Just months ago, Nick Maimer was living in his home on the Boise Bench.
Now he is halfway around the world, spending his days in the muddy fields outside Kyiv, training Ukrainian civilians how to fight off Russian soldiers.
The story behind how a Treasure Valley native found himself there hinges on a Facebook message.
Maimer, 44, moved to Spain to teach English two months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet Union republic, in late February. Watching from the other side of Europe, he said he felt a “calling” to find a way to help.
“I think this is one of the most clear-cut unjust invasions in recent history,” Maimer said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. “It’s really obvious to everybody that it’s an unjustified invasion. So I felt like my moral compass just pointed me towards it.”
And the Idahoan felt he had something to offer Ukrainians.
Before retiring in 2018, he spent 20 years in the military, eventually becoming a Green Beret. He said he was confident that he could help train people who suddenly found themselves having to defend their homes, property and cities.
He said many of his friends and family in Idaho didn’t understand his desire to wade into a war zone, though.
“Oh, there was lots of concern,” Maimer said. “… But I’ve run into New Zealanders, Frenchmen and various Americans. I think there’s just people that kind of have that calling.”
His family shipped his combat gear to Poland, Maimer said, and he eventually reached out to the nonprofit AFGFree — which was working to get supplies into Ukraine and help people evacuate — to see if they could use his help. He and AFGFree founder Perry Blackburn, a retired lieutenant colonel, began messaging on Facebook and bonding over having both served in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Blackburn was looking for someone with military training to help assess new members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force.
“The best guy to help was someone who I’d never met before,” Blackburn said. “I got ahold of Nick and said, ‘Hey, brother, come on out here and look at this training and let’s see what we can do.’”
Improving training for Ukrainian volunteers
The New York Times described the Defense Force as a branch of the Ukrainian army made up of volunteers who were just going to protect residents but now are being sent farther afield to fight.
“Volunteers who had signed up to defend hometowns now find themselves deployed to the front,” The Times reported. “Sometimes they are trained only once they arrive because that’s where the available weapons are.”
Blackburn said the shift to sending Defense Force members to more serious combat zones meant Ukraine needed to improve training. Members of the military asked Blackburn to help. After Maimer joined him, the two veterans said they started out by assessing new recruits to find gaps in combat knowledge. And they said sometimes the training was as simple as showing people how to fire a gun.
“Some of them have some experience, some of them don’t,” Blackburn said. “Some of them are just civilians that were anything from teachers, doctors, lawyers one day, and now they’re foot soldiers next.”
Maimer and Blackburn have since started work on a more serious project: designing a three- to four-week Territorial Defense Force training program for the Ukrainian army to implement on a wider scale. They have presented it to commanders, but a decision on whether to implement it has not been made.
“If it works out for them, there will be thousands that will probably go through the program,” Blackburn said. “And Nick will help lead that program. Nick will be the one pivotal guy that has put that together.”
Maimer’s life now looks drastically different from his days working in Saint Alphonsus Health System’s IT department. He lives in a small apartment near Kyiv and said most of his day is taken up by training and course writing, meaning his “social life is nonexistent.” But he described his time working with the Ukrainian forces as “phenomenal.”
Maimer said he has been moved by Ukrainians’ generosity and willingness to learn.
“If there was one thing I would want Idahoans to know is that these aren’t really foreigners,” Maimer said. “These are humans, just the same as them. All they have to do is imagine the tragedy and pain they would feel if their homes were shelled and civilians were indiscriminately killed in the streets.”