When Olena Chekryzhova followed in her grandmother’s footsteps and began teaching English, she never dreamed the job would lead to a monthslong stay at a front-line military base.
But that has become her new reality as Ukrainian soldiers scramble to learn English – military terms especially – so they can make the most of combat aid from Washington and elsewhere against Russian forces.
Donated supplies like HIMARS rocket systems have been a battlefront game-changer, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s lightning visit to Washington this week yielded further pledges, including, for the first time, the Patriot missile defense system.
Soldiers have found, however, that training materials for this equipment are available mainly in English, which is often also necessary to communicate with foreign volunteer fighters they encounter in the field.
To help topple the language barrier, Chekryzhova, 35, has traded in her quiet life of classroom conjugation to give crash courses to the armed forces.
‘Small contribution’ for her nation
The work included a five-month stint at a base in the eastern industrial Donetsk region, where she lived alongside soldiers and took part in training sessions.
“Some people think I’m crazy,” she told AFP at the facility in Kyiv where she is stationed.
But she added, “I think that teaching English in this case is the small contribution that I can do for my country, for the people of my country and for the military, who are protecting us from this terrorist attack.”
Nearly all Ukrainian soldiers had at least some English instruction in school, but it was not always useful, especially for the older ones.
“It was back in Soviet times, and this English I learned at school is like nothing, basically,” said Igor Soldatenko, 50, one of Chekryzhova’s students in Kyiv.
“The whole system was inadequate, as I see now. We were just learning texts without understanding them. … Nobody could use it in real life.”
The recent lessons, by contrast, have been more practical, giving him words like “wounded,” “semiautomatic” and “cache” as well as phrases such as “killed in action.”
The learning goes both ways, with Chekryzhova gleaning a new understanding of tactics and strategy — and an appreciation of the trials of military life.
While in Donetsk, she grieved along with soldiers who lost comrades — some of whom she taught directly — in fighting in her hometown of Bakhmut, a target of incessant Russian assault in recent months.
“For me it’s a double pain. Because on the one hand it’s my hometown, and on the other hand it has now become the grave of my students,” she said.
During a recent one-hour conversation lesson in Kyiv, the only time Chekryzhova’s students slipped briefly into Ukrainian was when discussing those they have lost.
But despite fighting back tears, soldier Yuriy Kalmutskiy, 36, insisted on completing his idea in English, even if it was somewhat broken.
“I lose a lot of friends. … It was my circle of close people, and I lose … they. I lose they,” he said. “It’s very hard.”
As they work toward ultimately mastering English, Chekryzhova’s students told AFP they drew some inspiration from Zelenskyy’s journey with the language.
“A few years ago, he [had] awful English. Everybody knows this,” Kalmutskiy said. “But he learned.”
That progress came in handy on Wednesday when Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress in English, declaring that “Ukraine is alive and kicking” while appealing for more aid.
Difficulty in expanding program
Yet while individual students have made similar strides, Chekryzhova told AFP she is struggling to scale up her program to reach even more.
International organizations have so far rebuffed her requests for funding, saying they can’t be seen giving money to the military.
“They say they would like to help children, they would like to help animals, the elderly, maybe some internally displaced people or people who are abroad,” she said.
Her students scoffed at this approach, and Chekryzhova said she has little interest in dealing with “puppies and kittens or some nice old ladies.”
All said they were convinced studying English would help them win the war while furthering Ukraine’s military integration with Western and other countries.
“So,” Chekryzhova said as the lesson ended, “Are you armed with English?”
“Yes,” Soldatenko responded. “Yes, I think so.”