They traded stiletto heels and short skirts for army boots and a military uniform.
Instead of strolling through shopping malls or stretching at yoga sessions, they get muddy doing push-ups and learning how to fight while squeezing in and out of foxholes on battle training grounds.
These are the few and proud Ukrainian women who chose to pursue a military career and serve the motherland, despite the low pay, sexism and other hardships.
Oksana Vereshchak, a corporal serving as a communications expert in Ukraine’s 95th airborne brigade, is proof that some women can get down and dirty with the boys. Like many of her female colleagues, she doesn’t make a big deal of her decision to join the army.
She calmly insists that becoming a trained soldier was the natural thing for her to do. “Like most children raised in military families, I chose to follow the footsteps of my parents. So I signed a contract and have been serving in the military for the last 15 years,” Vereshchak said.
A big leap
Vereshchak didn’t get any special military education. She went through the same training programs as Ukrainian men, learning how to use an AK-47 assault rifle and parachute jumping.
“I think the toughest assignment for all of us was the first parachute jump,” Vereshchak said. Like their male colleagues, women wear camouflage uniforms and heavy black military boots. But with their neatly applied makeup and freshly done nails, their feminine beauty still stands out.
According to Defense Ministry figures, about 25 percent of Ukraine’s 200,000 military personnel are women. Most handle administrative and technical support jobs, but 17,300 are on active duty. Only 7 percent of those are officers.
Few are in combat. The decision to venture into such potential danger is voluntary. Women are, however, discouraged from applying for such high-risk positions because of the risk of sexual assault if captured by the enemy.
But these are, thankfully, peaceful times. Many women find that a military lifestyle suits them.
Instead of living in barracks with the men, servicewomen get their own apartments near the base. Their working day kicks off at 8:15 a.m. with a standard roll call followed by training courses on using military equipment, reconnaissance activities and tactical operations. After lunch, they do their assigned duties, followed by routine physical training in the evening.
Once a month, they are supposed to go to a firing range, to brush up on their shooting, but there is no money to do so in the government’s military budget.
Captain Olena Shvets studies topography during her training course at the National Defense University in Kyiv in April. She is the only full-time female student in this university. (Nataliya Kravchuk)
The same applies to parachute jumping. “The airfield is 18 kilometers away from our base, and we have to get there on our own,” explained Vereshchak. “Plus, we have to pay Hr 80 ($10) for each jump, and we are required to do 3-5 jumps a year.”
Scrounging for extra money is, perhaps, the toughest part of the job. Corporals like Vereshchak get Hr 1,200-1,500 per month. Most of it is typically spent on basic necessities, such as food and rent. Several servicewomen often share an apartment.
Despite the drawbacks, the army offers a sense of stability.
“Military salaries are not the highest in this country, but at least we get paid on time,” said Corporal Larysa Malysheva.
Shooting for the stars
Despite having a relatively large number of women in the military, Ukraine lags far behind the armies of the United States, Israel and Scandinavian countries. The Israeli army has broadly opened up combat positions to women.
The Pentagon took things further, making 95 percent of all military jobs open to women. The main exceptions are ground combat units, such as infantry and special operations commandos. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense gave a green light for women to serve on submarines, shortening the list of all-male positions even further.
There are no females among Ukraine’s generals, for traditional and other reasons. In the United States, by contrast, there are more than 50 active duty female officers who wear general or admiral stars. Ukraine boasts a dozen female colonels, the highest rank earned by a woman in military uniform thus far.
Ukrainian “G.I. Janes” have little chance to wear officer stars unless they earn a degree from a military college or university. “I would like to get promoted to officer, but to make it happen I have to earn a degree in a corresponding area of military studies,” Malysheva said. “Unfortunately, I can’t afford it right now.”
Besides, promotion is not guaranteed. “There is a limited list of military positions for women, and the best of them are already taken,” Malysheva said.
Some of Ukraine’s female soldiers, nonetheless, are still shooting for general stars.
Captain Olena Shvets is certain that her military career will be successful. She decided to join the army when she was in the first grade after watching her father, a Soviet military army officer, pack for Afghanistan.
Shvets is attending graduate studies at the National Defense University in Kyiv. Her father, Major General Volodymyr Lishavsky, chairs one of the departments.
“You can’t be accepted to the Defense University fresh out of high school, so at first I earned my master’s degree in finance from Taras Shevchenko National University, then served in the military for 1.5 years to become eligible for the Defense University, and I got enrolled,” Shvets said.
This summer, she will be promoted to major, which means a pay raise from Hr 2,800 to Hr 3,000.
“Money is not a decisive factor,” says Shvets. “I just like serving in the military and want to do my best.”
Shvets may be one of the lucky few. Some traditionalists insist that female soldiers are simply not cut out for combat.
“Women simply can’t serve in the special forces due to the rather challenging physical load, which, by the way, many men can’t handle,” said Colonel Volodymyr Solovian of the 95th airborne brigade. “They ought to be strong both morally and physically. These guys go through special survival training: they might be dumped in the middle of a forest with no food, no maps, no vehicles – and a day to get to the destination point. They can walk through the woods, day and night, eating frogs, snakes and birds on their way. A reconnaissance soldier would rather take an additional ammunition unit than sandwiches.”
Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Ishchenko said that many positions are very competitive. “Nevertheless, if a person – be it a man or a woman – wants to achieve something, there is always a way to do it,” Ishchenko said.
Ishchenko said women who succeed in Ukraine’s military challenge stereotypes that women are unfit, emotionally and otherwise. “If there are complaints, they often come from men who do not know how to build efficient working relations with their female colleagues,” Ishchenko said. “From my personal experience, I can say that women are responsible, accurate, carefully perform their duties and they can master the most complicated equipment.”
A military career always comes to an end, making for a difficult adjustment to civilian life for many women and men alike.
“At some point, I figured that all the skills that I obtained in the army could not be applied for any job out there,” Corporal Galyna Ledina said.
Ledina applied for a re-training program. She attended computer classes, but found that “it was pretty hard to get a job,” even more so considering the 10 percent unemployment level in Vinnytsia Oblast.
“But I eventually figured out what to do. Now, I post advertising online and that pays well,” Ledina said. “So, now I can say for sure that my real life started after retirement from the military.”
Kyiv Post staff writer Olesia Oleshko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.