The following article was originally published in The New Yorker.
Last May, Lucas Chapman graduated from college and got a job with Postmates; he’d applied to do volunteer work abroad and was saving up for a plane ticket. He delivered stuff around Washington, D.C., in his ’98 Mustang. “I couldn’t do Uber because my car was too old,” he said. Finally, in September, he received the encrypted e-mail message he’d been waiting for: a note from the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, inviting him to war.
He flew to northern Iraq. From there, a handler for the Y.P.G. (in translation, an acronym for the People’s Protection Units) escorted him into Syria—at night, on foot. Chapman, who is twenty-one, is fair-skinned and slight. He reported to a Y.P.G. training camp, where he fired guns, learned Kurdish, and studied the group’s revolutionary ideology. “I’ve known how to shoot since I was eight, and had my own weapon since I was twelve,” Chapman, who grew up in small-town Georgia, said. “But I’d never handled an AK before.” After a month, he was sent to the front lines.
Soon, his unit advanced on Raqqa, isis’s self-proclaimed capital; the Y.P.G. is one of the United States’ primary partners in the region. Chapman said that he and the Kurds fought alongside scruffy American soldiers—“socom types,” he said, referring to special-operations units. According to Chapman, coalition warplanes bombed isis positions nearby and his group received military equipment from the United States.
Chapman, who left Syria in March, was on Capitol Hill the other day, trying to persuade staffers in the office of Representative Alcee Hastings, of Florida, to back several pieces of pro-refugee, anti-isis legislation. He wore a tie and a silver hoop in one ear, and he carried a messenger bag.
After his meetings, he dropped by a café on Pennsylvania Avenue to speak with another aspiring Y.P.G. fighter. It was beastly hot. Chapman ordered a lemonade and took a seat at a communal table. Papers spilled from his messenger bag. “Lobbying materials,” he said to his counterpart, who asked to be called Nathan. They’d met ten days earlier, while attending a pro-Kurdish protest in front of the White House. Nathan—who is also twenty-one, with a patchy beard—recognized Chapman from news stories about American volunteers fighting in Syria and asked for advice. “I don’t want to be considered a Y.P.G. recruiter,” Chapman said later. “But I want people to be prepared for what they’re getting into.” He asked Nathan, “Do you have any first aid?”
“I took an expedition first-aid course,” Nathan said.
Chapman offered some packing tips: bring chest seals, needle-decompression kits, and tourniquets. “You have to control hemorrhages,” he said, sipping his lemonade. Strong painkillers, like Ketamine and Fentanyl, are difficult to find in Syria, but, he said, “you can buy low-level opiates like Oxycodone.” Nathan jotted down notes while, behind him, patrons lined up for smoothies.
Chapman went on, “A friend of mine in Syria said, ‘The people who come over here are one of three types: Marxists and idealists, former military guys who couldn’t get enough, and crazy people.’ ” Chapman acknowledged that he is a little bit of each. Nathan put himself in the first category. “I’ve been pretty far left for a long time, and the more I learned about the political makeup of these Kurdish groups in Syria”—the Y.P.G. aims to create a socialist, feminist society throughout northern Syria—“the more I realized that, though you could sign petitions and write articles, it means a whole hell of a lot more to go over there and help the guys who are fighting isis.”
Nathan said that he planned to leave “whenever I get the go-ahead.” He’d stashed a rucksack in a closet at his parents’ home, with a first-aid kit, a sleeping bag, a helmet, and body armor. “My folks keep asking me, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ I can’t tell them, ‘Because I’m waiting for an e-mail from the Y.P.G.’ ”
Chapman tried to keep things practical. He asked Nathan if he knew how to treat a collapsed lung. “I’ve lost eight friends over there,” he said. Three American Y.P.G. volunteers were killed near Raqqa this month.
Nathan had heard about these deaths, but, he said, “I can’t get too worried about it. I mean, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Thirty or forty years down the line, when someone says, ‘What did you do?,’ maybe I could say, ‘Well, I went over and liberated a section of the Middle East from isis, and then helped rebuild their society in a more egalitarian way.’ ” He admitted that perhaps he had not yet fully processed the gravity of his undertaking. “It’s not a reality right now, and won’t be until I’m on the plane.”
This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.