The ISIS conflict has attracted a large amount of volunteers to fight on both sides. The limelight has shined particularly on the Western volunteers rushing to the aid of the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Rarely do we hear from these men in their own words. A couple of days ago, I caught up with my old volunteer buddy and wanted to get his perspective and reflections on the situation in Iraq and his time spent there. He’s one of the best guys I know. Here’s the uncut interview with Justin.
SOFREP: What’s your name and military background?
Justin Smith. I served in the U.S. Army as an 11B, and spent 15 months in Maysan Governorate, Iraq.
Why did you come back to fight the Islamic State?
I went back to fight Daesh because I was sick and tired of sitting on my ass watching innocents being murdered in the hundreds—women and children included. My breaking point was watching a clip that was labeled “ISIS member kicks Christian baby to death.” I’m not religious in any way, so I didn’t give a fuck about the religion. The fact that this cunt was kicking a baby to death for something it had no control over disgusted and brought out the best in me.
Where did you serve and with whom while fighting against the Islamic State?
I first served in Syria, and then after some time, left Syria and fought with the Peshmerga at their front lines south of Kirkuk. All with volunteers from various countries around the world and locals, of course.
What were some of the biggest challenges in an environment that diverse?
Everything was a challenge. Nothing was made easy after we got there, from food to weapons.
Can you elaborate?
That’s a big list, bro (laughs). In Syria, the lack of trained soldiers: inexperienced kids fighting an enemy that’s been at war for years, who have better training, weapons, and gear. Not all of them are like that. They have their war dogs, too, just not enough of them. With the Peshmerga, it was more them wanting to utilize us for propaganda. They found out real quick who wasn’t there for that. And again, food weapons, gear, ammo. These things were provided for us, but at the bare minimum. And I’m not talking about an American combat load (laughs). When we finally got these things, it was when we bought them out of pocket. Food and gear was funded by GoFundMe accounts set up by our volunteer group.
What was your first engagement with the enemy like? How did it go down?
We were settling in after assaulting several villages earlier that day. Me and another volunteer were standing in front of a small farm building and there were YPG all around. There was a large portion of our convoy parked very close by. Shots started. We looked over and saw the YPG scrambling. Had a guy jump over a wall not but 20 feet away trying to get away from it. We snatched up our rifles and started returning fire from a low brick wall.
As a whole, what is you opinion of Daesh fighters?
They’re fucking good. They’re highly trained and well armed. They’re fighting out of belief, and that’s something that no one can just break.
What was the most significant or memorable moment for you?
It would probably have to be the firefight from April 21st. It was cold, couldn’t see shit. We were there from early the previous day and most of us stayed up well into the next day (laughs).
Can you summarize what happened during the firefight?
It started with a Kurd with a spotlight on top of a giant berm, trying to spotlight anything out in this field. Prior to this there were two other massive battles going on behind our position at two flanking OPs. All three of these attacks were repelled in our region that night.
Me and a few other volunteers were watching this light go back and forth across the field when we saw something reflect our light back. It wasn’t too far out in front, and the guy with the light didn’t notice, so we had him go back over the spot and saw it again. This time, we saw it about 10 meters to the right of where it was previously.
So we opened fire. About 10 minutes after the ceasefire (it didn’t take long for the general to get to us and give us an ear-full), three RPGs flew by extremely close to our position. Then it kicked off. We returned fire while they attempted to flank and assault our position, simultaneously hitting us with mortar fire and a heavy weapons crew trying to keep our heads down. We fought until they stopped coming, using machine guns, AKs, everything we had. It lasted about four hours, I believe.
What kinds of people do you run into when it comes to volunteers, what are your thoughts on it all?
I’d take Jesus into a firefight.
Everyone from the professionals to straight-up civilians. Everyone thinks it’s Call of Duty. Keyboard warriors and all that shit. They show up thinking it’s a game until shit hits the fan. Civilians…not everyone.
What happens then?
They take to hiding well out of harm’s way instead of supporting the people who are fighting to keep them and themselves alive.
Do the Kurds take notice?
Definitely. They notice it immediately
What do you think people’s motivations are for coming over here?
Everyone is different. There are the people going there to make money, for their religious beliefs, and from moral standpoints, for those of us who aren’t religious.
Do you think people show up for the wrong reasons more often than the right ones?
Absolutely. Money, fame, stupid shit—they’re not going there for the betterment of the people. That is the only reason anyone should be going over there.
Do you feel you made a difference?
I’d like to hope so. I know it made a difference to the locals. We could see the gratitude and respect in their faces when we were finally able to get across to them that we were volunteers, there to help them any way we could. We were doing it so they knew they aren’t alone in this fight against a true enemy to all free people.
What are you doing now that you’re home?
Just relaxing. Enjoying my time while I can.
I’m a gun nut, so what was your favorite weapon and why?
Hmmmm. My Ma Deuce (M2 Browning, .50 BMG). Took it, fixed it, cleaned it. Was the only working .50 we had. Why? Because who the fuck doesn’t love a fucking Ma Deuce!?
And when I say took it, I mean I took it. (Laughs)
Walked into a lieutenant’s room, looked down at it, and said, “My friend, I’m taking this.”
Tell me about the tattoo on the back of your leg.
(Laughs) Got that after I returned from my last deployment. Just a little reminder to myself from my younger years not to get too stupid. Memento Mori. Latin. It means, “Remember that you must die.”
Gangster. So has the whole experience changed your perspective on the conflict or of the Kurds?
Well…I don’t wanna put the Kurds in a bad light. Most of them really give a fuck and really appreciated us being there. But like the rest of the world, there is corruption, and it’s all who you know. The conflict? Nope. It’s justified a thousand times over. Anyone who claims they take pride in Daesh or they support or even sympathize with them should get the same fucking treatment as the ISIS fighters for allowing themselves to be conned into believing such garbage.
And anyone who says this conflict is the fault of all Muslims is a fucking ignorant chode. I was there for nine months on the front lines in two different countries, with the local population, including the Kurds, being Muslim. So please, I would love for one of them to explain to me how I survived all of that if all Muslims are evil. They can’t because being that ignorant, they’re clearly a fucking potato anyway.
Goddamn, it feels good to be a gremlin haiwan.
OK brother, thanks for sharing!
Thanks for taking the time, bud. Never a problem.
BIJI Kurdistan. Keep up the amazing work you gents are doing; I’m honored to have fought by each and every one of you.