Warriors, dreamers and just plain crazy: U.S. civilian volunteers fighting Islamic State in Syria

The heavily armed fighters peered out of a broken second-story window at their outpost in a crumbling house on the western edge of this shell-shocked city, where Islamic State is fighting a furious battle to hold on to the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

They ducked to avoid snipers camped in nearby high-rise apartments. Armed drones hovered nearby. Just before 2 p.m. came the crack of sniper fire.

“That’s our guy,” Kevin Howard, 28, said as he rose and prepared to return fire.

Howard is not one of the hundreds of U.S. troops deployed in Syria. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran from San Francisco came here as a volunteer, part of a small group of freelance recruits who have traveled to Syria from the U.S., Europe and other regions to help local forces fight Islamic State.

Americans have a history of volunteering to fight overseas. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War; U.S. pilots flew for Britain and China before World War II; and U.S. citizens have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

The war in Syria and Iraq has been more problematic. Americans who try to travel there to fight alongside Islamic State face immediate arrest, and many have been detained at U.S. airports as they prepared to respond to the militant group’s global call to arms. Those who volunteer to fight the jihadis with U.S.-allied Kurdish and Syrian militias, though the State Department advises against it, face no such legal consequences.

Several hundred such volunteers have arrived since the Syrian civil war began six years ago, according to local estimates, and several dozen remain.

Some, such as Howard, are military veterans who served in the Middle East and felt they had left a job unfinished. Others are young people drawn to the plight of the Kurdish rebels, or by the powerful lure of combat in a faraway land.

In the last week, as the battle for Raqqah has turned into a violent death spiral for Islamic State, three of the volunteers have died.

Nicholas Warden, 29, of Buffalo, N.Y., Robert Grodt, 28, originally of Simi Valley and Luke Rutter, 22, of Birkenhead, England, were killed as Kurdish forces, aided by coalition air support, advanced on Raqqah.

“Everyone is really torn up over losing those three guys, especially all at once. And they were only a few months out of the [Kurdish training] academy,” said Lucas Chapman, who returned to Washington this year after fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the largest force fighting in eastern Syria.

Warden had served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and with the French Foreign Legion, Chapman said, and came to fight Islamic State in February because of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla.

Grodt, who graduated from Monte Vista School Independent Learning Academy in Simi Valley and studied philosophy at Moorpark College, was an idealist, friends and family said.

A few years ago, he had hitchhiked cross-country to New York to join Occupy Wall Street protests and proposed to a young woman he met there in Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement’s base. The couple settled in New York and had a 4-year-old daughter.

In April, he traveled to Syria to join the YPG, after researching the group’s cause and meeting other volunteers who had returned to the U.S. He didn’t consider joining the U.S. military, because he wasn’t sure it was getting the job done, according to his mother, Tammy Grodt, of Simi Valley.

“My reasons for joining the YPG was to help the Kurdish people in their struggle for autonomy in Syria and elsewhere and also to do my best to help fight Daesh and help create a more secure world,” Grodt said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State in one of a series of videos he made from Syria, this one as he sat in uniform in a field, clutching his rifle.

He was killed by a mine explosion July 6, his body taken to a “martyrs’ center” at a YPG cemetery in Qamishli, his mother was told.

Tammy Grodt, a nurse and mother of six, learned of her son’s death Saturday. “The State Department is working to bring him home to us,” she said.

She said her son had seen other volunteers return home unscathed and “truly counted on coming back.” He last called home from Syria on May 11, chattering excitedly about his battle buddies and promising to return in August.

“Many may question why he chose a task that seemed so far from being one that could be successfully accomplished,” she said. “He had a lot of passion and dedication and believed with his effort and enthusiasm, working with others just as dedicated, he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.”

Others have had similar aims.

Arriving in Raqqah last week from northeastern Syria, Swedish volunteer Olivia Mefras said she had left to join the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units without telling her parents.

“They’re not that happy about it,” said Mefras, 22. The high school graduate said she had rudimentary firearms training and was eager to head to the front line.

“We all want to do something meaningful. We know it doesn’t make a difference to the people here — they would fight anyway. But it makes a difference to us in our lives,” she said.

Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed east of Raqqah, said several foreign volunteers were fighting alongside his units in remote areas outside the city, most of whom had served previously in U.S. or European military units and wanted to be in the thick of the fight.

“They know what Daesh means, and that if they control the area, they will go to Europe more” to mount new attacks, he said.

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, including Western volunteers, are paid about $100 to $250 a month, depending on which forces they serve with and for how long.

U.S. coalition support for the SDF does not include those salaries, said Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, who described the fighters as “the coalition’s local ground force partner in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria.”

"Coalition forces continue to support the SDF as part of their advise and assist mission, providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires, and battlefield advice,” he said.

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syriac Military Council, or MFS, whose Assyrian militia joined the alliance against Islamic State, said volunteers receive basic military training, and are given standard-issue Kalashnikov rifles with limited access to other weapons, including the Russian sniper rifle Howard used. Their mine-clearing equipment: homemade bombs and string.

“So many foreign volunteers have been martyred fighting for our cause, and for that they shall always be remembered among us,” Gabriel said.

In his west Raqqah outpost, surrounded by snipers and the occasional armed drone, Howard said Western volunteers in Syria seem to fit into one of three groups: There are the anarchists and socialists, “the starry-eyed dreamers.” Then there are the “people that are running away from their past.” Finally, he said, there are the “people that are legitimately crazy.”

Across the room, Taylor Hudson, a volunteer from Pasadena, noted that Howard hadn’t said to which group he belonged.

Howard laughed.

“I just want to help people,” he said, pausing. “I’m probably crazy,” he said. “To do this — to leave home, put your life on the line — you have to be kind of crazy.”

Howard was raised in a San Francisco orphanage and went straight into the Marines at age 17. Stationed in Southern California at Twentynine Palms, he served for about five years, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of American deployments there.

Howard and his friends returned home with post-traumatic stress, in his case due in part to traumatic brain injury, he said. He had been looking forward to civilian life, he said: “Go to college, white picket fence.” But he grew restless.

“I missed this,” he said, gesturing at the abandoned house that had become his home.

When Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul three years ago, Howard said, he was stricken by reports about atrocities the militants had committed against Yazidi religious minority communities in the area of northern Iraq where he had served as a Marine. He joined the French Foreign Legion, but didn’t get sent to Syria, even after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 — instead he was scrubbing toilets.

So he quit and came on his own this year and quickly found his niche with a 30-member unit of the MFS. Some fellow veterans have had trouble adjusting, he said.

“This is total anarchy, guerrilla war,” he said. “A lot of military guys can’t handle it because there isn’t structure. It just sort of flows.”

Hudson, 33, an ironworker, also joined the French Foreign Legion for a few months before coming to Syria last year. He had studied medicine at Eastern Washington University and though he never earned his degree, he has served as a medic since he arrived in Syria, where local fighters call him Doc.

He arrived planning to volunteer with Kurdish forces, then discovered the plight of the Assyrian minority, the group’s history of persecution in the region and lack of resources compared with Kurdish forces. Now he is working with the same militia as Howard.

The war in Syria, he said, is about more than defeating Islamic State. For Hudson, it’s about establishing a democracy that will protect minorities such as the Assyrians.

Howard had planned to leave once Raqqah was freed. So did Hudson. Now they are reconsidering.

“This is the most important fight in the world right now,” Howard said.

Staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington and special correspondent Kamiran Sadoun in Raqqah contributed to this report.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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