“We’re not going to go any further because this wire is intentionally attached to something and then buried here,” he warns. “A lot of Russians came back through some of these places and re-mined them, put [in] crazy traps.”
Kevin is one of an elite group of mostly American and British foreign special forces veterans who have enlisted to help the Ukrainian cause.
He says that last March the group spent four days at the spa – they called it “the house of hell” – often just 50 meters from Russian troops. It was, he said, the most forward position held by the Ukrainians in Irpin, a suburb on the outskirts of kyiv, as Russian forces tried to push to seize the capital.
The once affluent suburb is now synonymous with alleged Russian war crimes – a place of pilgrimage for visiting dignitaries who have made their way to its shell-scarred streets. Kevin says he and his men were among the first to witness attacks on Ukrainian civilians here.
Despite a former career as a top US counterterrorism agent, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kevin says it was here in Ukraine that he faced the most intense fighting of his life.
He says he and his new comrades in arms implemented many guerrilla tactics that were used against the US military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are now the insurgents.
“Everything is much more decentralized,” he explains. “Small group tactics are definitely a huge advantage here.”
We do not use Kevin’s full name due to the nature of his work in Ukraine.
“Being on this side now and hearing their conversations on the radio – and them knowing, okay, they’re out there somewhere, we don’t know where or who it is – there’s definitely an upside to this,” he said. said.
“A real combat experience”
The number of foreign fighters currently in Ukraine is a state secret, but an International Legion spokesperson told CNN the “symbiosis” means “Ukraine’s chances of winning are greatly increased.”
“The best of the best join the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Col. Anton Myronovych told CNN. “They are foreigners with real combat experience, they are foreign citizens who know what war is, know how to handle weapons, know how to destroy the enemy.”
For the first time in his life, Kevin defended himself against the invasion of a better equipped enemy. It was he, not the enemy, who had to worry about the airstrikes. 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 from the start. We started getting indirect fire – small arms fire. And I was in a van, driving down the street.”
“There are tanks, and above us there are helicopters. And you can hear the Russian jets going by. And in the open fields, the Russians were dropping troops in helicopters. And so you say to yourself: ‘Wow, wow!’ It’s a lot.”
Kevin and his colleagues came under artillery fire. During the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, these foreign soldiers called for airstrikes and artillery bombardments. They never knew it was like on the receiving side.
Kevin says that, faced with the reality of the battle, many foreign fighters decided to leave. “That’s when they say, ‘Maybe it’s not for me. The first time this round comes within 20 yards is the first time you’re like, ‘Oh shit,'” 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 missions, and they found themselves staying. Eventually, he said, they ended up at the sauna and gym complex where they locked themselves away for four days, even as the building slowly disintegrated under Russian bombardment.
“We call it the house of horrors because it was literally a nightmare in there,” he says. “It was four really miserable days of very little sleep, very heavy artillery, very heavy infantry presence from the Russians. not to arrive.”
He and the other foreigners on his team were “shocked”, he says. “But the Ukrainian army was…calm, cool, collected. As they say, ‘It’s normal, don’t worry.'”
He is impressed by the efforts of the Ukrainian soldiers.
“They are masters of pitch 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 that’s where we can hide. They know which building to go to. And they tell you will say before we get there, hey, five houses over has a really nice basement. That’s where we should go.
“Everything was on fire”
Kevin walks through what’s left of the building, which has been gutted by fire. In the gym, the dumbbells warped under the extreme heat. The rubber melted on the weight plates.
“It was a chair,” he says, pointing to a metal structure. “We were so heavily bombarded that we put this chair here so we could jump out the window if we had to do it quickly.”
When a loose corrugated roofing sheet flaps in the wind outside, he jumps.
At one point in the clash, he said, the Russian troops were so close that, lying on the ground in the dark night, he could hear the glass cracking under the enemy’s feet.
And yet, he is sure that he made the right decision by coming to Ukraine.
“It became increasingly clear to us that this was the right thing,” he says. “Everything was on fire. The artillery didn’t stop. We had already seen civilians outright murdered.”
He agrees that there was a moral ambiguity in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It really comes down to good versus evil,” he says. “You will hear Ukrainians calling Russians ‘Orcs.’ It’s because to them it’s a symbol of good versus evil, like in Lord of the Rings — light versus dark,” he said.
“The Russians, they know exactly what they are doing. They have the education. They have the social networks, the information,” he says. “I never understood why they were killing women and children. And it wasn’t by accident. It was murder. We found a lot of people just at the end of the street who were tied up, shot, thrown on the side of the road, crushed by tanks. Just barbaric. For what reason?”
Kevin says he feels like he’s aged five years in the past three months. He doesn’t know how to explain what he is experiencing here to his friends back home. He doesn’t know if he wants to.
But he knows Ukraine “is where I should be” and plans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen this play out time and time again in history. People ask me all the time, ‘Oh, this isn’t your fight.’ Or, ‘What are you doing over there?’ Yeah, but it wasn’t our fight many times in history. And then it was. It’s not your problem until it’s your problem.
Olga Voitovych contributed to this story.