how to eat and use the toilet alone.

Seriously injured in October, the burly 30-year-old is a double amputee with two prosthetic arms.

More and more Ukrainian soldiers like him are losing limbs in a war that has dragged into a third year, and being forced to adjust to life in a country with few facilities for persons with disabilities.

“I have new arms and I need to get used to it. And you have to realise that this is for the rest of your life. This is your whole future,” Mr. Kucherenko said.

The Protez Foundation, a U.S. non-profit, fitted Mr. Kucherenko with bionic prosthetic arms after a fundraising campaign.

Made by a Ukrainian start-up called Esper, they have chargeable batteries and are operated via muscles in his stumps.

But he has not adapted to the prosthetic arms completely, and they often become loose.

This was normal due to loss of muscle mass, explained Jim Henrichsen, the U.S. specialist who fitted his arms.

Mr. Kucherenko served in the Army from 2015 to 2017, and then rejoined when Russia invaded in 2022. A junior sergeant, he was injured leading troops as they stormed Russian positions in the eastern Lugansk region.

Hero’s honour

Shrapnel from a hand grenade peppered his arms, leg and eyes, one of which now only sees light and dark. Mr. Kucherenko was awarded Ukraine’s highest honour, the Hero of Ukraine medal, for his acts.

“You are a hero. In Ukraine, no one forgets such heroes,”President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told him in hospital.

After his new arms were fitted, “the very first thing I wanted to do was go to the toilet independently because this was a big problem for me,” he said.

“That was one of the greatest joys.” But it is a work in progress, said his 25-year-old wife, Veronika.

With prosthetics, “it’s easier, he can eat on his own,” she said. But the hardest thing is “going to the toilet. He still cannot go by himself”.

Testing his bionic hand, Mr. Kucherenko raised a bottle of water to his mouth. It slipped and Veronika caught it.

“He needs more time, he needs to learn, to train. Then there will be a result,” she said. Prosthetics give amputees “a chance” says a poster at the Protez Foundation, which has a waiting list of 1,600 soldiers. “It’s a dream,” says one soldier getting a prosthetic arm.

Strong soldiers

Soldiers “are in good shape, they are strong… They make me look good because they are really sharp,” said Mr. Henrichsen. “Valeriy was just like, ‘Let’s go!’” he said of Mr. Kucherenko. But many may not realise the difficulties ahead, added the specialist.

“I don’t know if they are necessarily aware of that: the usage of the (prosthetic) hand, how much work it takes to get familiarised with it,” he said.

In central Kyiv, Mr. Kucherenko’s black and silver hands attracted curious glances. “Most people who come across someone like me are understanding and supportive… But there are many people who don’t yet understand what it is,” he said.

Until recently he used a wheelchair and found the city “not adapted at all”.

Panoramic windows at the Protez Foundation clinic allow passers-by to see amputees. This is deliberate, because a wounded soldier “is a hero twice over”, said CEO Yury Aroshidze. “I’m all for it. Ukrainians and Kyiv residents must see and understand the consequences of war,” Mr. Kucherenko said.

As a Hero of Ukraine, Mr. Kucherenko should receive a flat, but now lives in a small rented apartment in Bila Tserkva, a city south of Kyiv.

Mr. Kucherenko plans to return to the military as an instructor. “I won’t be able to fight, but I will still be able to help the armed forces,” he said.

He recently visited his unit “to show them that I’m here, I’m alive. I can do it.” He even fired an assault rifle.

“He will go back. He lives for this,” Veronika said.


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