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Ukraine's ambulance crews, many of them volunteers, put their lives on the line

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainians say hundreds of their soldiers are wounded every day fighting the Russians. They're cared for and carried from the frontlines by ambulance crews made up, in many cases, of volunteers. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In the middle of the night, an American medic from California guides a stretcher through a darkened military hospital in Kryvyi Rih, a city near the front lines in southern Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: All right, turn.

MANN: I'm the patient on the stretcher. I broke my leg while reporting on the war. Using a headlamp, the medic loads me into the back of his ambulance, which is operated by an international nonprofit group called Save Our Allies. This medic, who served in the U.S. military before volunteering here, agrees to talk with me about his experience in Ukraine on the condition NPR not use his name.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: Everybody's in danger here. It's Russian roulette with indirect or rockets. I mean, there's really no safe space.

MANN: This kind of work is dangerous. This region of Ukraine is hit regularly with cruise missiles and rockets. He says there's also an emotional cost. Day after day, medics care for soldiers and civilians wounded in the most brutal fighting Europe has seen in decades.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: And it's a very emotional experience, where you see World War I-style, you know, trench living. And you talk to guys that have been there since the winter. And they're not allowed to leave their trench to go see their family.

MANN: This is a story I hear over and over talking with ambulance crews. The men and women who do this work are devoted to their mission. Everyone NPR spoke to is a volunteer. But they say it's taking a toll on their mental health. Back in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, an ambulance driver named Anatolii (ph) opens a big garage door. Like the others interviewed for this story, he said using his full name could heighten his risk or put family members in danger. Anatolii was an artist and sound designer before the war. He was developing this warehouse into a performance space. Now it's packed with boxes of bandages and medications and other humanitarian supplies.

ANATOLII: People from all over the world sending us medical for people in the war.

MANN: Anatolii is just back from working on an ambulance team in Donetsk. He says the intense fighting, the pace of injuries and death changed him, left him feeling emotionless.

ANATOLII: I didn't know. Something was broken in me. It was really a question for me - what is going on with me? - trying to investigate what is in my head. But I hope that it's nothing really bad, you know, I'm not crazy (laughter).

MANN: The medics NPR interviewed all shared some version of this concern, that they're becoming hardened to the suffering. This is Ivan (ph), who volunteers with an ambulance crew attached to a Ukrainian military unit.

IVAN: It certainly is tough.

MANN: Ivan was a software designer during peacetime. He first began volunteering on ambulances in 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine. He, too, would only share his first name. Ivan says he keeps his morale up by believing in the mission, trying to save as many lives as possible and helping fight a war he views as a kind of crusade.

IVAN: This is a big part of my mental well-being. I cannot ask for more than such an opportunity to defend my country and to fight for freedom.

MANN: The ambulance driver from California also told NPR he believes in this cause. And he says it helps that most of these medical workers and drivers are volunteers.

UNIDENTIFIED MEDIC: I think it's better than it normally would be. The fact that people are actually choosing to be here is different than being sent here.

MANN: The need for ambulance crews and medics is expected to rise in the coming weeks as Ukrainian troops in the south push toward the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND TIM SCHAUFERT'S "TIDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.