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US Army Special Forces veteran killed in ‘barrage’ of Russian artillery in Bakhmut

The city center damaged by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Writing on the wall reads " Bakhmut loves Ukraine". (AP Photo/Libkos)

(CNN) — A retired US Army Special Forces soldier has been identified as the American citizen killed by Russian artillery in the embattled city of Bakhmut this week, according to a close friend and the founder of a non-profit group working in Ukraine.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Maimer was in a building in Bakhmut that collapsed after being hit by artillery fire, according to Retired Lt. Col. Perry Blackburn, founder of the non-profit AFGFree, with which Maimer was working in Ukraine.

Ukrainians who were with Maimer believed he was either trapped in the collapsed building or killed by a “barrage” of Russian artillery fire, Blackburn said.

“They got in the position that they were, artillery started coming in heavy and the building started to collapse. That’s when most of the Americans and Ukrainians there were able to escape. Unfortunately, Nick was not able to escape,” an American friend of Maimer in Ukraine also told CNN.

Confirmation of Maimer’s death comes after the leader of Russian private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed to show the body of an American in a video posted on the Wagner Telegram group on Tuesday. 

A pro-Kremlin military blogger, Alexander Simonov, introduces the video saying “we are advancing to the advanced positions of the PMC Wagner in the western regions of Artyomovsk,” the Russian name for Bakhmut.

Prigozhin is shown inspecting a body, and what he claims are US identification documents.

Prigozhin says, “So we will hand him over to the United States of America, we’ll put him in a coffin, cover him with the American flag with respect because he did not die in his bed as a grandpa but he died at war and most likely a worthy [death], right?”

A soldier claims that the man was returning fire when he died. Prigozhin replies, “He was shooting back; he died in the battle, so we will hand over his documents tomorrow morning and pack everything, right?”

Prigozhin and Wagner group frequently post videos for propaganda purposes, and often mix real footage with propaganda claims.

CNN cannot verify the authenticity of what is shown in the video, and Maimer’s family did not return CNN’s request for comment.

However, Maimer’s uncle Paul confirmed to the Idaho Statesman that the body in the video was Maimer’s.

Maimer’s decades in uniform

According to Maimer’s service record provided to CNN, he served more than 20 years in uniform before retiring in 2018, according to his service record provided to CNN.

He served over two years in the active-duty Army, leaving in December 1998; he then joined the National Guard in November 2000, and served roughly 18 years between three different Guard units before retiring in December 2018.

Among his awards and decorations are the Special Forces Tab, Army Commendation Medal, and four Army Achievement Medals.

His uncle Paul Maimer told the Statesman that his nephew had gone to Ukraine “as a humanitarian trying to do good for this world” and that the family wanted to bring him home for a “proper burial.”

“I think he’s deserving to be put to rest in a veterans cemetery,” he told the Statesman. “He might not have been fighting for our country, but he was fighting for the right reasons.”

Blackburn also said the Wagner video “pissed (him) off,” telling CNN: “It doesn’t surprise me that they would do it, it just really makes me mad.”

Maimer arrived in Ukraine in the spring of 2022; a video he posted on Facebook on May 25 last year said that he’d been in the country for roughly three weeks. In the video, Maimer said he’d originally linked up with the Mozart Group — a group of Western volunteers in Ukraine — but cut ties because they were “pretty unprofessional” and did not take “care of basic security and stuff like that.”

He then said he “linked up” with Blackburn’s group AFG Free, he said. AFGFree consists of “a volunteer group of U.S. Special Forces veterans and citizens that perform evacuation operations and humanitarian aid services,” according to the group’s Facebook page.

Blackburn told CNN that Maimer and other volunteers with AFGFree focused primarily on providing humanitarian aid in Ukraine rather than picking up weapons to be a part of the fight. That included working on evacuating people from embattled areas, and helping to get things like food, medicine, and uniforms to the troops fighting.

But Maimer had also been asked to do an “assessment” of the Territorial Defense Forces’ training, Blackburn said.

Maimer said in his May 2022 Facebook video that he was putting together a training program for the Territorial Defense Forces, a reserve component of Ukraine’s military, which would allow him “to hopefully save some lives by getting them some good training.”

“Perry and I and some other guys are taking our experience, and obviously that’s a big thing that US Army Special Forces does is advises and develops training programs and increases their capacity to fight for themselves,” he said in the video. “So that’s what we’re here doing.”

The American friend said Maimer was “working with that whole mentality of Special Forces: train, advise, assist and free the oppressed.”

Blackburn confirmed that there are conversations ongoing about having Maimer’s body returned to Ukrainian forces and transferred back to the US to his family.

Maimer’s friend told CNN that they were “making sure even though Nick passed away in a Ukrainian conflict that the US isn’t directly tied to, we want to make sure that his legacy of being a Green Beret is still honored and that it’s handled appropriately.”

Blackburn told CNN that Maimer had been working in Ukraine because he “really believed that this was just the right thing” to do. He “had a big heart, he was a great guy,” Blackburn said, and he felt the need to help Ukraine after seeing “the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the huge need for a country that was kind of caught off guard with this.”

“Nick was not over there as a mercenary. … He went over there to help, not to do anything else,” Blackburn said. “And we talked about this a hundred times, we talked about how there’s no need for us to pick up a gun, our need is to help keep people alive. And he was all in for that.”

A US State Department spokesperson said earlier on Tuesday that they were “aware of the reports” of a US citizen’s death, and were “seeking additional information.”

“Our ability to verify reports of deaths of US citizens in Ukraine is extremely limited,” the spokesperson said Tuesday.

The spokesperson offered “condolences to the families of all whose lives have been lost as a result of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine” and reiterated that Americans should not travel to Ukraine.

“We reiterate our message that US citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of US citizens in Ukraine by Russia’s security officials, and that US citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options,” they added.