Why US veterans are signing up with militias to fight ISIS

Westerners Kurds ISISAPIn this Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 photo, Jordan Matson, 28, right, a former U.S. Army soldier from Sturtevant, Wis., takes a break with other fighters from the main Kurdish militia.

Some American veterans have been drawn back to the Middle East by the fight to banish Islamic State militants.

The New York Times tells the story of 29-year-old Patrick Maxwell, an Iraq war veteran who has returned to the country to volunteer with Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS (also known as ISIL).

The Times notes that part of what drew Maxwell to the fight is the fact that the enemy in Iraq is now more visible and clearly defined.

Maxwell told the Times about his 2006 deployment as a Marine infantryman in one of Iraq’s most dangerous provinces: “We patrolled every day, got shot at, mortared, hit by IEDs, one of my friends was killed. But I never saw the enemy, never fired a shot.”

And while Maxwell might not have pulled his trigger once during his deployment with the Marine Corps, fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish forces might promise more action.

Maxwell is far from alone in feeling that way.

The Times highlights the reasons behind this phenomenon: “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” as the US has “hesitated to put combat troops on the ground.”

Thomas Brennan, a former Marine Corps sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained in a Times blog that he could understand why Maxwell felt robbed during his deployment in 2006 and would want to return to Iraq.

Brennan wrote: “I could understand his disappointment. I had spent the first months of my deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan anxious and saddened because I hadn’t pulled my trigger — the very thing Marines are trained to do.”

Eventually, Brennan did experience the more violent aspects of war and now finds part of himself longing for it while he’s back in the US. He wrote: “Power over life is addicting. Very addicting. You miss it. You daydream about it. Nothing is more petrifying than being aggressively hunted by another human. And there is nothing more exhilarating than when you kill them first.”

What many veterans also miss, Brennan points out, is the brotherhood forged by military service.

War correspondent Sebastian Junger explained this state of mind in a 2014 TED Talk:

I don’t think any civilian has ever missed the war that they were subjected to,” Junger said.”I’ve been covering wars for almost 20 years, and one of the remarkable things for me is how many soldiers find themselves missing it.”

Junger talked about one Afghanistan war veteran who missed the Army after he got home. Junger explained that the veteran missed the brotherhood that comes with combat, which is on a higher level than the friendship he found in America.

“You think about all these soldiers having an experience like that, a bond like that, in a small group, where they loved 20 other people in some ways more than they loved themselves … and then they come home, and they are just back in society like the rest of us are, not knowing who they can count on, not knowing who loves them, who they can love, not knowing exactly what anyone they know would do for them if it came down to it,” Junger said.

US Soldiers IraqStaff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall/USAFU.S. Army Staff Sgt. Vince Foster from Bravo Company, 12th Infantry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, provides security during a short halt in Buhriz, Iraq, on Feb. 17.

“That is terrifying. Compared to that, war, psychologically, in some ways, is easy, compared to that kind of alienation,” Junger said. “That’s why they miss it.”

Another driving force that is pulling some veterans back to the Middle East is seeing the victories that ISIS terrorists are enjoying.

Brennan wrote in the Times: “Seeing Islamic State celebrate victory in the villages where our friends bled or died fighting the insurgency … makes many of us wonder if our war was for nothing, that perhaps we failed.”

Isis tank syriaReutersMilitant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along a street in northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014

So in a sense, veterans might be returning to finish a fight that started more than a decade ago. American forces might not have been fighting this particular group during the invasion of Iraq, but today’s enemy is in some ways similar.

Some veterans are even encouraging others to join them.

A 28-year-old former US soldier who joined a Kurdish militia to fight against ISIS militants started a Facebook page last year to recruit other military veterans across Europe, Australia, and the US.

It’s unclear exactly how many foreign military veterans are now in the Middle East fighting with Kurdish forces, but sources on the ground in these areas told the Associated Press that there are “dozens.”

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