Nick Maimer's send-off was like any other family event, filled with laughter and fond memories. The Army Special Forces veteran and Idaho native was heading to Spain to teach English in early 2022.
No one at the time, not even Maimer himself, knew he would end up in the thick of war in Ukraine. The retired staff sergeant, 45, was killed in the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, this week after an apparent barrage of artillery destroyed the building he was in.
Like other American veterans, he was drawn to the struggle and need there, as Ukrainians fend off an invasion of Russian forces -- a David and Goliath conflict, Western democracy against the aggressive authoritarian military might of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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"He's a protector," Nate Peterson, a judge advocate general in the Idaho National Guard and Maimer's step-cousin, told Military.com on Thursday. "I know a lot of people who would die for family, a lot of people who would die for country, but I know very few people who would go somewhere else and die for someone else's freedom, somebody else's rights and liberties. And that was Nick."
In a grim twist, Maimer's death was broadcast around the world by a Russian mercenary group. In the video, the Wagner Group's chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, flashes Maimer's ID cards and stands over his body amid the ruins of the besieged city.
"So, we will pass him along to the United States of America, we will put him in a coffin, and cover him with an American flag because he didn't die in his bed an old man but died in war and most likely in a worthy way, right?" Prigozhin says in the black-and-white video.
The propaganda video "pissed off" and hurt Maimer's loved ones, according to friends, family and members of his former unit who spoke to Military.com. It was unfair in their eyes that this was how the world came to know the man they described as a big-hearted and passionate protector.
After Military.com interviewed more than half a dozen friends, family and colleagues about Maimer, a clear image of an uninhibited, come-as-you-are veteran and friend emerged.
Peterson remembered tutoring Maimer at Boise State University where they both attended and seeing him around the Idaho National Guard where they both served. Maimer was a rocket at trivia and a self-taught audiophile and, if anything bad went down, Peterson wanted him on his side.
Bill Fackler, a retired Army veteran and current civilian employee for the Idaho National Guard, knew Maimer for more than a decade. They were friends and worked together processing personnel in and out of the unit, he said.
"When he did something, he did it 150%," Fackler told Military.com on Wednesday. "And he also was the kind of guy that would give his shirt off his back to anybody.
"If you needed a room to sleep in, he would give up his place," Fackler added, recounting that Maimer offered his place to wayward members of the unit on multiple occasions.
In January 2022, when Maimer and his family were having a last celebration before he left, Eastern Europe wasn't at war and the retired staff sergeant was looking to teach English in Spain. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that Putin was about to launch a full-scale invasion into Ukraine.
In late February, he did -- and Maimer wanted to help the Ukrainians in any way he could.
"I had that strong internal debate on whether I should, what I could contribute," he told NBC months before he died, though the news network had concealed his identity at the time. "Should I accept the risk? Ultimately, I decided that it was worth it to help Ukraine."
Fackler tried to talk him out of going, he said, "but I knew it was useless."
"You don't have to do this," he recounted telling Maimer. "I respect you, but that's truly dangerous."
Maimer entered the country through Poland around March, looking for an organization to join and put his Special Forces skills to use. He first tried the Mozart Group -- a now defunct, pro-Ukrainian private military company that shuttered earlier this year.
Maimer's story picked up around April 2022 when he met retired Lt. Col. Perry Blackburn, founder of the non-profit AFGFree, a group providing humanitarian aid and training in Ukraine.
The relationship between the retired staff sergeant and the organization, as described by Blackburn, consisted of periodic check-ins and a wide berth of responsibility for "partners" like Maimer.
"Nobody controls anyone's activities or operations," Blackburn, also a retired Green Beret, said of his organization. "They just go to, and then find the need, and we support that need from various places within Ukraine.
"But we have multiple folks that work within our networks and do remarkable things every day," he added. "And Nick was one of those people."
He said Maimer was a liaison between his organization and Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces. He also conducted site visits to best direct aid across the country.
Blackburn recounted a time that he and Maimer were in the basement of a besieged restaurant working on getting fuel to the front and meeting with someone for help with logistics support.
"Our eyes are all glassy from the smoke, and there's vodka being given out," he said. "And Nick didn't touch a drink the whole time. ... He kept a level head throughout the whole thing [and], at the end of it, when we came down to the brass tacks of negotiating how this was going to happen, it was Nick that put the fine print on how this was going to work."
That's what Blackburn believes Maimer was doing in Bakhmut, the current epicenter of the war and site of Ukraine's counter-offensive against Russia. He believes Maimer was there on a site visit to best provide humanitarian logistics to the area.
Blackburn said that he and Maimer spoke last about three weeks before his death when there were rumors of a big offensive that was going to occur on Ukraine's eastern front.
"We also understood that there was an opportunity that we needed to be there to help bring in supplies for Russian-occupied areas, to the civilians, because every time it happens, there's no commerce that comes in and out of that area," he said.
"So, I believe that he was there with the Territorial Defense doing an assessment to determine where the best places were that needed the most help," he added. "And unfortunately he got caught in that irregular battlefield geometry and got hit by Russian artillery."
The Wagner video, which was released Tuesday, emerged shortly after.
"Here we have a veteran, Nicholas," Prigozhin said after mumbling about "military humor" in the video.
The video showed what Fackler and Blackburn said was Maimer's body. "It was the hardest thing I've ever seen," Fackler told Military.com.
"That's not what professional soldiers do," Blackburn said. "It's just really, really upsetting to the family -- the family's seen it -- they had to know that the family was going to see it. It just shows the callousness of them."
The video traveled across the internet and, in pro-Russian circles, was used to portray Maimer as a mercenary himself.
"To think that he went over there to make a bunch of money as a mercenary and fight the Russians is inaccurate," Blackburn told Military.com. "His main emphasis was to help with humanitarian aid and help train them to facilitate that humanitarian aid where needed."
After his death was publicized in the video, friends expressed their love for Maimer over social media, consistently referring to his compassion. He was a humanitarian, as one person wrote. A group with 100 members emerged on Facebook with friends and loved ones sharing pictures and stories about Maimer.
Others, like Karl Watts, who met Maimer through the Big Brother program when he was just 12 years old, said that the former soldier had his "ups and downs" throughout his life.
"He was courageous, he pursued life with a passion, he had strength to work through and overcome a lot of the negative in his life," Watts said. "That even through all that he was not cynical or pessimistic -- he somehow carried this very positive attitude, a smile on his face through it all."
Zac Feuerborn, a cousin who grew up with Maimer since he was a toddler and reconnected with him as adults, said that a phrase that rings familiar when he thinks about Maimer is "come as you are." "He was friends with everybody, he accepted everybody for who they were and where they were at in their lives," he said. "He was a loyal friend."
Members of his Idaho National Guard unit recounted Maimer's long service to the country and his community -- one that included at least four different jobs from cavalry scout to Special Forces engineer to armor crewman and finally infantryman.
"The guy served and served his country well beyond and above what most people do," said Dustin Schenstrom, who retired from the Army after 24 years. He served with Maimer and recounted how the Special Forces NCO helped him through some of the toughest moments of his life, even while he was in the Ukrainian war zone.
"He was an honorable man." Schenstrom said. "He was a man of service; he definitely wanted to serve not only our country, but humankind."
Maimer originally joined the Army in 1996, according to the service, which provided his records to Military.com. Over the next 20 years, he rotated between the Idaho, Utah and California National Guards. He became a Green Beret in 2005 and deployed with the Utah Guard's 19th Special Forces Group in 2006 to the Philippines.
In 2018, he retired with the Idaho National Guard as a staff sergeant, taking a nonpunitive, administrative rank reduction from sergeant first class, according to Fackler -- a not unheard-of occurrence for Guard members looking for specific jobs in specific states.
"Nick was a member of the Idaho National Guard," Lt. Col. Christopher Borders, a spokesperson for the unit, told Military.com Wednesday. "So this hits close to home here and our hearts and prayers are with him, his family and his friends in the community.
"He was a valued member, he did a lot of great things for this organization. And it's sad to see one of our brothers in arms fall, regardless of the conflict or action," Borders said.
Friends and family said they are trying to get Maimer's body back to the U.S. Peterson, his step-cousin and a JAG officer, said that they hope to bury Maimer in an Idaho military cemetery.
Feuerborn, his cousin, said that Maimer would want a celebration, too. And even in death, Maimer's humor -- sometimes dark -- made Feuerborn laugh.
Maimer once said that if the worst came to pass, he would want to be cremated and his ashes flushed down the toilet "because ashes are just ashes."
"He would do anything for the people that he loved," Feuerborn said.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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