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Military Veterans Head to Iraq To Fight ISIS

The New York Times had an interesting piece about military vets–unsatisfied with civilian life–returning to Iraq to fight ISIS. Patrick Maxwell is one of them. With the rise of ISIS, Maxwell, a former sergeant in the Iraq War who was selling real estate in Texas, was finally able to see “the enemy” that was more like a phantom when he was deployed in Anbar Province in 2006. Horrified by the atrocities of ISIS, Maxwell decided to volunteer to fight the Islamic State, along with other veterans. Yet, while this may seem admirable, it places the United States in an awkward legal position. Some of these veterans end up fighting alongside Kurdish militias that have ties to groups labeled terrorist organizations by the State Department. This is obviously on top of the dangers reading being killed or captured in the fight against ISIS forces (via NYT):


With the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, hoisting its black flag above many Iraqi cities that United States troops spent years working to secure, he [Maxwell] saw a second chance. He connected with a Kurdish military officer online, packed his body armor, some old uniforms and a faded green ball cap with a Texas flag patch on the front, and flew to Iraq.

Within days, he was on the front lines as a volunteer fighter with Kurdish security forces, known as the pesh merga, in northern Iraq, peering through a rifle scope at Islamic State fighters as bullets whizzed past.

Mr. Maxwell is one of a small number of Americans — many of them former members of the military — who have volunteered in recent months to take up arms against the militants in Iraq and Syria, even as the United States government has hesitated to put combat troops on the ground. Driven by a blend of motivations — outrage over the Islamic State’s atrocities, boredom with civilian life back home, dismay that an enemy they tried to neutralize is stronger than ever — they have offered themselves as pro bono advisers and riflemen in local militias.

“More than anything, they don’t like ISIS and want to help,” said Matthew VanDyke, an American filmmaker who has spent time this winter with four American veterans covertly training a militia of Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq to resist the Islamic State. He is now recruiting more veterans to help, though late in February, the American Mesopotamian Organization, a California-based nonprofit that helped fund the militia, broke ties with him.

In a phone interview from Iraq, Mr. VanDyke said that many veterans spent years honing combat skills in war only to have them shelved in civilian life and that they are eager for a new mission.

“A lot of guys did important stuff overseas and came home and got stuck in menial jobs, which can be really hard,” he said. “We offer them kind of a dream job, a chance to do what they are trained to do without all the red tape and PowerPoints.”

Though there is no official count, a spokesman for the Y.P.G. Kurdish militia in Syria said that more than 100 American citizens are fighting there. Though pesh merga officials in Iraq recently said there were more than 10 Westerners fighting in Iraq, they now say there are none.

While the United States authorities have tracked and prosecuted citizens who try to join the Islamic State, it is unclear how they will respond to Americans’ fighting the group, especially since some Kurdish militias in Syria have ties to groups the State Department classifies as terrorist organizations.


The piece also notes that these actions carry historical precedent; Americans–and other nationals–went to Spain in the 1930s to help Spanish Republican forces in their fight against the Nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco. In the end, Franco won, controlling Spain until 1975.

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