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“I build my work on trust and love for my comrades.” Meet the female military commanders

Published on Dec 7, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 10th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on December 7th, 2023. The article was written by Olga Dudenko for Wonder Zine and was translated for n-ost by Natalia Volynets.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Currently, almost 43,000 women serve in the Ukrainian army, including medics, snipers, aerial scouts, drivers and couriers. Though they may still face gender bias such as being refused a combat position, some women hold leadership positions in units.

We talked to the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platoon commander Yulia Mykytenko and the observation platoon commander Daria Vasylchenko about their work in the army — what a military commander post entails and what daily challenges they face on the frontline.

Yulia Mykytenko UAV platoon commander

I signed a contract with my brigade back in 2016. As a female, I was not accepted at first for a combat position in the reconnaissance platoon and was registered as a clerk in the headquarters. To reach the position of a UAV platoon commander, I had to have technical skills, understanding of how the military aircraft - known as “birds” - generally operate, and strong communication skills, since I daily communicate and interact with many units to get reconnaissance data to people of interest.

My major duty is to protect the life and health of my personnel. I also monitor the state of the “birds”, and their availability [for deployment]. I need to determine the time of unit departure and the provision of take-off points for the “birds” and material resources, such as generators or thermal imagers. I supply four take-off points. It is all about creating comfortable conditions for my subordinates and their work, as well as organising training for them and various advanced programs.

Difficulties in the army often relate to everyday life. For instance, we can receive substandard fuel: we use equipment that requires careful treatment and constant monitoring, and if we use bad fuel, our generators break down. Hence, we have to look for another generator and replace or repair it, and such daily difficulties are numerous.

Similarly, vehicles constantly break down on the frontline owing to broken roads, due to shelling. On average, our cars undergo minor repairs once a week. We also have to buy mud tyres constantly, as it is autumn now, which means it rains all the time, and country roads are washed away.

We always need to monitor the technical state of the “birds” since, unfortunately, there are not so many of them and they fall down or are shot. If we don’t have enough of them, we need to make requests to receive more. This is about communication with our headquarters.

I have Mavic drones and large “birds” that fly deep into the frontline, conduct surveillance of the enemy, and detect where they are clustered. This involves the flight, its decryption, and then the transfer of this reconnaissance data to our headquarters and military personnel of the units we work with. In this kind of work, so that everything is fixed, it is important to say exactly when our equipment takes off and when our military needs to fire. It is probably no secret that ammunition is a problem for us, so every shot must be accurate.

At the start of my service, it was difficult to communicate because I did not yet have acquaintances or the necessary contact base. When I began working as a commander, I already knew the brigade members, half of whom served with me in 2016–2018, so finding a common language within the unit was easy.

Of course, I sometimes have to communicate with not very nice people who are prejudiced against me because of my gender. Now I am in the second year of my work, such issues do not arise. I managed to build communication lines with all departments and everyone is aware of what we can do for them, how we interact, what information we can provide them with, and how they can process it.

In part, I also secured the positions of the reconnaissance company. In dangerous directions, we perform a reinforcement function, so I sometimes brought ammunition and food to the frontline, removed the bodies from the front, and evacuated the wounded from the grey zone. Therefore, I have undertaken additional tasks to my immediate duties.

When I see that operating some equipment is beyond the competence of the military in my unit and they need to grow professionally, I talk to them about that. Guys are constantly in this picture, monitoring the news on UAV developers, and can tell me that they like a certain “bird” and would like to learn to fly it. Then, we collect funds to buy it and look for the contacts of a manufacturer and instructors who can provide training. Thus, the military returns with new skills. We currently have a group specialising in UAVs and a group working with First Person View (FPV) drones.

Since 2016, I was first a clerk and then an accountant. After that, I completed a three-month officer course and received officer knowledge. I was given the chance to become a commander of a separate reconnaissance platoon in one of the battalions, which was a surprise. It was 2017, and few women served in officer positions. However, I was supported by the battalion commander and my now deceased husband, with whom I served.

I agreed to this position. At first, it was very hard: none of the subordinates wanted to see me in the role of a platoon commander. Over time, through effort, I gained authority and respect, with no complaints about me.

After my husband died, I transferred to the Ivan Bohun Kyiv Military Lyceum and served there from 2018 to 2021, also as a platoon commander. Then I had a six- month break, and with the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I went to the military commissariat. I initially served as a platoon commander in the guard company at the military commissariat, and when it became safer in Kyiv, I transferred to a combat brigade. I went to the unit where I served before because I had acquaintances there. They helped me get my orders, so two months later, I was already in the unit.

I was treated differently in various periods of my service — first, as a commander of a separate reconnaissance platoon, and then, in the full-scale invasion, as a UAV platoon commander.

For me as a commander of a separate reconnaissance platoon, it was very difficult to gain trust and authority. There were about 12 males in the platoon at the time, and most left when I was assigned. They argued that I had no combat experience and was a woman — and no one wants to be under a woman’s command. I had to recruit new people. Only four of the old team stayed with me. Then we were going from the training ground to the combat zone: I had one tracked armoured personnel carrier (APC) and a [Soviet 4X4 military truck] GAZ-66 in a very poor state, so it was very difficult.

Despite all these circumstances, I managed. For two or three months, I stayed with the guys everywhere, including infantry positions, provided as much assistance to the military as I could, and thus built authority and trust in myself. Even those who said it was bad to serve under a female commander eventually returned to my reconnaissance platoon. Currently, I pass reconnaissance data to various units working in our area or within our brigade. For some time, I was responsible for connecting all the crews and drones operating in our direction to the common streaming platform. That involved a lot of communication, and nobody had questions about my gender. They communicated with me as equals.

Daria Vasylchenko, commander of the observation platoon

I had been preparing for a full-scale war since 2014, when I was still a student. I realised that not only would the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone [in east Ukraine] not hold, but sooner or later Russia would want to take more than Crimea. That is why I started attending various courses, where I learned how to handle weapons.

Before 24 February 2022, I wanted to sign a contract with the Territorial Defence Forces. Officially, it is called a reservist’s contract, according to which, in the event of hostilities, you are called to a meeting where you can get a military card and get mobilised. Two years prior to that, I tried to sign the same contract but was refused, as I did not have a military speciality. I asked what the difference was if the law stated that any citizen of Ukraine could sign a contract with the Territorial Defence Forces regardless of their education or gender. Still, for some reason, at that time they were cautious to take me and did not know how to properly conclude the contract with me.

Two years later, I tried again to see if anything had changed in the system.

I agreed to sign the contract, and on that very night, the full-scale war began. So I just packed my things and went to work. At first, I worked in the communal organisation “Municipal Protection”. Because this firm was comprised of ATO veterans, almost all of my colleagues went to the front. We were ready for the turn of events. We just had to come into work and let our bosses know if we were going to be mobilised. I came to the Obolon [a district in Kyiv] military committee and was issued a military card the same night.

I started serving as a shooter-paramedic, then a driver, and an assistant to a grenade launcher. I spent my first rotations in the artillery battery class. Later, when we were assigned to Bakhmut, the battalion commander instructed me and my colleague Aladdin to create a fully functional air reconnaissance unit in the battalion.

At that time, the staff list did not allow us to single out this unit, so we were listed as drivers, electricians or gunners. I started my journey as an ordinary soldier, as a shooter. I went to meetings, to work in the kitchen, and to various defence sectors in Kyiv. It will soon be two years since I have started serving in the army, and it has always been a time of different feelings.

Now I work as a commander of the platoon of surveillance and technical means of reconnaissance. My responsibilities include setting up the reconnaissance work so that it can be as effective as possible, and can provide a continuous broadcast of all events on the frontline, conduct long-range reconnaissance, watch the enemy, and adjust fire from various artillery systems. In fact, I manage the terrain: I choose the position that will be more beneficial and the safest for my pilots to work from, arrange this position, start the work — and further, as a manager, I coordinate all the flights from the control-observation point or operational control point of the battalion.

The first difficulty is the enemy who wants to kill you. I work in a very well-coordinated battalion, whose military interact well with each other. I have the support of all the necessary services, for example, those in engineering when I need to dig a dugout or those at the rear when we need to provide some equipment. Therefore, the only threat is your enemy shelling both your positions and vehicles that are on the way to these positions.

Working as a commander in the army requires a certain degree of stress resistance. When the assault begins, you have to direct your “eyes” to the sky so that they work as efficiently as possible, and manage to see everything you need regarding the enemy’s location. You have to be calm and balanced, so that you can clearly give commands. It is important to have a character enabling you to take responsibility not only for machinery or equipment, but also for the lives of your comrades. Having personnel losses is the most difficult and the most frightening thing for a commander.

My unit is very supportive. I did not go through the Soviet army school and do not know how the old-style army works, so I approach my work with the team with a newer, more NATO-like approach. I build my work on respect, trust, and love for my comrades. I think they feel that we have each other’s backs.

I am inspired by the fact that they are active and want to work. I can avoid giving them specific instructions about the work for they themselves understand what we need and become interested in it, attend various courses, listen to lectures, and offer me ready-made solutions. I often say that we are like a living organism, where every cell has its own place, and is needed by the others.