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Iowan heads to Ukraine front lines to fight: 'All these people want is to have a choice'

After leaving Iraq in 2018, Ryan O'Leary thought he'd never fight in another war again. But seeing everything unfold in Ukraine sparked him to take action.

CARROLL, Iowa — After leaving Iraq in 2018, Carroll native and National Guard veteran Ryan O'Leary thought he'd never fight in another war again. But seeing everything unfold in Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked him to take action. 

When you are in a country in the midst of a war, anything can happen at any given moment. Local 5's Khalil Maycock discovered this when his Zoom interview with O'Leary was cut short due to rockets landing in a nearby village. 

"Probably 10 kilometers in front but I don't want to give away, oh, give me a second," said O'Leary. "We're getting hit with rockets. I got to go. I'll keep you updated. Bye." 

The veteran contacted Local 5 soon after, confirming rockets did land in a village nearby. O'Leary continued on with the interview. 

"With the way artillery is, you can usually tell by the sound it makes when it comes to the aircraft with the missiles. You can hear them when they get shot off but you can't tell how close they are til they're on top of you. So, but we're doing good." 

O'Leary's time in the National Guard lasted four years. 

"You know, actually, after my time in Iraq I swore I wasn't going to do it again," he said. "But I think the world's reaction to what Russia's doing in Ukraine was too slow."

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So, the soldier volunteered to head to the front lines in Ukraine. He signed a contract with the government to serve until the end of the war — on his own dime. 

"My commander just recently asked me, 'Hey, this is going to be sketch, do you want to do it?' and I was like, 'You know what, let's do it," said the soldier. 

O'Leary and his legion now rely on locals for food and shelter amid the barrage of gunfire that has become his daily reality. He said the team's second operation ended up in a Russian ambush.

Shrapnel pierced through O'Leary's jacket, nearly wounding him in the incident. 

O'Leary says he is the only American in his unit doing recon. He's joined by 10 Ukrainians. O'Leary believes he's one of 20,000 foreign soldiers fighting for Ukraine's freedom. 

"All these people want is to have a choice," O'Leary said. "A choice in their government, a choice of how they live. The ability to have good-paying jobs and, you know, just freedom." 

Although his time in Ukraine could mean his death, O'Leary said he's willing to do it.  

Watch: Sen. Ernst speaks on Ukraine war after returning from trip to Germany and Poland

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