The way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” —The Hagakure

Don’t let them take you alive—that was the first lesson learned in combat with the Islamic State. I had just arrived at 9th Brigade, a Peshmerga unit accepting volunteer fighters. I walked into a small room filled with bedrolls and tactical gear. A few volunteers were there and I was greeted warmly. The other guys were on a PSD mission to Slemani at the time, so we sat around a messy table, chain-smoking and swapping military stories. The guy who had been there the longest pointed to an RPK leaning against the wall and declared I could have it. Deal! The sooner I had a weapon, the better.1

I sat down to clean and inspect my rifle and was finishing up when a Viking of a man crashed through the hooch door followed by several other camouflaged Americans, shouting about something. I stood up to shake hands and introductions were made over hearty greetings. It was like showing up to Valhalla, only instead of mead and women, we had cigarettes and chai. Eventually the conversation turned to the current condition of being in a war zone with ISIS. A volunteer sitting next to me had his weapon propped up, and on the barrel was a machine gun’s belted ammo link with an AK-47 bullet in it.

Now, I wasn’t an idiot, but I motioned to it and asked, “Magic bullet?” He smiled and confirmed my suspicion. Another volunteer turned to me and said, “If you see Peshmerga running, you follow, because they will leave your ass behind. If you get cut off and are low on ammo, save a bullet for yourself because it’s better than what Daesh will do to you.”

I thought back to the halfway point between the airport and 9th Brigade where I was kept for several days before being transported down to Daquq. It was a nice way to transition into the environment. At one point, I was sitting in a dirt garden with several Peshmerga, attempting to learn some fundamental Kurdish, when an officer approached us. After a few minutes, he pulled out his mobile phone and began showing me pictures as Kurds love to do. (I mean, they have whole galleries I think they reserve for entertaining guests.)


Eventually, he starts showing me combat footage. In one particular video, he showed a mission he’d been a part of where they were trapped inside a surrounded compound and Daesh kept throwing grenades over the walls. An English-speaking Peshmerga had come over and explained they had fought their way out, but his friend was captured in the chaos. The next video was of his friend on his knees, a Daesh captor standing behind him holding a knife. I will never forget that man’s face contorting in pain as a member of the Islamic State sawed his head off.