In Ukraine, US Vietnam veteran 'ready to fight'
American Vietnam veteran Steven Straub (AFP)

Just before he left New York for the war in Ukraine, American Vietnam veteran Steven Straub had the country's blue and yellow flag tattooed on his arm along with the words "free Ukraine".

The 73-year-old arrived in Ukraine in the middle of last month as Russian forces were encircling major cities and closing in on the capital Kyiv.

The retired maintenance worker from Florida has been undergoing intensive training with the Ukraine national guard in Kyiv since.

On a recent day off, he was the guest of honor on a Ukrainian military tour of several villages outside Kyiv recently recaptured from Russian troops.

The visitors stopped at burnt-out military vehicles, a destroyed bridge, a house that had been taken over by Russian troops.

"It's really different from Vietnam," Straub said, wearing a bullet-proof vest, a US-military style baseball cap and light camouflage, despite the cold.

Straub says he spent 14 months in Vietnam beginning in 1968 as a sergeant in the mechanized infantry, taking part in the Tet Offensive.

He shows off a tattoo on his left forearm: the two dates on either side of the name of the battle.

"It's much different because I was out in the jungle. I didn’t see any cities, any buildings, but trees, banana trees, elephant grass. I was on a tank, so luckily I didn't have to walk too much," he said.

"What surprised me here is the morale. Everyone has very high morale. It's unbelievable, it's very different from Vietnam.

"In Vietnam people were mostly more interested in making money. Here they're strong. They want to protect their freedom and their country".

At each stop along the way, he pauses for selfies with Ukrainian soldiers.

On an isolated road, two Russian tanks are charred and torn to pieces.

"That was a Javelin," he says, surveying the damage, referring to the portable anti-tank missile systems which the United States supplied to Ukraine.

"They definitely appreciate all the aid that the Americans have given but they need much more help, more rifles, weapons," he adds.

'Excellent soldier'

Passing through a small village, the convoy stops briefly to distribute bread and canned food to a handful of residents. Children get toys and sweets.

Straub takes several 500 hryvnia ($17) bills from his pocket and hands them over to three smiling elderly women.

Asked about his training in the national guard, he jokes: "It's tough. I'm 73 years old."

"He's an excellent soldier," a national guard official chimes in.

"He is ready for tactical training. He knows how to handle a weapon now. I'm happy with him," the official, identified as Ferrari, told AFP.

"It's his second war. He wasn't very happy with the communists then, and he came here to make them pay certain debts."

Straub expects soon to be granted permission to carry a weapon. And then?

"I'm ready to fight. That's why I came here. I want to go to Odessa," he said, referring to the southern port city that has so far escaped serious fighting.

The tour stops next beside a van and a Soviet-era Lada passenger car riddled with bullet holes, next to a forest where hundreds of Russian soldiers had set up a sprawling makeshift camp.

The civilians driving the vehicles were both killed and traces of blood are still visible on a door and seat of the car.

Straub discovers a children's book in the Lada and walks a short distance away from the group.

"It's terrible," Straub, a father-of-two, says returning.

The group makes its way to the abandoned camp with more than 100 dugouts visible between the pines.

Wandering through the remains for around 30 minutes, Straub bends down to pick up an abandoned Russian military cap.

"It may be that of a Russian general," he says, a smile spreading across his face.