“We won’t go any further, because this wire is intentionally attached to something and then buried here,” he warns. “A lot of Russians went back through some of these places and re-mined them [in] Booby traps”.
Kevin is part of an elite group of foreign special forces veterans, mainly Americans and British, recruited to help the Ukrainian cause.
In March, he says, the group spent four days at the spa – they called “home from hell” – often just 50 meters from Russian troops. It was, he says, the furthest Ukrainian-controlled position in Irbin, a suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv, where Russian forces attempted to advance to capture the capital.
The once affluent suburb is now synonymous with alleged Russian war crimes – a pilgrimage site for visiting dignitaries who made their way to its shell-ravaged streets. Kevin says he and his men were among the first to witness attacks on Ukrainian civilians here.
Despite his previous work as a high-ranking US counterterrorism officer, and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kevin says that here in Ukraine he faced the fiercest fight of his life.
He says he and his new comrades-in-arms have implemented many of the guerrilla tactics that have been used against the US military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are the rebels now.
“Everything is more decentralized,” he explains. “Small group tactics are definitely a big advantage here.”
We do not use Kevin’s full name due to the nature of his work in Ukraine.
“Being on that side now, and listening to their conversations on the radio — and they know, well, they’re out there somewhere, we don’t know where or who they are — there’s definitely an advantage to that,” he says.
“Real combat experience”
The number of foreign fighters now in Ukraine is a state secret, but a spokesperson for the International Corps told CNN that “coexistence” means that “Ukraine’s chances of winning increase exponentially.”
“The best of the best join the Ukrainian armed forces,” Colonel Anton Mironovich told CNN. “These are foreigners with real combat experience, these are foreign citizens who know what war is, know how to handle weapons, and know how to destroy the enemy.”
For the first time in his life, Kevin was defending against an invasion by a better-equipped enemy. It was he, and not the enemy, who had to worry about air strikes. There was no master plan, no air support – and there would be no evacuation in the event of a disaster.
“It was like a movie,” he says. “It was crazy right from the start. We started shooting indirectly – small arms fire inside. I was in a pickup truck, I was just driving down the street.”
“There are tanks and helicopters above us. And you can hear the Russian planes flying. And in the open fields, the Russians were dropping troops with helicopters. And so you’re like: ‘Wow, wow!'” “It’s a lot.”
Kevin and his colleagues were on the receiving end of artillery fire. During the battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, these foreign soldiers were calling in air strikes and artillery shelling. They never knew if that was the case for the receiving party.
Faced with the reality of the battle, Kevin says, many of the foreign fighters decided to leave. “That’s when they say, ‘Maybe that’s not for me. The first time that round comes in within 20 meters is the first time you say, ‘Oh, nothing,'” he said.
Day after day, Kevin and his buddies concluded that they, too, had had enough. Then the next day came, bringing with it new orders and new tasks, and they found themselves left. Eventually, he says, they ended up in the sauna and gym complex where they hid for four days, even as the building slowly collapsed under Russian bombing.
“We call it the House of Horrors, because there really was a nightmare,” he says. “These were four really miserable days of really little sleep, really heavy artillery, and a really heavy Russian infantry presence. No matter how many people we turned away from their side, they just kept coming.”
He says he was “shocked” and the other aliens on his team. “But the Ukrainian army was … calm, cool, tenacious. They say, like, ‘That’s normal, don’t worry about it.'”
He is in awe of the efforts of Ukrainian soldiers.
“They are masters of terrain denial,” he says. They know every inch of the area. They know the little alley we can wait for. They know how to get there. They know this is where we can hide. And they know which building to go to. And they’ll tell you before we got there, five houses with a real nice basement. This is where we should go.”
Everything was burning
Kevin walks through what’s left of the building that was destroyed by fire. In the gym, the dumbbells got distorted by the intense heat. The rubber has melted from the weight plates.
“This was a chair,” he says, pointing to a metal frame. “We were getting artillery so heavy that we put this chair here so we could jump out that window if we had to in a hurry.”
When the wind outside hits a sheet of loose corrugated roofing, he jumps.
At one point during the confrontation, he says, the Russian forces were so close that he was lying on the ground in the pitch-black night, where he could hear the sound of smashing glass under the enemy’s feet.
However, he is sure that he made the right decision to come to Ukraine.
“It’s becoming more and more self-evident to us that this is the right thing,” he says. “Everything was burning. The artillery was going on. We already saw civilians being killed on the spot.”
He agrees that there has been moral ambiguity in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It really comes down to good versus evil,” he says. “You will hear the Ukrainians call the Russians ‘orks.’ It is for them a symbol of good versus evil, as in Lord of the Rings – light versus dark.”
“The Russians know exactly what they’re doing,” he says. “They have education. They have social media, news.” “I never understood why they were killing women and children. And it wasn’t by chance. It was murder. We found several people at the end of the street, tied together, shot, thrown on the side of the road, run over by tanks. Just barbaric. For whatever reason ?”
Kevin says he feels like he’s been five years old for the past three months. He doesn’t know how to explain what he’s going through here to his friends back home. He doesn’t know if he wants to.
But he knows Ukraine “is where I need to be,” and plans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen this happen over and over in history. People ask me all the time, ‘Oh, this isn’t your fight.’ Or, “What are you doing there?” Yes, but it wasn’t our fight many times in history. And then it was your problem. It’s not your problem until it’s your problem.”
Olga Voitovich contributed to this story.
“Subtly charming student. Pop culture junkie. Creator. Amateur music specialist. Beer fanatic.”