RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
More than 3 million refugees, thousands of people killed - the human toll of Russia's war in Ukraine can be hard to absorb, which is why it's important to focus on individual loss. NPR's Eric Westervelt brings us the story this morning of a 29-year-old Ukrainian fighter pilot, Major Stepan Tarabalka, who died in combat.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: I'd arranged to meet Nahtalia and Evon Tarabalka (ph) in a park in Kolomyya to talk about their son, Stepan. They were there to put his affairs in order, the banal, necessary paperwork of a death. But as we headed for a park bench on this warm spring day, the conflict had other ideas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM RINGING)
WESTERVELT: With yet another daytime air raid alert, Nahtalia suggests a basement shelter close by. It's the music school their son attended and loved. Stepan's father, Evon - his eyes bloodshot and sad with a father's grief - brightens a little when he realizes we'll be talking in the basement where his son learned to play the trumpet.
EVON TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) Maybe God led us hear - that we're here in his classroom, or at least what might have been, to talk about his life.
WESTERVELT: The Ivano-Frankivsk district and all of western Ukraine is a deeply religious region. Ornate Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches and shrines dot every village. And Nahtalia and Evon are leaning on their faith as they mourn the sudden death of their only son. Stepan Tarabalka grew up right next to a military airfield in the village of Korolivka. As a child, his mother Nahtalia says, he'd watch the MiGs swoop in and out and decided at a young age he wanted more than anything to be a fighter pilot.
NAHTALIA TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) He would always watch the paratroopers in their air exercises. And he would run in their direction to try to see where they landed. Since early childhood, he always dreamed of the sky, about flying higher than the clouds.
WESTERVELT: But the pilot dream at times seemed out of reach. Stepan was a working-class kid from a small village. His parents lived much of the year in Portugal to try to earn more money than they could make here. Nahtalia says no one cut Stepan a break or helped him get ahead. She's proud he made it on his own.
N TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) It was difficult. We did not have any military connections, no one to ask advice and help us. Becoming a pilot, it was his own effort. He did it all himself. I just helped with prayers.
WESTERVELT: After Stepan made it through military and flight school, his mom says, he'd love to fly over when he could and tilt his MiG-29 wings at the western villages of his childhood.
N TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) At any opportunity, he would fly close to our house, do a little aerobatic trick. And everyone in the village, every house and all the villages around would know that is Stepan flying.
WESTERVELT: His dad, Evon, returned from his construction job in Portugal to the village after getting word that his son was shot down on March 13, flying a mission against the Russians. The Ukrainian military wouldn't give us any details of his final flight or death. Evon says they haven't been told much either.
E TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) We know he was flying on a mission. And he completed the mission, his task. Then he didn't return. That's all the information we have, really.
WESTERVELT: Stepan's 27-year-old younger sister, Julia (ph), Nahtalia says, is having a hard time with the news, as if it's all not quite real. She thinks the war will end, the mom says, and her big brother will come back alive. Nahtalia, wiping away tears, says, I know it's war. But she's upset she couldn't see her son's body. It was a closed casket. And the military told her it's best to keep it that way.
N TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) It's hard for any mother to lose a child. But it's even harder for us that we could not see him. But maybe the fact that I could not see him gives me hope in a way that he's somewhere, that he's still alive.
WESTERVELT: Major Stepan Tarabalka leaves behind a wife, Olenia (ph), and their 8-year-old son, Yarik. He was posthumously awarded Ukraine's top medal for bravery in combat, the Order of the Golden Star, with the title Hero of Ukraine. His father, Evon.
E TARABALKA: (Through interpreter) Of course, he'd already earned this award when he was with us. But we wish he could get the honor after the war. We just wish he was still alive.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, near Kolomyya, Ukraine.
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