Yuliia Mykytenko: From Linguist to UAV Commander, A Journey of Resilience and Dedication


Yuliia Mykytenko: From Linguist to UAV Commander, A Journey of Resilience and Dedication
Photo: Courtesy of the Veteranka Movement

Yuliia Mykytenko’s journey from a multilingual translator to a UAV commander is a story of resilience and dedication. Born into an ordinary Ukrainian family, her life took an unforeseen turn in 2014 when Russia’s attack compelled her to pivot from being an interpreter to a soldier. What started as a matter of survival evolved into a transformative career in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, changing her fate along with those of other women military personnel.

Engaging in reconnaissance activities during the Revolution of Dignity, Yuliia's connection to the military deepened when her father volunteered for the National Guard of Ukraine. After her graduation, Yuliia and her husband Ilya Serbin signed up with the military and started serving at the 25th Batallion “Kyiv Rus” as a secretary and later accountant – as at that time women were not allowed to hold combat positions.

"Both de jure and de facto, I was a secretary and an accountant. It's quite funny, considering that I had no economic education whatsoever. Of course, I was not satisfied with this, because I really wanted to join a combat unit. But in the end, this experience was extremely useful. Firstly, it allowed me to see how the "paper" army works, and secondly, I got to know almost the entire battalion very quickly."

Tragedy struck when her husband, Ilya Serbin, a fellow soldier, was injured by a mortar strike and later succumbed to injuries in 2016. Undeterred by personal loss, Yuliia continued her service, first becoming a platoon commander and later the commander of a reconnaissance platoon, all the while facing gender-based challenges.

"I was called to the headquarters and ordered to identify people to send for training. I said that I would do it after all the people had gone on vacation and had a rest. One officer said: "You just need a man". Now, of course, it sounds very funny. But at that time, I still hadn't recovered from the death of my husband, and this phrase was like a punch in the face. Some soldiers refused to fight under the command of a woman and were transferred to other units, as I heard: "There is no place for women in the army," "I don't want to be commanded by a woman," "Aren't you scared? They are shooting there.”

Amid skepticism and resistance, Yuliia persevered, emphasizing mutual respect and earning the trust of her male subordinates. Her dedication extended beyond duty, often personally delivering provisions to frontline positions. The loss of her father, Mykola Mykytenko, to burns incurred during a protest, marked another tragic chapter. Yet, Yuliia drew strength from the belief that both her father and husband saw her as strong.

"The idea that my father raised me to be strong, and my husband thought I was strong. And I don't want them to be wrong."

Transitioning to civilian life in 2021, Yuliia played a crucial role in an experimental female class at the Ivan Bohun Military Lyceum, recognizing its significance in shaping the future for women in the armed forces. A historic moment for the country, the classes served as a pilot study to eventually allow women in the military.

"It's always hard to be a pioneer, but I put all my knowledge and experience as a female commander in the army to work to give girls a basis for further service. Again, despite the fierce resistance of the system. I still follow some of the girls, and I am very proud of them. I taught them, and they taught me in many ways."

Following her career at the Lyceum, her commitment to breaking gender barriers continued in her role as a project manager at the Invisible Battalion advocacy project at the Institute of Gender Programs, contributing to legal changes that opened combat positions for women in the military. Together with other activists at the Veteranka Movement, Yuliia managed to change the law of Ukraine and open 63 combat positions for women in the military, which changed the fate of all Ukrainian defenders (Law of Ukraine "On Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine on Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men during Military Service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Other Military Formations"). This advocacy human rights civic project was supported by the UN Women in Ukraine.  

Yuliia's involvement with the Women's Veterans Movement (Veteranka) provided a support network and facilitated essential reforms.

"For me, Veteranka is about support and extraordinary strategic productivity. Veteranka aims to improve the service of women in the army,  and it does so with boundless empathy and respect.”

Despite initially planning to stay in civilian life, Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 prompted her return to the military, driven by a pragmatic desire not to be under occupation and a profound sense of duty. In her role as an aerial reconnaissance officer, Yuliia oversees a team that provides critical information to infantry and artillery. Her journey from a linguist to a UAV platoon commander reflects her resilience, dedication, and efforts to transform perceptions of women in the army.

"There were several motivations, the first one was very pragmatic - I didn't want to be under occupation and without a weapon. The second motivation is my husband and father. I know that if they were alive, they would not hesitate for a second about what to do. So my actions were with them in mind."

The story is published within the framework of the UN Women project "Transformative Approaches to Achieving Gender Equality in Ukraine", supported bythe Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and funded by the Government of Sweden. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women.