Let’s go ahead and say that you are a true hero, and the only thing needed to turn the tide of the fight is you. First, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. If you’re in it for money, stop reading and find a private military contractor. If you want to fight terrorists, stop dodging the local recruitment center.

My opinion is not forged from my military service, but from nine months of volunteer service in the Iraqi, Syrian, and Ukrainian battlespaces throughout 2014 and 2015. During that time I served on a volunteer basis as a non-contracted and unsponsored advisor, consultant, explosives-hazard mitigator, and trainer against Daesh (IS/IL) and pro-Russian separatist forces. I operated entirely as a freelancer and was under no governmental agreement, corporate sponsorship, association contract, group or unit affiliation, or under any organizational obligation. In fact, SOFREP did not pick me up until I had finished with such things. I am not, nor was I ever, a mercenary, and the few times that people felt sorry enough to give me a few dollars, it was always far short of delaying my imminent 2015 bankruptcy, and was geared toward providing rations outside of standard chow.

Prepare yourself to be flat broke if you’re doing this correctly. You’re going to need to sell off whatever you can—from your first-edition novels to the magnificent love of your life, your BMW 528i. It will all have to go to cover your expenses at home and abroad if you are going to do things legally and morally. Of course there are lots of opportunities to make money abroad, that is if you’re willing to risk never coming home again and/or spending time in a maximum-security prison in a hostile nation.

In late 2014, when I first left for Iraq, I had half a plan and a few contacts, but things got messy from there and quickly went awry. This was largely due to the fact that there are too many involved parties that share an overall goal to defeat Daesh while also maintaining many selfish and conflicting interests. Plan on things to go wrong. For me, things went wrong shortly before my flight. I was lucky enough to find a replacement group before I landed in-country. If that had failed, I would have simply hit the bars in Erbil and snooped around looking for an opportunity. I would not advise my fallback plan to anyone, and I surely would not have brought anyone along with me.

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After I finished up in Iraq, I was off to Ukraine, where my initial mission was to simply cover what was happening. I quickly found that there was no way to make it out of Kiev as an unregistered and unaffiliated freelance journalist. So I had to make myself useful enough to be brought along to the front lines.

Defining the Modern-Day Mercenary

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Back to you, candidate. Perhaps you are a highly trained and deployment-tested military veteran, an elite private military contractor, a capable militia member, a physically fit badass who is a hell of a shot with your varmint rifle, or simply a concerned citizen. Honestly, none of that matters. Of course your training and skill will impact the fight, and any copies of verifiable records that you bring with could help with your long-term placement, but your actual acceptance into a renegade band of fighters in a foreign conflict is not based solely on your bravado or your resume, but on your rapport and your proven in-the-field capability.

You are not joining Uncle Sam’s, the Queen’s, or any other conventional fighting force. You are joining a foreign fighting force that has their own ways and rules, and they don’t give a damn about your opinions. The skills and abilities that you may or may not bring will not make or break their conflict; this is not a movie, this is real life. The fighters you are joining are men, women, and children who have developed their own methods of fighting and surviving. They are not regimented or organized in any way that a warrior from the standardized forces of NATO—be they conventional or unconventional—are accustomed to. In fact you are entering the 9th circle of command sergeant major hell, where all things safe and standard are not practiced.

That fact of the matter is that many rebel bands include fighters from as young as nine years old to as old as 65 (+/-), and most fighters have little if any official military training. So if you’re serious, go ahead and take all of your conventional military wisdom and drown it in the nearest bottle of scotch, as you are about to take a walk on the wildest side there is.

You are not joining a new unit and awaiting a hazing ritual to become part of the team. There is no team as far as you should be concerned, and you would be a fool to trust anyone, especially other foreigners. Granted, there are many groups operating under many commanders and principles, but you will not know for certain what you are in for until you get there.

The people you will encounter are the local fighters who will want little to do with you until there is a guard shift, patrol, work detail, or something dangerous to do. Things will be broken down to Barney math to ensure that you get these things done for them. The local and regional commanders will also drag you forth in many attempts to make you part of the overall propaganda schema. Avoid this at all costs.

Foreign fighters are your best friends and worst enemies, as they are the only people you can commonly communicate with, but they are often on an alternate path. You will be told any and every story several times over by many of the foreign fighters. They may inundate you with lies and grandiose stories. Other times you will be simply shocked to discover that there are people around you who are simply there on a suicide mission. Some will be straight-up vindictive criminals who will leap at any opportunity to steal from you. Most are there for fame and are constantly seeking a media stake, or are filling their time panning for fortune, often boasting a crowdfunding account long before they arrive and long after they leave. A few will be good people; you will know them as they are the first to fight at the sound of the guns and the first to work without being dragged forward.

You will not need to know the local language, but it helps if you can. You can get by and be accepted based on a convergence of individual skills, if factored appropriately. Still, you should know before walking into any foreign conflict the culture, customs, history, and traditions of the people you are dealing with. If you cannot respect the people you choose to support with seriousness for your foreseeable future, stay home or they will send you home.

The second consideration revolves around personal perception skills and context clues. Once you understand the culture and customs of those who surround you, the ability to generally pick up on what is happening around you will come naturally. At first things may be clumsy as you get a grip on what is happening in your new home away from home. But soon, interpreting grunts and hand and arm signals will become second nature, and before you know it, you will be constructing obstacles, running PKM belts, identifying targets, and clearing the battlefield of unexploded ordnance as the only English speaker on the skirmish line.

The fact of the matter is, you are going out on your own. You should accept any and every possibility for the next unknown moment as soon as you set foot on the plane taking you to your chosen conflict zone. There is a very real possibility that you could die for any uncontrollable reason. Get paranoid to live. But that is nothing to worry about. After all, you can get run over by a bus walking your doggie at home. Still, welcome some new faces of death. That is, if you are not stopped and detained by customs or border patrol in the airport for packing like you’re going to war. In fact, it is wise to pack light and pick up what you need when you get there. Keep in mind you won’t be able to bring any of it home. For all official purposes, you are not off to fight, and in fact, the law will not be your friend if that is what you are off to do, especially if your goal is to be a mercenary.

Practicality versus morality: Is 'mercenary' a dirty word?

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You are not at the advantage of any laws, anywhere, and you are at the mercy of your own wits. Your own adaptability, common sense, and research strengths will make or break you from start to finish. It is now entirely up to you, as you are not part of anything, and if you are joining with some renegades, they are not going to have an integration packet and sponsor waiting to process you.

Did you select the right airport to fly into? Does the airport you’ve chosen to fly into require a visa, and if so, do you already have one and for the right reasons? If not, you could find yourself turned around or locked up abroad. After all, you can buy a plane ticket anywhere without a visa.

Even if you have your documents in order, you are a foreigner entering a conflict zone. The probability of local officials having questions for you is high. It would be wise to have a casual reason to be there, and if all else fails, have some fifty-dollar notes folded up in various easy-to-reach places. Keeping quick access bribe money on hand is a wise fallback throughout your journey, but should only be used when you are 100 percent sure that you are going to be detained or killed. Otherwise, people will come to expect easy bribes and mark you as a punk-ass, shakedown target.

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Staying casual in Rojava, Syria. Image courtesy of the author.

Even if you are authorized travel with a standard tourist visa, have your established local contacts had that visa extended or changed? Have you developed and agreed upon a rendezvous point with your local contacts via a signal exchange over a secure channel to pick you up at a set time, at an airport-adjacent location? Did you establish danger and safety codes with a point of contact to use via your home nation GSM cell phone provider? Did you log into Google maps when you landed so that your last known location is logged in, in case things go wrong? Have you made contact with your embassy as to your travel dates and cited an undetailed reason (never lie to your government) for traveling? If you don’t have a contact, what is your method of travel to your primary and alternate lodging options? Welcome to the rest of your short life. You haven’t even left a foreign airport yet.

(Featured image: The photo the was not to be famous, but was sold to Western media days after it was taken. The author can be seen middle, second from the right. Image courtesy of YPG Propaganda Command.)