WHEN Russia invaded in February 2022, Vitalii Nartov, a Pentecostal pastor in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, chose to join the army. He had been working as a volunteer chaplain since the Russian incursion into Crimea and the Donbass region in 2014. When the full-scale invasion began, he joined a reconnaissance unit.
“I needed to defend my home and family,” he said on Wednesday, at a gathering of the First Ukrainian Battalion of Military Chaplains, which was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury during his visit to Ukraine.
Mr Nartov was severely injured in a rocket blast, and returned to his former role as a chaplain, serving with the 92nd Separate Assault Brigade. Not that it’s brought him greater safety: his wife, Alona, tells me she worries about him just as much as a chaplain as as she did when he was a soldier.
Barrel-chested and with a scruffy beard, Mr Nartov’s attitude is pragmatic, driven by a strong faith. When I ask how he handles his injuries, he tells me that he was offered the chance to go to the UK for treatment and rehabilitation, but so far hasn’t taken up the offer. He describes his current approach as simple: “Pray and work!”
Archbishop Welby explained that the purpose of his visit was to listen to the experiences of men like Mr Nartov, and to act as their advocate when he returned to England.
Last year, BBC News reported that a small group of Ukrainian army chaplains trained with their counterparts in the UK, and it is hoped that such programmes can be repeated.
The challenges they have faced over the past ten years, since Russian troops first invaded Ukraine’s territory, have changed over time, one of the group explained. As it has become clear that the full-scale invasion was not going to be quickly won or lost, Ukrainians have to come to terms with the deleterious mental as well as physical effects of being permanently at war.
In response to the need for rehabilitation, the founder of the Battalion of Military Chaplains, the Revd Ruslan Busko, has developed a rehab centre for troops returning from the front, providing “spiritual, psychological, and physical rehabilitation”.
On a tour of the facility in a renovated residential building in Bila Tserkva, a town south of Kyiv, Archbishop Welby met several of the current participants on the programme. “Before I started, I felt that no one needed me: not the state, nor my family”, one said.
The work is in its infancy, and Anna, who volunteers as a psychologist, admits that the need for support is always growing.
The provision of chaplains on the front line is an important first step, but won’t solve everything, they all agree. “When the war ends, military chaplains will have more work than ever.”