The following article was originally published in The Des Moines Register on July 31, 2016.
Ryan O’Leary is taking a break from the topsy-turvy, dangerous world of northern Iraq.
The Iowa National Guard veteran is temporarily back home, after spending more than a year training Kurdish volunteers to battle Islamic State group extremists. He has carried a Russian assault rifle while helping the Kurds defend their homeland against Islamic State fighters.
He has watched his compatriots try to use small arms against heavily armored, American-made Humvees, which Islamic State stole from the Iraqi government army. The Kurds fire bullets and grenades, which bounce off the advancing trucks.
“It’s basically like handing someone a pistol and saying, ‘Go fight a tank,’” O’Leary said. “But they go out and do it every day.”
He was stationed in recent months near a town where combatants have been at a standstill. He describes the scene as something out of World War I, except the trenches are made out of sandbag piles instead of being dug into the ground.
O’Leary plans to rejoin the fight this fall, after being treated in Iowa for an irregular heart rhythm. The 29-year-old soldier, who returned home a few weeks ago, has been undergoing treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Des Moines. He knows he’s fortunate to still have VA benefits, given the abrupt way he left the National Guard and returned to war last year.
O’Leary was a National Guard corporal who served in Iraq in 2007-08 and in Afghanistan in 2010-11. On his first tour of Iraq, he befriended an interpreter who was a Kurd from the northern part of the country. The friend told him about the Kurds’ struggles against dictator Saddam Hussein and about their cooperation with the American invasion.
O’Leary kept in touch with the friend on Facebook, and he followed the Kurds’ efforts to protect their region of Iraq from Islamic State and the Iranian army. Then, in May 2015, he decided to get back in the fight. He stripped the American logos off his National Guard uniforms, packed up his gear and took a commercial flight to Iraq.
He could have been prosecuted for going absent without leave. But the guard, which is part of the U.S. Army, gave him a “general discharge with honorable conditions,” he said. The upshot is, he retains many of his benefits, including the right to be treated at the VA. He apparently would no longer qualify for help with college tuition.
“That’s OK,” he said with a chuckle. “I wasn’t planning to go to college anyway.”
What he’s planning on is more war. American authorities are aware of his actions, but they haven’t interfered. The FBI told The Des Moines Register last summer that it’s legal for Americans to volunteer to help the Kurds fight Islamic State, but that it’s risky. The Register granted the FBI’s request not to say what town O’Leary is from, out of concern that an Islamic State supporter could try to take revenge on his family.
O’Leary recounted his experiences last week in the living room of his family’s comfortable home. In the background, a TV silently showed a Netflix documentary about World War II. His parents sat nearby, listening to O’Leary being interviewed.
A reporter asked what the couple thought of their son’s participation in the Kurds’ war against Islamic State. They looked at each other in silence for a few moments. Then O’Leary’s mother raised her hands, palms up, in a gesture of resignation.
“He’s 29. They make their own way, I guess,” she said. It’s hard for the family to understand the war, which involves a tangle of factions, she said. But she appreciates her son’s sincere efforts.
“He has a passion for those people, that’s for sure,” she said.
O’Leary uses the words “we” and “our” when he talks about the Kurds and their struggle. He said he has grown accustomed to sleeping in a bunker and subsisting on a diet of rice, tomatoes and chicken. He grinned as he scrolled through photos on his battered laptop.
“Here we are eating pigeons,” he said. “They’re actually pretty good.”
He has converted to Islam after being raised as a fairly casual Christian. He likes his new religion’s structure, including regular daily prayers, although he admitted he has been a little lax since returning to Iowa. He said his Kurdish comrades don’t pressure outsiders to follow their faith.
“They don’t care if you’re Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, whatever,” he said.
O’Leary said he’s one of a handful of American and British volunteers who have been helping thousands of Kurdish fighters in his area of Iraq. At one point last year, he was with a unit facing off against Iranian army troops along the border with that country. More recently, he was with a unit of Iranian Kurds fighting Islamic State on Iraqi soil. Most of his duties involve training Kurdish soldiers instead of directly fighting in gunbattles, he said.
“They’re good enough at killing people,” he said. “They don’t need me up there fooling around.”
He teaches first aid and shooting skills to Kurdish volunteers, including many from Iran. His students have included several women. Some of them are Yazidis, a religious sect that has been brutalized by Islamic State extremists, who reportedly have made thousands of them into sex slaves. O’Leary pointed to a photo of a young woman learning to fight back as a sniper.
“She’s a great shot,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies have increased support to the Kurds, including air attacks on Islamic State positions. But the Americans still funnel most arms through the central Iraqi government, whose army has folded at times in the face of smaller Islamic State forces. As the government forces flee, Islamic State fighters scoop up the equipment they leave behind.
O’Leary flipped to several photos showing spent grenades, rockets and mortar shells, which Islamic State fighters lobbed onto Kurdish positions. Most of them are American-made.
“Pretty much anything that goes boom,” he said.
Although the former Iowa National Guardsman wants to see his home country do more to support the Kurds, he isn’t trying to encourage a wave of Americans to rush to the Mideast to take up arms against Islamic State.
He expects the Kurds to form an independent nation when the fight is over. The next step in the war will be to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, a large city in northern Iraq. Government troops and the Kurds are working with U.S. military advisers on the planned offensive.
Maybe they’ll hold off a couple of months, until the young Iowan finishes his heart treatment and flies back to Iraq.
“I want to see how that works out,” he said.