LVIV, Ukraine — A gas station on the rural outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine may be an unlikely place to encounter two former U.S. servicemen from San Diego, but for a nation under siege and on the move, such stations have turned into surprisingly colorful and cosmopolitan places.
As Ukrainian soldiers in uniform rubbed shoulders with mothers bouncing babies on their hips, an ersatz food truck loaded with donations filled up and children chased errant pets.
You can also bump into foreigners who have volunteered to support the Ukrainians as they fight the Russian invasion, including two former U.S. servicemen from San Diego.
“We’re here to help the people. There’s a group of Americans, all veterans, out here to help in any way we can,” Lane Perkins, 26, a former Navy boatswain mate, told NBC News on Tuesday.
Perkins, who used to handle naval aircraft, said hundreds of American veterans had poured into Ukraine to do humanitarian work or assist the country’s military in its battle against Russian forces.
“We’re basically out here exploring all the different options people have and kind of relaying that information to a larger group, so that everybody can get funneled into the spot that fits them right,” he said.
Ukraine has appealed to foreigners to join its resistance against Russia’s onslaught, and is setting up an International Legion.
“Anyone who wants to join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Feb. 27, days after the invasion began.
Perkins, at the Lviv gas station with a fellow ex-Navy serviceman, who gave his name only as Hector, said he had not signed up for the International Legion because it would require him to volunteer for a set period of time and he preferred to be flexible.
An International Legion representative did not immediately reply to a question about joining requirements.
Hector, 27, a nurse by training, said the Americans’ presence in Ukraine had been well received.
“There are people that have given up their entire day to make sure that we are transported to the place we need to go, even if it means paying out of their own pocket. We offer to pay, but they do not want to take our money.
“There’s no funding, except out of our own pockets,” he added.
Hector had covered his face during the interview, and speaking later on his behalf, Perkins said this was out of fear of being identified by Russian forces.
The pair said they had been in Ukraine for four days and had been coordinating with relief agencies to secure vehicles to transport displaced people to Ukraine’s borders.
Asked whether they would go to the front line in Kyiv or Kharkiv, Perkins said. “There will be people all over the country,” he said without elaborating.
NBC News could not confirm the activities of Perkins or Hector in Ukraine, or who they’ve been in contact with.
Perkins said that other Americans wanting to fight for Ukraine had a variety of options once arriving in the country, including volunteering for the Georgian National Legion, a pro-Ukrainian paramilitary group formed to fight in the east; Ukraine’s territorial defense forces; or the Azov Battalion, a far-right ultra-nationalist volunteer force accused of white supremacy.
Prior to volunteering, Perkins said he made YouTube travel blogs, adding that he was funding his current trip from his savings.
Accepting payment while volunteering in a foreign war could be legally risky.
Ukraine is a signatory to a United Nations convention that bans the use of mercenaries, although the line between them and private military contractors is blurry.
The United States, which is not a signatory to the ban on mercenaries, made extensive use of private military contractors in Iraq.
Britain’s armed forces minister has warned citizens not to volunteer in Ukraine, with the expectation of staying only a few weeks and taking Instagram selfies.
Perkins, a married father of one, said his wife is ex-military and understands why he is in Ukraine.
“If Putin is allowed to just act and act and act in the way that he has been, since the Georgian war, where he’s making these breakaway states … who’s to say he’s not going to go to Estonia next?” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Like Ukraine, Estonia shares a border with Russia, but it is also a NATO member. An attack on Estonia could greatly escalate the conflict by triggering interventions by other NATO members.
“We’re Americans. That includes us. We’re in NATO. It’s a collective security alliance,” Perkins said. “So it’s better to fight the war here than let the war come to us.”