The DaVinci Tribute


Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.

Foreword: The death of “DaVinci” was a considerable news story in early March, covered by CNN, BBC, The New York Times and Newsweek to name a few. Each article however only scratched the surface at discovering who the man called DaVinci was. I dug into many articles only published in Ukrainian and put Google Translate to work in turning them into sources for my research. This story also felt a little personal to me as I biographed DaVinci’s wife last September in my work on Ukrainian women. In conjunction with other sources I have also sought uncovery of DaVinci through her writings, thoughts and memories. My goal is to produce the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of DaVinci’s life so far available in English.

Junior Lieutenant Alina Mykhailova stood at attention in the White Hall of Heroes of Ukraine in Mariinsky Palace dressed in full military garb. Her combat boots were laced up nearly to her knees while her hair was braided and lay suspended between her shoulder blades. Before her, President Volodymyr Zelensky, with the Ukrainian Coat of Arms behind him, presided over the day’s ceremonies on March 14,2023.

“Today is the Day of the Ukrainian Volunteer” Zelensky proudly announced. “The day of men and women whose lives and dedication to Ukraine largely determine our fate. The fate of a free people’s. The fate of Ukraine, which will not submit to any invader.” Ukraine’s defenses, emergency services and military paramedic corps were inundated with and dependent upon volunteers, who served in nearly every aspect of Ukraine’s survival. One award recipient after another approached the podium, received their accommodation from the President and offered various forms of salute in return.

Concealing her pain and willing herself to remain strong, Mykhailova approached Zelensky, and saluted the President with her right fist across her chest. On behalf of her unit, the “DaVinci Wolves” of the 1st Separate Mechanized Battalion, she received from the President the prestigious Order of Bohdan Khmelnyysky 3rd Degree, for exceptional duty in service of Ukraine. Upon receipt, Mykhailova reached to her left shoulder, removed the chevron of her unit, and presented it to Zelensky in exchange.

Had the Volunteer ceremonies been held just over a week prior, Mykhailova may not have received the award. Rather it likely would have been presented to battalion commander Dymitro Kotsyubailo, Hero of Ukraine and widely known by his call sign “DaVinci.” Kotsyubailo at just 27 was already a legend; the youngest battalion commander in the Ukrainian Army, recipient of Ukraine’s highest service medal, a household name and a veteran of nine years of combat. As Mykhailova eulogized however, DaVinci’s “whole life was at war, and there it ended,” when he fell in battle in Bakhmut on March 7.

The week between DaVinci’s passing and the Volunteer ceremonies was a blur for Mykhailova. Dymitro Kotsyubailo was far from just her commander, as he also was her husband and partner of six years.

First there was that terrible transmission from the front-line describing “a serious 300,” code for a likely fatal wound, followed by the shock of this death in her arms. Then came his state funeral and memorial service just two days later held at Saint Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery in Kyiv in which thousands attended including the entire leadership of Ukraine. There were the words of the presiding priest lamenting how “Dymitro showed us how to love and defend your country…,” that he “lived and died like a hero,” and how his final act in life was leading his men “into battle…weapon in hand.”

Following the ceremony came the march by those thousands in attendance along blocked roads to Kyiv’s Independence Square, chanting “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to Heroes,” and “Glory to DaVinci” the entire distance. Somewhere in that maze of emotions and events Mykhailova found herself in the embrace of General Valery Zaluznny, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as he took a knee and bowed to her, simultaneously grieving and attempting to comfort her. Never could Mykhailova have been more proud of the incredible humanity that her nation displayed as the crowds honored their hero with reverence and on bended knee.

Over the passing days memories flooded Mykhailova’s mind which she poured out in writing. They shared a “crazy, interesting, happy, challenging, highlight-filled six years” together, all of them during war, stuffed with “emotions most do not experience in twenty, thirty or forty years of married life.” DaVinci constantly left her post-it note messages, reminding her to “be strong” and “I love you.” But each moment for her now was a struggle, as “every evening…I break into pieces. And every morning I gather again,” but “I do this for your sake so you are not ashamed of me.”

Both came of age in a generation that knew continuous war since 2014. That year Russia illegally seized Crimea and simultaneously invaded the Donbas of eastern Ukraine. Each began their combat service in their late teens and early twenties, with Mykhailova volunteering with the Hospitalier’s medical battalion as a battlefield paramedic and Kotsyubailo a combat soldier.

War found Mykhailova at just nineteen when she was a student at Kyiv State University. She first volunteered in 2014 with the Army SOS charitable foundation which provided food and commodities to defenders. By 2016 she took courses through the Hospitalier’s to become a combat paramedic and within a year was assigned to a hospital in Kramatorsk where she met the dashing young officer Dymitro Kotsyubailo. It was love at first sight. Kotsyubaylo not only brought her flowers and chocolates at work but soon she was serving as the paramedic for First Assault Company which he commanded.

Initially Mykhailova was the company’s only paramedic, but across three years of service the medical unit grew substantially to include multiple paramedics, anesthesiologists and a doctor. Mykhailova not only experienced the sting of battle in the Donbas, but also honed her leadership skills which were recognized by her superiors. Mykhailova navigated multiple leadership roles including paramedic, command of her unit, leader of an aerial reconnaissance force supporting medical services, to building the Hospitalier’s Facebook page up to 40,000 followers.

Mykhailova was honored with a Bohdan Radchenko scholarship and used the opportunity after leaving the medical battalion to earn a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kyiv School of Economics. Her work-ethic, education, combat service and leadership skills got her elected to Kyiv City council in 2020 where she fought against corruption and advocated for veterans affairs.

At just 27 she traveled to Germany in February 2022, where she represented Kyiv City council at the Munich Security Council. There she delivered her first ever public speech in English in which she riveted its members with her heartfelt plea to “not let my country be destroyed.” Four days after her speech however Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. Without hesitation, Mykhailova “traded high heels for military garb,” and rejoined the Hospitalier’s. Once again she volunteered with First Assault Company, nicknamed the “DaVinci Wolves,” but now Dymitro Kotsyubailo was her husband.

Kotsyubailo was born on November 1, 1995 in the western Ukrainian village of Zadnistrianske in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. After attending professional art school, which inspired his future call sign of “DaVinci” he participated in the EuroMaiden Revolution of 2013-14 which swept the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych out of office. When Russian forces simultaneously seized Crimea and launched an invasion of the Donbas in early 2014, in direct response to Maiden, DaVinci took up arms as a volunteer soldier. From that point forward, according to Ukrainian activist Melaniya Podolyak, “Eastern Ukraine truly was his home.” She recounted that DaVinci barely ever left the front line in nine years, and completely “gave himself to the war…to defending Ukraine.”

He came of age in combat where he learned and grew through experience, and his dedication and leadership qualities were quickly noticed. By 2016 he commanded the First Assault Company of the 5th Battalion Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, which was ever after known as the DaVinci Wolves.”. Kotsyubailo became famous for leading from the front and his courage made him a legendary soldier.

He regarded his unit as family, and there was something unique about the “Wolves.” While over the years nearly all volunteer units were disbanded and or reorganized, the Wolves endured. Melaniya Podolyak affirmed “there was never anything more important to him than his personnel…” and that “saving human lives” was always prioritized over “combat tasks.” In 2021 President Zelensky honored Kotsyubailo with Ukraine’s highest service medal, Hero of Ukraine. DaVinci broke many barriers, including not only being the youngest commander but also the first living volunteer to ever receive this honor.

As full-scale war approached in February 2022, DaVinci’s life entered into a dizzying pace which never relented for more than a year. Although a company commander of a volunteer unit, he held the clout with and respect of commanders of much larger units within the professional Armed Forces of Ukraine. The skillset of the Wolves was in high demand as they were rich in experience and inundated with seasoned artillerymen, scouts and drone operators, many of whom had served together for years. Over the following many months the First Assault Company zig-zagged around the country, on the request of multiple division and corps commanders, who sought their expertise.

In mid-February the Wolves were temporarily stationed in Luhansk Oblast near Stanytsai where Kotsyubailo synced up with 140th Battalion and reviewed their overflight photography of Russian force concentrations. He was immediately alarmed by the build-up of armor, artillery and pontoon equipment for river crossings. The company next traveled 280 kilometers southwest to Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast where the First Assault Company assisted the 25th Brigade for several days on battle preparations. In the early hours of February 24, as the Russian full-scale invasion launched, Kotsyubailo phoned a few division commanders of the 58th Brigade stationed between Sumy and Chernihiv in northern Ukraine to get an assessment of how the Russians were attacking.

DaVinci’s first combat assignment of the big war lay 230 kilometers southwest. There the Wolves assisted the 128th Brigade in interdicting attempted Russian river crossings near Gulyaipol and Orichovo in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Using a drone to target the Russian concentrations on two landings, and light artillery and mortar fire, the Wolves destroyed multiple pieces of Russian equipment and disrupted their river crossing for several days.

Within a week Kotsyubailo was again transferred 500 kilometers northwest to Kyiv where the First Assault Company linked up with the 72nd Mechanized Artillery Brigade and participated in the defense of the capital. Upon arrival the Wolves’s arsenal was bulked up with two additional 152 mm artillery cannons which they immediately put to work against Russian columns running through the settlements of Nova Basan and Novy Bykiv. When a Russian surface-to-air missile was fired from an occupied Ukrainian school building, taking down a Ukrainian fighter jet, DaVinci’s guns honed in and not only destroyed the building but also took out at or near fifteen Russian fuel trucks, armored vehicles and artillery guns.

Once the front was stabilized in Kyiv by mid-March, DaVinci was once again redeployed 650 kilometers south to Kherson Oblast. There the Wolves linked up with the 60th Brigade at Kryvyi Rih, who needed assistance with their defensive lines as the Russians were advancing only 30 kilometers away. In no time DaVinci was transferred another 250 kilometers southwest to Mykolaiv, were they helped beat back the Russians from crossing the River Buh and from ever advancing on Odesa. In each engagement the Wolves tore apart their opponents and ravaged Russian vehicles in increments of 15-20 at a time.

After serving in at least five operational directions in a little over two months, the volunteer First Assault Company was brought into the formal Armed Forces of Ukraine in April. By the summer they became the 1st Separate Mechanized Battalion, but still retained the title of DaVinci Wolves and Kotsyubailo was promoted to battalion commander. He was the only battalion commander in the Ukrainian Army who had never received a military academy education and volunteers flocked from all directions to join the famed unit.

On September 7 the Wolves led the charge on occupied Balaklyia in the harrowing Ukrainian counteroffensive into Kharkiv Oblast. After a three day siege the town fell along with a substantial Russian arsenal. By the following day the Wolves advanced on to Kupyansk, crossed the Oskil River and continued driving the Russians back. Collectively 8,500 square kilometers were liberated within a week, and the population throughout Kharkiv greeted their heroes with flowers, hugs and kisses.

Throughout the following many months the DaVinci Wolves stayed in near continuous combat in the Donbas and formed their own armored company made up entirely of captured “Russian lend-lease” tanks. In a New Years Eve reflection, DaVinci wrote “It’s been a year of tough decisions, hard decisions, and unstoppable growth. From a small unit of volunteers, we grew into a large, professional, coordinated battalion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Today I am surrounded by wonderful people who have been able to unite for a common goal – to destroy the enemy and to win Ukraine. Tough road ahead, but what matters when I have people I am confident and proud to walk side by side in our victory.”

Bakhmut was like a second home for the Wolves, as they rotated in and out of the defense of the city stretching back at least to May. Originally Bakhmut and served as the Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) for the survival of Severodonetsk and Lyschansk, but overtime transitioned into a bastion of defense itself and came to symbolize Ukrainian resistance. To this day, Bakhmut still holds, even after a ten month Russian siege, and Putin throwing his entire conventional arsenal at its defenses.

Few individuals ever embodied Ukrainian determination as did DaVinci, and he died on March 7 just as he lived; leading his troops in the defense of Ukraine. By happenstance two Ukrainian journalists were present and captured his final moments in which “You…led your men forward. They followed without hesitation, because they trusted you, their commander. We managed to snap the last photo of you on a burning tank. It happened before our very eyes. The shelling began… You told us to take cover. Explosions, many explosions. A minute later, screams: Medic! Medic! Da Vinci! We hoped and believed. We prayed. You were the bravest, the most reckless warrior we’d ever known. You seemed immortal! Hero of Ukraine. The best of the best. A warrior. A friend. A legend.”

As the nation recovers from and copes with their loss, so too does Alina Mykhailova. She was not just DaVinci’s wife but also commanded the medical unit of 22 personnel for the battalion. She served continuously since February 24 and treated hundreds of wounded and saved countless lives. DaVinci was always very protective of her and their only quarrels involved combat. These disputes ranged anywhere from that he would never let her to the front line or because she was “…the only member of the battalion who does not obey my orders.”. Their entire relationship however was wrapped up in war, and in an interview before Kotsyubailo’s death she freely admitted that “its probably a bad thing I can’t imagine our life any other way, but neither does he”.

As she moves forward Mykhailova is inundated with incredible memories of their life together. Sometimes it is the simple things like him stopping to braid her hair, or the love notes he would make for her. Other times it is the big picture in which “…it is with great pride that I know this amazing person really better than anyone else in the world,” or of “the great mad love we shared in this war of which I never had a doubt.” In some ways DaVinci foreshadowed the emotions of his own death through his memorializations of fallen comrades. On September 18 he wrote “The hardest thing is to lose friends in war. Friends with whom from the Maidan itself, from the beginning of the war walked side by side.”. For Alina Mykhailova, although she carries forward a lifetime’s worth of amazing memories, perhaps her greatest honor is being forever eternalized among her friends and fellow soldiers, just as she has been known since 2017, as “Alina DaVinci.”

No posts to display