KANSAS CITY (KMBC) -- A firefighter from the Kansas City metro has spent three weeks helping with search and rescue efforts on the ground in Ukraine. KMBC 9 spoke with him about the toughest and most rewarding parts of the trip.

A war zone was nothing new to Derrick Rolfo. He's a former Marine who's served overseas. Now a firefighter in Johnson County, Kansas, he went into Ukraine with a new role; helping crews search for survivors amid devastation.

As Ukrainian troops fight Russian forces on the front lines, first responders are close behind.

“We showed up to this fire station and they looked exhausted,” Rolfo said on a video call as he headed from Ukraine toward Poland.

He traveled to Ukraine as part of Project Joint Guardian, which sent 12 firefighters from around the world to help with search and rescue efforts.

Rolfo says Russian troops often target responders and have even directly attacked fire stations. “At one point we were right on the front lines. We could see where the Russian troops were in the tree line, we were that close, so we were at a lot of the fire stations that were taking hits every single day,” Rolfo said. “When we got there to help them their station was booby-trapped had grenades everywhere and tripwires.”

Unfortunately, many calls, like one for a man trapped when his home was bombed, turned from rescue to recovery.

“The neighbors had reported they had heard him screaming out for help for two days,” Rolfo said. “It was an emotional day. It sucked. It was really a tough day.”

Rolfo says the hardest moment came as he searched for another man killed in a missile strike, while family members waited.

"It landed. It was a direct hit on him because all that was left was his watch. We didn’t find his body at all," Rolfo said.

“I became extremely emotional and the family just kind of pulled me in and hugged me, and they presented us with this little flag as a thank you,” he said. “Our entire team was super emotional, I mean, it was a somber time.”

Despite the difficult work, Rolfo says the greatest reward was the bond between firefighters from different countries united by one mission.

“We've shed tears together, we've had drinks together, we've, you know, laughed together, we've been scared together, so these are my family right here,” he said.

Rolfo is hoping to go back to Ukraine to keep helping as the war continues but isn’t sure when that could be.

Project Joint Guardian has collected about $500,000 worth of gear and supplies to help Ukrainian firefighters.

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