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'Battle of Light vs Darkness': Former US soldier leaves to fight in Ukraine and is trapped in a 'House of Horrors'

Kevin, a former U.S. soldier and member of an elite foreign special forces group in Ukraine, despite a previous career as a high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism agent serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, says it was near Kyiv that he faced some of the fiercest fighting of his life. CNN.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kevin, a stocky American in his thirties, climbs the charred ruins of a former sauna and shines his iPhone through the dust.

“We're not going to go any further because this wire is deliberately tied to something and then buried right here,” he warns. “Many Russians withdrew through some of these places and re-mined them, set booby traps.”

Kevin is part of an elite foreign special forces group, mostly American and British. The soldiers came to the war to help Ukraine.

He says that back in March, the group spent four days in the building of the spa - they called it the "house of horrors" - just 50 meters from Russian troops. It was, he said, the most advanced Ukrainian position in Irpen, a suburb of Kyiv, when Russian troops were trying to break through to capture the capital.

On the subject: In Kharkov, the Russians destroyed a unique eco-park: animals and volunteers died

The once affluent suburb has now become synonymous with Russian war crimes, a place of pilgrimage for the dignitaries who have carved a path through its shell-riddled streets. Kevin says that he and his people were among the first to witness the attack on Ukrainian civilians.

He says he and his new comrades in arms have used many of the guerrilla tactics that have been used against the US military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“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.

"Real Combat Experience"

Like many retired military men, Kevin says he has felt abandoned since leaving the battlefield a few years ago. He had a steady job in the US, but quit when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on experienced foreign soldiers early in the war. He arrived in Western Ukraine, was taken to Kyiv and in a matter of hours was at the forefront of the battle for the capital.

He joined the Ukrainian International Legion, created by the government in the early days of the war.

The government pays him and his colleagues modest salaries of $2000 to $3000 a month, although Kevin says they spent much more on equipment. The International Legion even has its own website, where potential foreign recruits receive instructions on everything from how to contact the Ukrainian embassy to what to pack.

In those early weeks, the government struggled to weed out impostors and military tourists. By March 6, they had received more than 20 applications, according to the foreign minister.

The number of foreign soldiers currently in Ukraine is a state secret, but a representative of the International Legion said that thanks to joint work, "Ukraine's chances of winning are significantly increased."

“The best of the best enter the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” said Colonel Anton Mironovich. “These are foreigners with real combat experience, these 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 was defending himself against an invasion by a better equipped enemy. He, and not the enemy, had to worry about airstrikes. There was no master plan, no air support, and no evacuation in case of disaster.

“It was like a movie,” he says. “It was crazy from the start. We started shooting from covered positions with small arms. And I was in a pickup, just driving down the street.”

“There are tanks, and helicopters are above us. And you can hear Russian planes flying by. And in the open field, the Russians land troops,” he recalls.

Kevin and his colleagues came under artillery fire. During the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, these foreign soldiers themselves carried out airstrikes and artillery attacks. They have never been "the host".

Kevin says that, faced with the reality of combat, many foreign fighters have decided to leave.

"That's when they said, 'Maybe it's not for me.' The first time this bullet travels within 20 meters is the first time you think, “Oh shit,” he said.

Day after day, Kevin and his buddies came to the conclusion that they had enough too. Then the next day came, bringing with it new orders and new missions, and they stayed. Eventually, he said, they ended up in a sauna and gym complex, where they hid for four days, even as the building slowly collapsed under Russian shelling.

“We call it the House of Horrors because it was literally a nightmare,” he says. “It was four really terrible days when we really didn’t sleep much, really heavy artillery, infantry from the Russian side pressed on us. No matter how many people we removed from their side, they continued to advance.

According to him, he and other foreigners from his team were "shocked".

“But the Ukrainian military were… calm, cool, collected. As they say, like: “It's okay, don't worry about it. It's ok," says Kevin.

He is delighted with the Ukrainian soldiers.

“They are masters of navigating the terrain,” he says. “They know every inch of this area. They know a little alley where we can wait. They know how to get there. They know we can hide here. They know which building to go to, how to get there, that there is a very good basement five houses away from our place.”

"Everything was on fire"

Kevin walks through what's left of the burned building. In the gym, the barbells were deformed from the intense heat. The rubber melted off the weight plates.

“It was a chair,” he says, pointing to the metal frame. “We were under so much fire that we put this chair here so we can jump out of this window if we need to hurry.”

When a sheet of loose corrugated roofing flaps in the wind outside, Kevin jumps.

According to him, at some point, Russian troops were so close that, lying on the floor in pitch darkness, he could hear the crunch of glass under the enemy's feet.

And yet he is sure that he made the right decision to come to Ukraine.

“It became more and more clear to us that this was the right thing to do,” he says. Everything was on fire. The artillery was non-stop. We saw how civilians were simply killed.”

He agrees that there were moral ambiguities in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It all comes down to good versus evil,” he says. – You will hear how Ukrainians call Russians “orcs”. This is because for them it is a symbol of evil, as in The Lord of the Rings - light against darkness.

“The Russians know exactly what they are doing. They have an education. They have social networks, news, he says. “I never understood why they killed women and children. And it was no accident. These were deliberate killings. We saw bound and shot people. Just barbaric. For what reason?"

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes and has said its forces do not attack civilians. Ukraine's Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova is investigating thousands of cases of alleged Russian war crimes across the country, and the International Criminal Court's chief war crimes prosecutor has traveled to Ukraine to investigate.

Kevin says that over the past three months, he feels like he has aged five years. He doesn't know how to explain to his friends what he's going through here. He doesn't know if he wants to.

You may be interested in: top New York news, stories of our immigrants, and helpful tips about life in the Big Apple - read it all on ForumDaily New York.

But he knows Ukraine is "where I should be" and plans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future.

“We have seen this play out over and over again in history. People told me all the time, "Oh, this is not your war." Or: “What are you doing there?” Yes, but many times in history it wasn't our war. But it can become. It's not your problem - not your problem yet," Kevin said.

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