Here was a man and an organization that were truly prepared to go the limit to achieve their goals. It was a dark night in Kirkuk on a routine front line mounted patrol in late May, 2015. We had met up with a sister volunteer unit from a neighboring AO to give their commander a tour of our borders. A volunteer from my unit and I climbed into the bed of a Land Cruiser with a DSHK mounted on the back. Two Americans we had yet to meet sat in the back. They quickly pulled us aboard and away we bounced. Introductions were made and stories were swapped about our experiences in Kurdistan so far. I only met the man once, but he left a lasting impression, the type of guy that would give 110 percent, all or nothing, for what he set out to do and what he believed in. If there’s anyone out there who I truly believe needs some recognition, it’s this man right here. It is my absolute honor to introduce you to Robert, and his company, Shadows of Hope.
SOFREP: What’s your full name and background?
Robert: My name is Robert Hoey, better known as “Fox” in Southeast Asia and “Doc” in the Middle East. I am the leader and founder of Shadows of Hope (SoH), possibly the world’s first humanitarian private military corporation. I originally specialized in emergency medicine, but in my travels I have found myself picking up a rifle more often than not. I have fought under four different rebel flags, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and Karen rebels. I have also seen action in places like Western China and Pakistan, where I did not pick sides but merely performed human-rights monitoring and opened up the occasional underground medical clinic, treating any and all who required assistance.
What made you decide to come to Kurdistan and what were you doing prior to coming here?
Originally, I came to Kurdistan straight from the border of Burma/Thailand. We helped support a few orphanages in the area and used a nearby town as a launch point for operations into Burma itself when needed. Shadows of Hope is acquiring a bit of a reputation for going to places other organizations can’t, or won’t. With ISIS so close and the war raging on so many fronts, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis continued to grow without any real end in sight. We believe in stopping suffering at the source; we will run out of bandages before they run out of bullets, which is how we justify picking up rifles and doing what we do. It’s the kind of solution that few understand, but it is necessary.
When we saw what was happening in the news, how could we not get involved? The Kurds didn’t need more rifles or firepower. They needed training.They needed medicine. They needed logistics. All the things most non-profit or non-government agencies would do, but none would dare operate so close to an active war zone where one of the world’s most dangerous organizations, ISIS, operated. When Shadows of Hope deployed to Kurdistan in April of 2015, we began collecting information on what was really needed. We started off with a small unit of Westerners near Kirkuk. In about a month, we had moved through half a dozen military bases and were ready to step up.
In what regions did your organization operate while it was on the ground here? Are members still active here?
Unfortunately, OPSEC prevents us from discussing every region we were involved in, but by July of 2015, we were covering more than 300 kilometers of the front line in Iraq. That’s a quarter of the entire front line. More than a dozen men, including doctors and soldiers, were constantly rotating out of a small hospital based in Sulaymaniyah on two-week rotations, performing combat medicine, training for basic CLS, actively engaging in both defensive and offensive operations, as well as being the sole provider of all medical gear to more than a dozen bases. As of November, 2015, there are no longer any active members or cells of SoH in either Syria or Iraq.
Were you ever engaged with Daesh in direct combat? If so, how did it go down and what was the experience like?
How could we expect people to take us seriously without exchanging a few rounds downrange? Going under the humanitarian flag instead of the war flag ironically allowed us unrestricted access to the front line. We were the only organization allowed to actually stay on the front of our own will, sometimes simply walking from post to post, base to base, right behind the berm line. Being so close allowed us to deploy faster, go to the more dangerous areas of the front line, and get involved a hell of a lot quicker on many different levels. We slept for weeks at the front, talked every day with commanders, and trained at every opportunity with the local rank-and-file soldiers. In most engagements, we were hundreds of yards away. We were basically throwing rounds downrange at a faceless enemy.
Mortars and DSHKs did most of the work, with an occasional Takbir/Allahu Akbar heard in the distance. Some engagements were a bit different. My first real exchange of fire with ISIS happened completely by surprise: A mortar battery suddenly decided to make it rain for a few minutes. That attack resulted in the complete detachment of my retina, resulting in the eyepatch I wear today. I was responsible for bringing down two Daesh fighters. A lucky shot from my RPG got one of their minivans; now they can’t take their kids to soccer practice. One of our Marines also nailed a Daesh commander with a PKM, and another operative opened up a near-martyr with a center-mass shot using what can barely be described as a functioning AK.
As for being up-close and personal, a lot of the work we did was medical, including working in CCPs and reforming a hospital’s emergency room. That same hospital is the one designated by the Asayish, or Kurdish secret police, to receive all Daesh prisoners to make sure they won’t die before trial. I worked as a physician at the hospital and have personally treated several Daesh prisoners, or suspected Daesh informants. It seems every single soldier takes HGH or something similar; I don’t think I ever saw a man who was under six foot or below 200 pounds. They remained steady and unwavering. They showed no fear; they didn’t come to the front to fight. They came to die. Treating them brought up some moral issues within myself, but I have no doubt that they got what they rightfully deserved.
The media keeps painting them as cowards, as fearful rats fleeing from air strikes and begging for mercy and running away at the mere presence of a Kurd on the battlefield. While they are bastards for what they do, I honestly do not believe they are sitting in their foxholes pissing themselves and begging to go home. I have no respect for them as human beings; I view them as a stray dog that has been beaten all its life. It’s no surprise that they came out in the world as horrible as they are; it is the way they were raised. Like the same stray dog, it cannot be reintegrated in society, it needs to be put down for both society’s and its own good. Just because they are the enemy, and just because they are heartless and misled, does not mean that you cannot respect that kind of dedication, skill, and commitment. Even our Marines stated that they knew how to hold their own against the best the world could throw at them. Sure, we can hate them. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating them.
What inspired you to get into this lifestyle?
A need. SoH does so many things on so many levels now, and all of it arose from our continuing evolution of what the world needs. Originally, we started off opening up a few bamboo clinics in rural environments. In the Third World, there are thousands of conflicts happening at any moment, everything from tribal warfare to full-blown genocide. We saw a constant trail of the wounded, hurt, and broken stemming from these areas. We just kept moving closer and closer to the front lines until we were eventually operating a CCP mixed with a small field hospital serving local refugees. That’s how close we were, and being so close meant that eventually we began taking fire. It didn’t matter what side we were on, we had to be based somewhere, and when you pick one side of the line, everything past that is viewed as an enemy. We watched as our tents were shredded, our clinics splintered and thrown into the four winds, and some of our local volunteers were arrested for helping people, treating both sides, refugees and soldiers. This was treason.
After that, we greatly expanded. We began scrounging for weapons to help protect ourselves, our volunteers, and the locals. Oftentimes, I stepped fresh out of performing a simple surgery and walked less than a hundred yards to the front line to help train or actively engage and hold the line. This had a very apparent effect on the locals. Since most organizations that came to help would stay at hotels, rent cars, and stay away from the conflict areas—the places that needed the most help—they saw us as the opposite. We were in the shit with them. We ate what they ate, slept where they slept, suffered through the same loss and suffering as them. We weren’t just treating patients; we were treating brothers, sisters, what basically became our family.
Not only did this give us ridiculous trust with the local population and military groups, but it also slashed our budget down to a tiny sliver of what most organizations would require. We became far more effective, far more daring, and far more dangerous in some cases than any other PMC or charity in the area. We weren’t there for money, religion, government, or land. We were there for people. That is what inspired our story, that is what keeps us going, and that is why even though we are a non-profit, we have seen more action and been through more combat than most PMCs.
Not only does this allow us unrestricted access, but it also helps us out as well. Many soldiers return home with moral injuries. Many joined their respective services to fight for what they believed in, to help, to make a difference in the world. Sometimes deploying doesn’t give you that opportunity. With SoH, we greatly respect our soldiers’ life choices, but you are more than a warrior. Almost all of our veterans that volunteer end up doing much more than fighting. They help out at our clinics, they get involved with the locals, they learn and teach, they help build infrastructure, provide strong role models for local children, and show them that the uniform isn’t something that is always associated with war. It’s associated with help.
Anything you feel you want to add?
A lot of people are starting to notice how quickly we are growing, how much we have done with so little, how successful we have been in areas where other organizations have failed and died. There is a lot to this. Much of it is owed to our versatility, in that we can go in as medics, soldiers, human-rights watch, etc., and we can change roles incredibly quickly, going from testing local water supplies to picking up rifles and actively defending the same village. As soon as the attack is over, we can move quickly and run a small hospital to treat the wounded, and then provide information to local security forces to help strengthen their defenses, all of which we’ve done in the past. For the longest time, I operated alone.
For a while, SoH was closer to espionage than it was to actual humanitarian work. But the truth is, over time, we have thrived in these areas, not because of me, but because of the men volunteering their very lives for our common goal, which is unconditional help. I’ve had the absolute honor of working and fighting alongside U.S. Marines, French Foreign Legionnaires, U.S. Army Rangers, UK Royal Commandos, and Finnish Jaegers, alongside a host of other men. SoH would be nothing without these men.
Hell, a Marine actually physically picked me up and carried me off of the battlefield in Sinjar when I fell too sick to even walk. Another one served with me in our first unit in Iraq and wasn’t just my friend, but also one of my greatest sources of advice and confidence. My FFL taught me how to dance, and his constant wisdom helped keep the group together when mine couldn’t. I would not be alive today if not for those men. I never had to hand down orders, I never had to yell, and I never felt like my men and I were drifting. There was this unique bond between us, where when one of us failed, the other simply threw them over their shoulders and helped carry their burden until they were ready to continue. No direct orders ever had to be given because we all understood the common goal.
Sure, there were times where we all fought, but it didn’t matter because when it came down to it, everyone stood as one. Shadows of Hope offers more than humanitarian aid, it offers more than combat, more than hope where there was none before. It offers soldiers a chance to do what they were trained to, to help make the world better, to deploy again alongside their brothers, to fight for a better world using more than just a rifle. It’s about being somebody again, it’s about that feeling of brotherhood, it’s about the original hope we all had before joining—that we would make a difference out there, even at the cost of our lives, and that the world is a little bit brighter for our service.
Thanks so much for sharing with me.