DAQUQ, Iraq — Of the American volunteers who have joined Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling against ISIS in Iraq, Mickey stands out. The blond hair combed back on his head comes to a point on his chin in a goatee, like the kind he might have worn when he was still riding with his motorcycle club in Colorado. Mickey is not his real name but it’s what he’s called by his fellow Americans and their Kurdish comrades. The name tape on his military uniform reads “necromancer.”
“The Peshmerga officer was dying next to me, but there was nowhere to go. He died there. I couldn’t move him because of all the machinegun fire,” Mickey tells me, describing a recent battle against ISIS.
Three weeks ago, 45 kilometers south of Kirkuk, near the city of Daquq, American soldiers were once again locked in deadly combat with Islamic extremists. This time though it was not the U.S. military or private security contractors. These were American volunteers fighting alongside the Peshmerga and wearing Kurdish flags.
With large battles to clear key Iraqi cities like Tikrit backed by U.S. airpower, and recent ISIS gains in the city of Ramadi, fighting in Iraq’s Kurdish region has gotten less attention lately. But despite newer fronts opening, the war between ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga goes on. A press release Sunday night from the U.S. military task force leading the international military alliance against ISIS described recent Peshmerga victories supported by the coalition. With support from coalition airstrikes and intelligence, “Kurdish Security Forces…seized dozens of square miles of ISIL occupied terrain today in Northern Iraq,” according to the statement, and, “cleared 11 villages of enemy combatants.” It’s in that arena where Americans like Mickey have joined the fray.
Reports of U.S. volunteers fighting alongside Kurdish forces have been in the news lately but few have actually seen combat. Most of the Americans who volunteered to fight against ISIS have served a merely symbolic role, kept well away from the front. Often they are brought out in full regalia for the benefit of journalists, who typically outnumber the “volunteers” they’re there to cover. “Mickey,” whose name is actually Michael and has asked that his full name be withheld, has been an exception to that rule.
“ISIS has a price on my head now and I’ve got kids,” Mickey said while smoking a cigar in the afternoon sun.
Mickey a Colorado native, traveled to the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq last year. “I came alone and paid for everything myself. Originally I linked up with a group of wannabe outlaw bikers from Holland. I was not into their politics and they wanted to start some sort of crazy militia, so I left and joined the Kurdish Peshmerga.”
Mickey was formerly involved with a "one percenter" motorcycle club in Colorado, but currently serves as a Peshmerga sergeant major. Mickey was a veteran before joining the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. “Yeah, I was in the military, but not the American military,” he said, puffing on his cigar. Mickey speaks French, which he learned after joining the Foreign Legion. His military experience is tattooed across his arms. Unlike most of the Western fighters pictured in headlines over the past year, Mickey is deeply sunburned and doesn’t openly discuss his battlefield exploits.
Much of what Mickey says—from his biker past, to the ISIS bounty on his head—sounds like it came out of a movie. But his stories about battling ISIS were backed up by multiple Kurdish sources who spoke with The Daily Beast and confirmed his exploits.
Mickey’s commander, General Tariq, deputy commander of the Ministry of Peshmerga’s Brigade 9, laughed recalling the stories of the American’s determination in battle. “We call him Sak bab,” said the seneral, which translates to “son of dog.” The expression is usually an insult, but in this case it’s been bestowed upon him as a high honor. “We call him that because of ferocity and determination on the battlefield,” General Tariq said. “He doesn’t give up, he pushes hard and sets an example.”
During the interview with The Daily Beast, Mickey spoke of the battlefield conditions he has seen in northern Iraq and what drew him there.
“Look, we all have a past and I’m no different. I’m human. My criminal record back home has been cleared and I’ve served my time,” he told The Daily Beast at an interview in Daquq. “I’m not perfect, I’ve done some bad things, but I’ve also done good things in my life.” Mickey said he found himself drawn to the current fight against ISIS by the injustice he saw occurring. “I’m here for the people, nobody else. I’m here for all of those who want to live a peaceful life that has been deprived to them by ISIS. I don’t care about politics or religion. That’s not what I’m here for,” he said.
Mickey is not alone; 15 other American volunteers, some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are fighting alongside him as part of the Peshmerga forces. They each had different stories of how they arrived in the Kurdish region to fight ISIS.
Many of the volunteers found their way to the war against ISIS through the Internet. They signed up to join the Peshmerga using a website designed to recruit Western fighters, Americans in particular. The site is part of a recruiting program called the Kurdish Peshmerga foreigner registration assessment management and extraction program, or F.R.A.M.E. The program serves as a guide for Western recruits offering requirements and expectations while allowing the Peshmerga to run background checks on applicants and weed out potential ISIS operatives.
A former U.S. Marine, who deployed to Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2010 with a Marine maintenance battalion, said he had flown by himself to the Kurdish region. “When I arrived they were giving me a hard time at the airport because of all the gear I had brought. So, I lied. I flashed an old reserve ID I still had and told them I was on orders. It worked. That was three weeks ago.”
Another former Marine said he was stopped by the FBI, questioned and released, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “They took my body armor and asked me a few questions. I don’t know how they knew I was coming, but they did.” He declined to give the Marine unit he had been assigned to, or his name, to verify his service claims, but still openly wore a U.S. Marine Corps globe and anchor on his body armor, which he said he had acquired locally. Both had flown directly to Sulaymaniya, a large city in the Kurdish Region with an international airport. He and 12 other Americans of mixed backgrounds form the only known group of American volunteers actively fighting the Islamic State on a day-to-day basis. Videos of the group engaged in combat with ISIS have begun to surface online.
One video, captured by Navy veteran and Peshmerga volunteer Chris Toney on his GoPro camera, shows the intensity of the combat with the Islamic State, as well as the costs of war.
In the video, at 4:17, an American volunteer named Daniel, is wounded in the leg but escapes without serious injury. Daniel, a former logistics contractor on an American base in Germany, said, “Yeah, I’m doing OK, leg’s all right,” when asked about his wounds by The Daily Beast. Other volunteers, including Jeremy Woodward, Samuel Swann, and Aaron Core, say they have prior military experience with the U.S. Army. Woodward and Core spoke about serving in Iraq, Swann says he deployed twice to Afghanistan.
Among the volunteers though, Mickey is held in special esteem.
Three weeks ago, during a Kurdish offensive south of Kirkuk, Mickey found himself in the fight of his life.
“Daesh [ISIS] was pushing towards us,” he said. “They were only 20 meters away. By this time I was down to only two magazines. I saw eleven or twelve Peshmerga pinned down, so I started laying suppressive fire. That gave them the opportunity to move and pull back. I only had a Kalashnikov [AK-47]. As I started to move back I saw a wounded Peshmerga officer on the ground, hit in the face. He was in bad shape and dying. I couldn’t leave him there, so I started to drag him. Bullets were flying all around me and I could hear [ISIS], they were only 5 meters away, so I started throwing hand grenades. They were shitty Russian grenades and exploded in the air, but it was putting them down, hard. It gave me an opening and I started dragging the wounded Peshmerga officer. We ended up in a ditch and I knew he wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t lift my head, because the rounds were slapping the wall right above and behind me. It was coming from 360 degrees. Daesh was throwing everything at us and it was effective. The Peshmerga officer wasn’t small and I knew he would only get hit more if I tried to push him over the wall. I couldn’t move, so I started trying to find a way out for us. The Peshmerga officer was dying next to me, but there was nowhere to go. He died right there. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t move him, because of all the machinegun fire. So I took his wallet and his ID, so ISIS couldn’t identify him. I placed his arms in the Islamic Prayer style and hid his body in the brush and weeds. I thought fuck, I gotta get out of here. It was then that I started crawling.”
Shortly after escaping, Mickey went back to the scene of the fighting. During the night, he and several dozen Peshmerga retrieved the body of the dead Peshmerga officer. “I was lucky enough to get out of there,” he said, adding, “You don’t leave a man behind. These men are my brothers. I am Peshmerga.”
Multiple Kurdish sources who were present at the battle confirmed this account. “Mickey and several dozen Peshmerga went out to retrieve that man’s body,” said General Araz Abdulqadir, who commands a Peshmerga brigade.
When asked what advice he had for Western volunteers planning to travel to the Kurdish Region, Mickey said, “I don’t care what your background is or who you know. It doesn’t matter if you’ve fought the Taliban, al Qaeda or anyone for that matter. All that doesn’t mean shit. At the end of the day, ISIS will put you in check. Don’t presume you know, because you’ll just end up an egotistical body bag. Unless you’ve been here, you don’t know.”