MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian reconnaissance team darts through a valley, hiding behind stacks of tires and firing at red, steel targets as far as a football field away. The bullets frequently find their mark with a loud clang and a flash of sparks.
Normally, Col. Roman Kostenko would be in his parliamentary office more than 300 miles to the north in Kyiv. But today, he's overseeing part of a team he put together after Russian forces invaded the country in late February.
Kostenko, 38, grew up east of here, in southern Ukraine's Kherson region. To appreciate what Ukrainians are fighting for, consider his situation: "The village where I was born and raised is now under Russian occupation," he says.
In early March, Russian forces captured Kherson, a key Black Sea port city of about 280,000 people. Kostenko says Russian soldiers went into his family home and took his colonel's uniform, medals, ammunition and even body armor. He has also learned that they stole his family's furniture and took it to their trenches. Now, a Russian military unit lives in his house.
Russia installed its own government in Kherson, which plans to ask Moscow to declare the region Russian territory. It's a sign Russia could try to annex a vast area — including Kostenko's family village.
"This is now a matter of honor," says Kostenko, "to bring back my home and to bring back all people's homes. I'm not the only one who is in this kind of situation. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me."
He went from Donbas battle to parliament and back to war
Kostenko served in the SBU, Ukraine's main intelligence agency, for many years. He was among a band of Ukrainian soldiers who held off much larger Russian-led forces while defending an airport in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region in 2014. The battle is so well-known here it became the subject of a feature film.
Kostenko won a seat in parliament in 2019, where he serves as secretary of the defense committee. Soon after the Russians invaded, he reached out to his old compatriots from the battle in the Donbas and formed the recon team, which now operates as part of the armed services. Kostenko still works full-time as a lawmaker, but travels down here to spend some of his time working with the team.
The team faces major risks
Among them are a truck driver, a car mechanic, a security guard and a farmer.
The farmer, who goes by the nickname "Elephant," speaks with NPR during a break in the training. He is dressed in full camouflage and body armor. A blue face mask, wrap-around sunglasses and green helmet obscure his entire head.
Elephant spent 18 years in military intelligence, then went to work as a farmer growing wheat and sunflowers. The Russian invasion has pulled him back into the field. Elephant now travels with a small recon team, riding dirt and quad bikes through the fields and woodlands east and south of Mykolaiv.
"We go many miles behind enemy lines," says Elephant, without a hint of bravado.
The team works as spotters, helping members of Ukrainian artillery units target Russian command posts as well as enemy artillery, ammunition and transport to break up supply lines. Elephant carries a tablet computer where he watches drone footage. He finds the coordinates for targets and then sends them back to headquarters. If the target is beyond Ukrainian artillery range, Elephant's team blows it up themselves using grenade launchers, explosives, even the enemy's own ammunition.
Risk comes with the job.
"We are under fire constantly," the farmer says. That's because the enemy usually spots them with drones as they cross the front lines. "If they aren't shooting at us, we think something went wrong."
The colonel is into explosives
On the road to the training camp stands a redbrick farmhouse with a gaping hole in one of the walls. This is where Kostenko has taught soldiers how to set explosives.
"Explosions are like music to me," says Kostenko, who wears a big grin and has a boyish sense of enthusiasm.
He began his career as an explosives expert, blowing his way into buildings, detonating land mines. That is how he got his nickname, "Grim," or "Thunder," in Ukrainian. He's been blowing things up since he first set off fireworks as a kid.
"It's my hobby to blow things up," he says. "This is what helps me to get rid of stress. In peacetime, I do it at the military training center. In wartime, I blow up Russian soldiers."
Back at Kostenko's office here in the south, weapons line the hallway. There are NLAWs and Javelins — anti-tank missiles from Britain and the United States, respectively — as well as rocket-propelled grenade launchers from Sweden, Spain and America.
"I have a lot," Kostenko says with a laugh.
He is clearly delighted to have all these weapons. But like most Ukrainian soldiers, he wants bigger ones with greater range.
Howitzers are key — and the colonel wants them in the south
Kostenko shows a video on his phone of a group of Russian howitzer artillery cannons that are hidden in a grove of trees. The barrels spit out flames as they fire on Ukrainian positions. This really frustrates Kostenko, who says that, although the Ukrainians can see the howitzers, their own artillery doesn't have the capacity to reach them.
"Right now, we desperately need long-range artillery and kamikaze drones to hit them in the far rear of their lines," Kostenko says. "Now, only the most contemporary weapons can change the situation on the battlefield."
To that end, the U.S. has sent 90 M777 howitzers along with 190,000 155 mm shells, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The Pentagon says 74 of them are already in the fight.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov says soldiers are already using the howitzers in the Kharkiv area in the country's northeast as well as in the Donbas. Kostenko says forces in the south look forward to getting as many as they can.
"Without this," he says, "it will be very difficult to hold on and then liberate territories."
Analysts in Ukraine and across Europe expect the war to grind on for months, maybe longer. Kostenko's goal isn't to stop the Russians, but to take back Ukrainian territory, including the land where his family home is.
Producer Olena Lysenko contributed to this report in Mykolaiv.