The war in Ukraine might feel far away, but it’s hitting hard close to home here on the Island.
According to his family, a young Port Alice man was killed in action earlier this month in Bakhmut, an eastern Ukrainian city.
Grygorii (Greg) Tsekhmistrenko, 28, was living here and studying medicine when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
For Tsekhmistrenko, a Ukrainian Canadian dual citizen, going to help was the only thing to do.
“When he felt he could make a difference on the other side of the planet in his home country, he went,” Andriy Shevchenko, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, told the Victoria Times Colonist.
Tsekhmistrenko didn’t go halfheartedly, either. He was known to be always laughing, very giving, and hardworking. He became one of the most beloved members of his unit.
“He was just so happy to help. He’s not the medic who didn’t want to be there or will take a shortcut,” said Adam Thiemann, who fought alongside him for months.
Jack Frye, a friend who also fought alongside Tsekhmistrenko, told the Times Colonist he always put others first.
“He was one of the more gentle and kindest people I’ve met. He lived and breathed doing what was right and helping others,” Frye wrote in an email.
Anton, another Ukrainian Canadian who kept his last name private for security reasons, told CBC News about one of Tsekhmistrenko’s final acts of kindness.
“When we were in Bakhmut in the basement, artillery consistently firing, one of our members had a birthday. Greg went over to a safer city and bought a cake for that individual. We celebrated with what small joy we could,” said Anton.
“I wasn’t aware that [Tsekhmistrenko’s] birthday was the next day. He kept that to himself because he never wanted anybody to go out of the way for him.”
Tsekhmistrenko continued putting others first until the very end.
His last battle was in the contested eastern Donetsk region.
Tsekhmistrenko was deployed to provide medical help to members of the unit after they were hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
But as he was treating injured soldiers, a second grenade struck.
“Since Greg is a very big individual, while he was assisting with medical care, he absorbed most of the blast, which is what allowed him to save one of our members who is currently being operated on in the hospital,” said Anton.
After taking the brunt of the blast, he succumbed to his wounds.
“It’s devastating news for me and many people who know this family,” Shevchenko told CBC News.
“He represents the best of our two nations… It’s courage; it’s empathy; it’s passion for freedom. He was a proud Ukrainian Canadian, and I think our two nations have to honour what he has done.”
A funeral was held for him in Kyiv, attended by about 250 friends, family members, and fellow soldiers. An air raid siren punctuated the service.
At the funeral, Tsekhmistrenko’s mother kneeled by his body, softly crying and stroking his hair. The family had reunited in Ukraine and spent Orthodox Christmas together. He was buried at a cemetery in a suburb south of Kyiv.
“He was ready to serve. He loved. He was thoughtful. He was just a great son, and a great friend of mine,” Vitalii Tsekhmistrenko told CBC News after his only son had been buried.
While Tsekhmisrenko’s unit was mourning, Anton said his friend’s death had only made them more resolved in their mission.
“Greg’s death has given me the strength — and the team strength — to continue to fight. To continue helping out Ukraine. This is not going to sway us at all.”
Tsekhmisrenko will also be remembered as a talented rugby player who enjoyed fishing and hiking.
While there is no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, it is clear that a young man from VanIsle will be remembered on both sides of the Atlantic for his bravery and service to his homeland.