With a big assist from Ukrainian comrades, the body of an Idaho Special Forces veteran was en route to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv -- American soil -- on Friday in time for Memorial Day.
Nick Maimer was killed in the embattled city of Bakhmut on May 15 or 16. After traveling to Europe, he was drawn to Ukraine when Russia invaded. He was performing humanitarian work and training defense forces when he was killed in the intense fighting.
After his death, he was featured in a propaganda video posted by the Wagner Group, a mercenary group that works alongside the Russian military. The group handed over his remains after another American veteran operating in Ukraine says he helped broker a deal.
"We're happy to have him coming back so soon," Zac Feuerborn, Nick's cousin, told Military.com. "We had just accepted that the process might take months. And then we were told that he was on his way to the embassy."
Maimer, like other American veterans, was attracted to the Ukrainians' struggle to remain free against Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to stamp out the government in Kyiv and take the country for his own.
Maimer's work included training Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces soldiers and helping the people who elected to stay in Bakhmut regardless of the fighting -- overwhelmingly, older people with no place else to go, or disabled or impoverished residents.
"What drew Nick to Ukraine was that, to him, it was an atrocity that Russia invaded them. It was absolutely wrong," said Karl Watts, who connected with Maimer through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and maintained a relationship with him for 34 years. "He was trained to do what he volunteered for, and he felt confident that democracy needed to be defended. For him, it was a matter of principle."
Maimer's body was discovered near the end of the fighting within Bakhmut, in the ruins of a building. The find was made by the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an infamous paramilitary organization accused of war crimes and atrocities. The discovery was captured on video, and shared by Wagner's press team.
Prigozhin subsequently released a video in which he repeated claims that Maimer had been killed during a firefight. He pledged to return Maimer's body, saying the Special Forces veteran had died honorably on the battlefield.
In the past, Maimer had been partnered with AFGfree, a nonprofit doing humanitarian work in Ukraine since last year. He had also been working as a trainer with the 135th Battalion of Ukraine's 114th Brigade in its Territorial Defense Forces.
AFGfree could not confirm or deny that Maimer was fighting in the city. Any battlefield is filled with confusion, and Bakhmut especially so.
"There was humanitarian aid work, certainly, that he was involved in. There's no doubt that he became part of [Ukraine's] Territorial Defense in January-February … not quite sure yet how that all unfolded," retired Lt. Col. Perry Blackburn, the AFGfree founder and CEO, said in a Zoom interview Thursday.
The only person who may know the exact circumstances of Maimer's death is another American veteran who was allegedly with him. Military.com was not able to confirm that, or to reach the veteran for comment.
Though the circumstances of his death remain unclear, Maimer's body passed into Wagner's hands. Ultimately, its return home to the U.S. hinged on Wagner's leader, Prigozhin, deciding to release him. Another complication: Ukraine views Wagner as a terrorist group and formally does not negotiate with them.
Blackburn said he decided to try to short-circuit the burdensome formal procedures. He reached out to Wagner through a connection, and informal conversations took place between Ukraine's Ministry of Defence and the mercenary group. An arrangement was made to hand over prisoners and bodies, and Maimer's was a part of the exchange.
"Ukraine makes every effort to return all of its defenders," said Andrii Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine's military intelligence directorate, "alive if possible, or 'on the shield.'"
Video of the aftermath of the exchange was posted to Reddit on May 25. The same coffin Prigozhin claimed to hold Maimer's body appeared in the possession of Ukrainian soldiers, carried reverently on the back of an armored personnel carrier, part of a prisoner exchange.
"The Ukrainians' role in this was pivotal. Without them, it would not have happened. I spoke with one of the members of the unit this morning who confirmed that yes, this is Nick," Blackburn said Thursday.
The shifting lines of war in Ukraine -- some of the fiercest fighting in Europe since World War II -- mean efforts to recover or exchange bodies are treacherous. For the people there, the living are a higher priority than the dead.
The return of the remains of two other fallen American veterans -- retired Marine Capt. Grady Kurpasi and Marine veteran Pete Reed -- underlines the challenges people and organizations face when it comes to locating remains in Ukraine.
Experiences with other wars have given the U.S. best practices when it comes to repatriating remains. It often involves the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which has positively identified tens of thousands of U.S. remains from conflicts across the globe.
In this case, with State Department resources stretched thin, the bulk of the repatriation work will fall to the AFGfree nonprofit, the special operations community and Maimer's family.
The next steps will be administrative. A labor-intensive, expensive and cross-cultural process detailed in previous reporting, repatriating a U.S. veteran from Ukraine -- or any country -- requires a great deal of paperwork, logistics and authorization from various officials.
Blackburn, Watts and Feuerborn said that the next challenge will be raising funds and working with various agencies to bring Maimer's body back to Idaho as quickly as possible.
None of it would have been possible without Ukraine's military working to prioritize the recovery and transportation of Maimer's body -- even going so far as to negotiate with Wagner, a group that they regard as terrorists.
"The return of defenders of our motherland is a fundamental issue for the work of the coordination center for the treatment of prisoners of war," Yusov said. He noted that every time there is a negotiation for prisoners or bodies, it happens with a different group, and on a different basis.
"It is very sensitive, and giving additional information at this time may affect the advance and the preparation of further exchanges," he said.
Maimer's family and friends said they are grateful to the Ukrainians, and relieved that part of the ordeal is over -- in time for Memorial Day.
"I've heard people ask why Nick went with this unit to Bakhmut. ... He'd been training them for a year," Watts said. "He didn't want them to deploy without him being there to keep helping. He felt responsible for them. That's the kind of man he was."
-- Drew F. Lawrence contributed to this article.
-- Adrian Bonenberger, an Army veteran and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, reports for Military.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.