Former Green Beret determined to repatriate remains of fallen Special Forces vet in Ukraine has message for Wagner Group

Green Beret
Photo credit DVIDs: Photo by K. Kassens

Former U.S. Special Forces soldiers Perry Blackburn and Nicholas Maimer met in war-torn Ukraine, sharing stories in smoke-filled basements in a conflict that Blackburn describes as being fought with World War II tactics and 2023 technology. The two of them came to Ukraine in different ways but had a lot in common.

Nicholas was a former Special Forces engineer and demolitions expert, while Blackburn was a former Special Forces officer, one of the first into Afghanistan after 9/11 serving on ODA 555 (triple nickel as it's known in 5th Special Forces Group) conducting unconventional warfare missions that are now a legendary part of Green Beret history.

Having retired from the Army, Blackburn set up a humanitarian organization called AFGfree and participated in helping to evacuate Afghan refugees when the country fell to the Taliban, joining many veterans who helped get their former teammates and interpreters out of the country. In the process, his team learned how to set up safe houses, ratlines, set up networks, and methods of extracting refugees to safety, Blackburn explained to Connecting Vets.

“My touchpoint with Ukraine was that I had played American semi-professional football in Ukraine,” Blackburn said. He'd played in Kyiv a couple of times and the Ukrainian players remembered him and reach out for help when Russia invaded, knowing he had a Special Forces background.

“In the matter of a couple days we had set up networks,” in Ukraine he said. “We're a flat organization, nobody gets paid. The money we get goes to feed, and shelter, and evacuate people.” Much of their work involved working with the Ukrainian and Polish governments to evacuate displaced Ukrainians to friendly lines.

Nicholas was already in Ukraine with the now-defunct Mozart Group run by former Marine Corps Colonel Andy Milburn prior to an internal power struggle that led to the group's dissolution. Nicholas originally came to Ukraine to teach English but then wanted to get involved in humanitarian operations. When Nicholas reached out to Blackburn he was happy to fold him into AFGfree and work on some projects together.

At the time, one of their main efforts was looking at how to infuse civil affairs-type operations into the Ukrainian military to help facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid. After Blackburn finished an assessment of the Ukrainian territorial forces he left to work on supply chain issues while Nicholas stayed behind to work on a Program Of Instruction (POI) for the Ukrainians to train and codify civil affairs operations into their military framework.

As Blackburn's presence in Ukraine become more well known, he found his social media accounts and bank accounts being hacked and headed back to the United States. He stayed in contact with Nicholas in January and February, when he informed Blackmon that he signed on with the Territorial Defense to be their training officer in the 135th Brigade, to hopefully implement the POI he had developed for them.

On May 15, Blackburn received a phone call informing him that Nicholas had been killed in Bakhmut. The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization active in Ukraine, posted a video to their Telegram channel showing a body and Nicholas' ID cards.

“I don't think he thought he was going behind enemy lines, I don't think he thought they were going to get caught. I think he was going in to do an assessment of the area, figure out what the needs are, and come back but the battlefield is so dynamic and ever-shifting,” Blackburn said. “You just don't know from one day to the other.”

Blackburn explained that battle maps posted on social media of exact battle lines with red and blue forces are very misleading as there are huge gaps in the lines and often there is no real forward line of troops.

“The building he was in took some artillery. One of the eyewitness statements is that they saw Nick and he was on the other side of the hallway and he took almost like a direct hit and it collapsed [the building] on him,” Blackburn described based on his conversations with members of Nicholas' unit.

Knowing that the Wagner Group has possession of Nicholas' remains, Blackburn is determined to have his fellow Green Beret repatriated to the United States for his family, and he has a message for their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin:

“We have a profession at arms and we know that all of us take a risk in what we do in our profession and part of our responsibility as a profession at arms, as soldiers and warriors, is to treat people who had died in the combat zone with dignity and respect and transfer those back to the responsible party so they can be brought back to their family and final resting place. I would stress that is what is expected of us and the world expects us to act that way.”

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Reach Jack Murphy: or @JackMurphyRGR.

Featured Image Photo Credit: DVIDs: Photo by K. Kassens