The sun was already scorching on a recent Friday morning when David Eubank, a former U.S. Special Forces operative turned aid worker, caught sight of the bodies.
They were scattered over a street near Mosul’s now destroyed Pepsi factory.
“There was a woman sprawled on her face. Dead,” Eubank said. “A baby, all shot up. Dead. Near them, two old people. Dead. And then you realize all those lumps of rags were kids. Dead, dead, dead.”
All had been shot, he said, by Islamic State snipers cutting down those fleeing the hell their neighborhood had become as Iraqi forces fought to dislodge the jihadis from what had been the militant group’s Iraqi capital.
Then, in the distance, Eubank noticed movement among a group of corpses clustered before a wall pocked by bullets: A half-naked toddler stumbled over the bodies; a girl of about 5 peeked from under the hijab of her dead mother; propped up against the wall, a wounded man waved for help.
The sniper fire continued, and the the survivors were 150 yards away. Eubank and some Iraqi troops quickly came up with a plan: Eubank would try to rescue the girl.
Eubank, 56, heads a volunteer services organization, known as the Free Burma Rangers.
The son of Christian missionaries from Texas, Eubank had earlier served in the U.S. armed forces, enlisting at the age of 18 and eventually rising to lead a military free fall team with the First Special Forces Group. There, he ran missions in Central and South America, and then mostly in Thailand.
In 1992, after almost 10 years in the military, he left the Army and joined the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational institution in Pasadena.
He wanted, he said, “the freedom to go where God was leading.” Soon thereafter, he met his wife-to-be, Karen, who was studying to become a teacher.
“She wouldn’t date, so I asked her to go climbing with me,” Eubank joked.
When a Burmese Bible group asked for help from his parents, they immediately thought of him.
“The Burmese said they were a warrior people, and they needed someone like that. My parents called me up and asked what I thought,” said Eubank. “I figured I could go and even if I helped only one person, at least they would be happy and I would be happy.”
With Karen in tow, Eubank said, he began to make regular trips to Burma, also known as Myanmar, eventually moving there full time and forming the Free Burma Rangers, or FBR, an aid group that delivers medicine, supplies and humanitarian support where other organizations simply cannot go.
But for the last two years, FBR has shifted its focus to Islamic State; the group has deployed with Kurdish forces known as peshmerga in Mosul, but has also worked in places ravaged by the jihadis, such as Kobani, Manbij and Al Bab in neighboring Syria.
The eight-month offensive to take Mosul is like nothing the group had seen until now, said Hosanna Valentine, 37, a longtime member of the organization who came to Iraq in 2015 along with a core group that comprises Eubank, four Burmese and other volunteers.
“This is one of the starkest and most desperate situations in the world. And with ISIS, it doesn’t feel melodramatic to say it’s evil,” said Valentine, using an acronym for Islamic State. Valentine spoke at the medical clinic of the Iraqi 9th division, with which the group is traveling.
“One of the first things David does is apologize to people for what America did here. Not all of it was wrong, but some of it was. So we come and help not from a desire to have control or use the resources. If you go act out of love, that can be life changing,” she said.
It was that idea that drove Eubank to join the effort to rescue the toddler, girl and wounded man.
The Iraqi troops Eubank was traveling with coordinated with the U.S.-led coalition to drop smoke canisters to shield the rescuers from the snipers’ view. Eubank and others crept up on foot behind an advancing tank, bullets pinging all around them as they got closer to the wounded civilians.
“Then the Americans dropped the biggest barrage, the most perfect wall of smoke I’d ever seen,” Eubank said.
His team was yards away from the girl, and there still “was shooting everywhere.” But it was now or never.
“I thought, ‘If I die doing this, my wife and kids would understand.’”
For Eubank, his aid work is literally a family affair. A scant mile from the front line, in a room above the 9th division’s medical clinic, Karen Eubank home-schools the couple’s three children: Sahale, 16; Suuzane (named after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi), 14; and Peter, 11.
“Although people would say it’s dangerous,” said Karen Eubank, the work “brings meaning.”
“It’s not like we thought 25 years ago, ‘Let’s take our kids to a war zone with ISIS.’ But in Burma the people we worked with poured love into us, and this is more than what I can give my kids on my own,” she said.
Their chosen lifestyle makes for a strange juxtaposition, akin to an episode of “MASH” by way of “The Waltons.”
One Wednesday, when a large group of wounded poured into the clinic, Karen Eubank mopped up blood from the floor, while Sahale and other volunteers scrambled to assist Valentine and a number of Iraqi medics in providing treatment.
Karen Eubank also runs what she calls “The Good Life Club,” which she describes as a day program of “spiritual encouragement and healthcare.”
When an elderly woman, with one leg amputated and the other scorched, was rushed to the clinic, Eubank called his wife from the front line with a request: Give the woman special attention.
Eubank’s rescue effort was captured on video. As clouds from the smoke canisters swirl about, it showed him preparing to dash from behind the tank to save the girl. He was wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest over a black T-shirt.
He ran out as his colleagues, armed with machine guns, gave covering fire. He scooped up the girl, her hair tied with pink ribbons into pigtails, stumbling as he ran back. He was gone and back in 12 seconds.
But when he went back for the toddler, he couldn’t find him among the bodies. Another man they tried to rescue didn’t make it after “ISIS lit the place up.”
The following day, one of the Iraqis fleeing the Mosul area spoke of more survivors. A girl was pinned down on a street near the defunct Pepsi factory. Acting as a guide, the man sneaked far enough into the factory with Eubank and an Iraqi policeman that they could throw a rope to a girl and drag her to safety.
“We could hear ISIS guys talking near us, and we were stepping all around empty soda cans … it sounds like a movie,” said Eubank, shaking his head as he spoke.
As dusk came to the Iraqi 36th brigade’s position and the stream of terrified residents had finally ebbed, Eubank stole a moment to reflect on his mission.
“I believe God sent me here, and I don’t think about security … but I always ask myself if I’m doing it out of pride,” he said.
Bulos is a special correspondent.