- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Yegor Bondarenko immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1997 and started a new life in Texas.
He soon found that high school didn’t challenge him enough. People didn’t take him seriously. And it wasn’t always easy fitting in, he said earlier this month during an interview at his office in the Naval Undergraduate Flight Training Systems Program Office (PMA-273) at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Bondarenko also found that some of the work he later did — in a grocery store and in a restaurant — “just wasn’t for me.”
So, he found a recruiter, and in 2000, Bondarenko joined the U.S. Army. Still learning a new language, his test to enter the service landed him in the infantry.
“It was something new,” he said. “It was a way to show what you’re made of.” And, in a sense, Bondarenko said, it was a way for him to validate his new citizenship.
Three years later, he was on his first deployment to Iraq. By 2005, he was on his second, as a squad leader.
Bondarenko’s platoon was called in by radio to do a nighttime patrol, he said. Bondarenko rounded up the guys, headed out and they were ambushed.
“I got blown up south of Baghdad,” he said.
The vehicle he was traveling in hit a roadside bomb.
“My driver died right before my eyes,” Bondarenko said.
And he remembers carrying his own right arm with him, after it had been severed by the impact. A medic was standing over him, “going through the motions,” and staring down, Bondarenko said, with a shocked, “I just saw you leave” look in his eyes.
“I remember seeing a couple of stars in the sky,” he said. And “it got to the point where I just faded.”
He accepted the idea that he would die there, in a hot, flat, “dirty” place during a time of war. But he wasn’t afraid. “You put your emotions aside,” he said. “You come to peace with it.”
Medical professionals saved his life, but they were unable to save his arm.
Earlier this month, he shared his story during the Wounded Warrior Experience at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. His appearance is scheduled to be shown on the Pentagon Channel, at pentagonchannel.mil, on Nov. 17 and 18, several times on both days.
This is the fourth year for the Wounded Warrior Experience program. Bondarenko is featured, along with U.S. Marines, a member of the British Armed Forces, a reconstructive surgeon and others. A list of those highlighted this year is at www.americanveteranscenter.org/events/wounded-warrior-experience.
Today, Bondarenko is a program analyst for the T-45, a trainer jet aircraft. He was awarded a Purple Heart and graduated from college, with a background in finance and accounting.
He’s found that he prefers not to use a prosthetic arm. For him, it’s heavy and, unless he’s biking, it’s mostly “useless ... my therapist hated me” for that, he said.
He’s taken up snowboarding, at sites from West Virginia and New York to Colorado. He shakes hands with his left and has gone from typing with just two fingers to using them all. He makes eye contact confidently. Walks with pep and purpose. And after talking with him, it’s easy to forget he has a disability.
“You have to believe in yourself,” he said. He’s fought through depression and said “there are thousands and thousands” of others who have lost limbs. It could have been much worse, he said.
But he still misses the Army. He said that more than once.
“It was my life. It was my job. It was a career,” he said.
He’d trained for years learning to operate and fix M-16s, M-249 and M-240 machine guns, as well as an M-9 handgun. But he said he doesn’t miss the shooting. He misses the camaraderie, the commitment and dedication that he said veterans can spot in one another, even off the battlefield and out of uniform. “It was great,” he said. “In a way, I look at NAVAIR as another mission. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to the front line again,” he said.
And that’s fine with him. “I always look on the bright side,” Bondarenko said. “I’ve seen the worst. I nearly died once. It was a turning point for sure.”