ANDRIIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian bullet struck the sergeant just above the left ear. The leader of the Ukrainian platoon was down. Headquarters radioed a battlefield promotion to the private who had called him “brother” — a man known as Courier.
Courier knew the platoon's orders were to move forward through the forest, on the road to Bakhmut. He hesitated near his mortally wounded commander. Then he decided: There would be no turning back. “Forward!” he howled.
The men stumbled through the charred spindles of trees toward the village of Andriivka — the objective of the 3rd Assault Brigade since the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive this summer, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) south of the city of Bakhmut.
Days later, as he prepared for Gagarin's funeral, Courier predicted his own future, his pale eyes unfocused.
“This forest is taking our friends away, and this is the worst,” he said. “And when I think about how far we still need to move forward ... most likely someday I will be the one to remain lying in the forest, and my friends will just go forward.”
This stretch of dead forest leading toward the village of Andriivka is one of countless like it on the road to Russian-controlled Bakhmut, which has huge symbolic significance in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Associated Press spent two weeks with the brigade for an intimate glimpse into the speed, direction and cost of the counteroffensive.
A lot rides on their progress. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making his country's case to Washington and to the world this week for more money and more weapons. The U.S. Congress is currently weighing President Joe Biden’s request to provide as much as $24 billion more in military and humanitarian aid.
In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Zelenskyy acknowledged the counteroffensive was slow, but added, “It is important that we are moving forward every day and liberating territory.”
A study earlier this month by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank, found that Ukrainian forces are averaging 700-1,200 meters of progress every five days. That gives Russian forces time to dig in and especially to mine territory.
The 3rd Assault Brigade, composed entirely of volunteers and considered one of Ukraine’s best and most experienced corps, has been fighting almost nonstop in the east since January, while less-experienced units received new training and modern weapons to fight in the south. The AP is identifying the men by their call-signs, which is both how they identify each other and a military requirement to report in-depth on the unit.
Bakhmut fell to Russia in May, largely due to waves of attacks from mercenary Wagner fighters, including prison conscripts, thought to have died by the hundreds. Ukraine has been trying to reclaim it ever since.
The questions now facing the brigade were the same ones facing their country: Would they succeed, and at what cost?
Andriivka was their goal, as important as any strip of land in Ukraine. And on Sept. 6, the day Courier left his commander's body behind, he and his men took over a trash-strewn trench in the forest and held it for four full days. On either side of them were mined fields, now sprouting only craters.
Courier would then go to western Ukraine and represent the platoon at Gagarin’s funeral in his hometown of Polonne, a 550-mile (900-kilometer) drive from the battlefield.
Gagarin’s mother sought out Courier, who was among the last to see her son alive. But he finds it hard to talk to civilians.
“I feel like there is a gap between civilians and us now," he said. “When the war is over, I will probably just leave to fight elsewhere.”
For Courier, war is complicated. He says he enjoys the dopamine rush, and yet he did not want to return to the forest. His commanders ordered 10 days’ leave, a break for a fighter whose anguish they sensed despite his outward calm.
“Unfortunately, I’m only able to leave after going through hell,” he said bitterly.
On the day of the funeral, Sept. 13, any man whole enough to fight was in the forest, including another sergeant, Fedya. On Sept. 5, Fedya had been lightly wounded by a cluster munition, and the injury may have saved his life. Gagarin took his place in the assault, and that was the day he died.
The last push started on Sept. 14. Men from other depleted units joined in. After two months of inching between scorched ash trees, maybe they would finally break through the woods to Andriivka.
“How many more lives do we need to give?" Fedya asked. "How many more forests are there?”
A 24-year-old with a smooth and unlined face, Fedya wears his authority lightly, introspective but with little time or energy to spare on self-doubt or guilt.
“War is a science, and you have to get better at it and study. If you don’t, you have no chance of survival,” said Fedya.
On Sept. 14, they finally did it — more than three months after receiving the order to reclaim Andriivka. They broke through the shelling and the drone-launched grenades, firing at Russian forces who fled in front of them.
The Ukrainians pummeled the tiny village with artillery and then threw a smokescreen into its main street. Russian artillery hit retreating and surrendering Russian soldiers, whose bodies lay face down or curled on their sides. The last hundred meters was a mix of blood, metal, trash, spent cartridges and shredded armor.
That night of Sept. 15, Fedya dreamed he was cowering behind a shrapnel-pierced truck on the battlefield and was hit by artillery fire. The next morning, he carried a Ukrainian flag to hoist in Andriivka.
He was ready to hand control to the next brigade to reclaim the next forest.
“Look at these fields, this forest. Everything grows again," he said. "The cities that we reclaim, they will be rebuilt. ... We will clear out all that’s left of the Soviet Union. ... The war could be the best thing to happen, in the sense that everything can start fresh.”
Hinnant reported from Paris. Alex Babenko contributed to this story.
Follow AP's coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine