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'I wanted to fight the Islamic State': Utahns volunteer for combat alongside Kurdish militia

SARATOGA SPRINGS — He was stuck on a rooftop in Syria, bleeding and sore, shrapnel in his eye.

He had been fighting for weeks. He was tired. Hungry. Scared.

As Freeman Stevenson waited to be evacuated, he texted his mom: "I've been hit, but I'm alive."

Nine time zones away, in Utah, his mom frantically typed back: "What happened?"

They talked for 12 hours — long enough for Stevenson to make sure it was safe to leave the roof and drive back to the base, long after the sun had set in Utah and the moon had risen, as his mother rubbed her tired eyes.

Her son had done the unthinkable.

There are hundreds like him: Idealistic foreigners who decide they want to fight ISIS. People who buy tickets to Sweden, then to Iraq, then climb into trucks and cross the border to join the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, or People’s Protection Units.

They are Americans. Australians. Brits. Veterans. Adrenaline junkies. Internet cowboys. Vigilantes. Idealists. The best of society, and the worst.

For Stevenson, who had followed the civil war in Syria for years, the final straw wasn’t the videos of the beheadings or the pictures of the burning of men in cages.

It was when ISIS fighters began taking bulldozers to priceless relics and structures in the ancient cities of Palmyra and Mosul — threatening not only to kill people, but to wipe an entire civilization from memory.

“Growing up Mormon, aren’t you taught you’re supposed to care about people?” asked Stevenson. "Supposedly, I'm supposed to stand up for these things, these values, these morals. As an American, as a person, as a member of a Western — supposedly secular — democracy."

Stevenson had read about Jordan Matson, the first American volunteer to join the YPG. He also knew the militia was actively recruiting more volunteers. So one day in April, he messaged the YPG on Facebook.

By December, he was on his way.

"I also wanted to fight," Stevenson said. "I wanted to fight the Islamic State."

'More honor'

Open-source investigative group Bellingcat estimates roughly 100 Americans have volunteered for combat alongside Kurdish forces in northern Syria. That includes at least three Utahns: Stevenson, 22, of Saratoga Springs; BYU student Porter Goodman, 28; and Logan resident Tyler Lagomarsino, 28.

Such forays into Syria are strongly discouraged by the U.S. government, although not technically illegal.

Lagomarsino, a father of two, said he felt that he had to “put my part in.”

Born into a military family, Lagomarsino was devastated when he was disqualified for service for medical reasons. He decided instead to volunteer with the YPG.

“Anybody who does go there, they have to have a screw loose,” he jokes.

Still, the Logan resident rejects the characterization of Western volunteers as vigilantes. “To me, a vigilante is someone who causes chaos,” he said. “We have more honor than that.”

Among the volunteers who make it to Syria, many share an interest in history and a fierce sense of right and wrong.

“There’s not very often you see a conflict that is so black and white,” said Goodman, who served 15 months in Iraq as an Army mechanic and EMT and two years as a Mormon missionary in Georgia.

“The situation in Syria is complicated, but as far as who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, it’s about as simple as you’ll ever find."

Goodman, a self-described "news junkie," spent months chatting with Kurdish fighters and foreign volunteers through Reddit and other websites before he made his decision in the fall of 2015.

“My schoolwork, my math homework … it felt like I had been away from anything that mattered for so long," Goodman said. "It just occurred to me that there's no reason why I can't go over there."

Life in Syria

Neither of the three men told their families about their plans until they were out of the country.

Goodman’s parents were so distraught that he ended up promising them he wouldn’t go to the front lines. Stevenson’s family argued about whether they should support him or ask him to come back. Lagomarsino left behind a shocked wife and two children.

Once there, they found the militia poorly equipped and disorganized — far more so than the ISIS fighters they were supposed to help defeat.

"Training" consisted of Kurdish lessons and a few haphazard lessons in how to use guns, grenades and rocket launchers.

Then, they waited.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time, it’s nothing,” Stevenson said. “It’s sand, sand, more sand, some mud, wind, more sand, some chai — chai five to seven times a day minimum — and just utter and complete boredom.”

Over time, some of the more unsavory aspects of life in the YPG also began to emerge. That included the militia's use of child soldiers, the mistreatment of Arabs and the group's left-leaning, socialist tendencies.

By July, Stevenson had been in just three firefights. Even his mother had largely stopped worrying about her son being captured or killed.

Then came Manbij.

The front lines

"From the moment I was there, everyone knew the battle of Manbij was going to be a thing,” Stevenson said.

For months, a coalition of Syrian and U.S. forces, including the YPG, had been strategizing how to take the city — a critical juncture between ISIS and Turkey.

Starting in May, Syrian forces pushed into the ISIS stronghold until they were stopped by fighters at the outer edges. From there, they made grueling progress, taking heavy casualties while pressing inch-by-inch into the city.

By this time, Goodman had made it to the front lines. He darted around the city with other medics, grabbing injured people and packing them onto vehicles to be evacuated.

One group of young families, he recalled, tried to flee the fighting and ran into a minefield instead. The injured came in three truckloads — half of them children.

He was walking into another building when another American volunteer in front of him stepped on a landmine. The explosion knocked Goodman out and killed the other volunteer.

He woke up on a U.S. military base in northern Syria with no memory of what had happened.

"I remember waking up from a dream that had been going on for a long time," Goodman said. "The theme of the dream was I was trying to figure out if I was alive or dead."

Meanwhile, chaos had engulfed Stevenson and one of his closest companions, a foreign volunteer from Colorado named Jordan MacTaggart.

They were cutting across a street when ISIS fighters detonated a remote-controlled mine underneath them, killing a Swedish fighter and injuring another American, according to Stevenson.

MacTaggart was shot in the chest. He died seconds later in Stevenson's arms.

It took more than a month for his friend's remains to be transported back to the U.S., a long diplomatic struggle that was chronicled by the Wall Street Journal.

"He was my brother," Stevenson said, voice quiet. "He was just one of the best. And I'm just going to leave it at that."

It was also in Manbij that Stevenson's frustrations with the YPG came to a boil. Around this time, he and another foreign volunteer came to blows with Kurdish soldiers in the same unit who were beating a man on the pretense that he might be an ISIS fighter, Stevenson said.

"Manbij," he said, "was not a good place to be a person."

By the time his unit of 57 people was pulled out of Manbij, 16 of them had died, according to Stevenson.

It was time to go home.

Back in Utah

All three have recovered differently.

Goodman says he has no regrets about the experience and that he has not had trouble adjusting at home.

Lagomarsino, who returned after six months to help take care of his family, dreams of going back every day.

"If I had $20,000, I'd put it in a bank account right now and go," he said.

But Stevenson, who witnessed more carnage and was there for the longest, has had a harder go of it.

The gangly 22-year-old is still the "wise Yoda soul" that he was at 4 years old, according to his mom. But he's also given to flashes of anger and annoyance.

"The thing that makes me the angriest is that people keep expecting me to not be normal," Stevenson said. "People keep expecting me not to be messed up — and I am — but that is messing me up far more than anything else."

Goodman and Lagomarsino have also reached out to the local Kurdish community.

Call them vigilantes if you wish, but “they believe in something,” said Kurdish community leader Kamal Bewar. “If I were young and I didn’t have a family, I would have joined them.”

Among the 50 or 60 Kurdish families in Utah, most still have family in Iraq or Syria who are fighting in the peshmerga or YPG, according to Bewar. Many, like him, came to the U.S. decades ago as political refugees. And many — men and women alike — still talk about going back to fight, he said.

After the FBI questioned him and let him go, Stevenson is still figuring out his next move. Adjusting hasn't been as easy as he thought.

He admits to breaking down just once, after he had left Syria, in a safe house in Iraq, when his favorite movie came on: "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

It was surreal, how disconnected it all seemed. How many people were still out there. How many people would never get to go home again.

Ideals are worth fighting for, he thought. But they come with a cost.

"It just hits you," Stevenson said. "Everything you've gone through."

And then, he cried.


Twitter: DaphneChen_