Battle Tested

The U.S. Veteran and Wisconsin Boy Who Went to Fight ISIS in Syria

What motivated an American to go to war for the Kurds? Jordan Matson’s troubled path from the Army and a pre-election suicide bid to the front lines with the YPG.

via Facebook

As American warplanes began airstrikes in Syria, a 28-year-old Army veteran from Wisconsin told friends he had traveled to the country to join a Kurdish militia in the fight against ISIS.

After an early discharge from the military, friends say Jordan Matson was searching for something. Online he was a guild leader, delivering rousing speeches to fellow gamers. Away from the computer he was working a third-shift job and depressed about his prospects.

Watching the suffering of Kurdish children, he found a cause. Once he made up his mind, it didn’t take long before Matson found Kurdish contacts online who were willing to help him get to Syria and accept him in their ranks.

“We are aware of the reports that a U.S. citizen has joined the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) to fight against ISIL,” said a State Department spokesperson. “Due to privacy concerns, we have no further comment.”

Matson’s privacy ended not long after he published a Facebook post telling friends he was fighting in Syria. A YPG spokesman, Rêdûr Xelîl, who tweeted about Matson, responded to an initial email but did not provide answers about the American fighting in his ranks.

Now, as news spreads about Matson—mainly by the Kurdish forces he went to help—he’s made a name for himself in the world’s bloodiest war. A war in which Syrians have been slaughtered daily for years and the last images of Americans ended with their beheading. But even with the attention drawing a target on him and the Kurds alongside him, Matson may be more valuable to Kurdish allies as a source of media attention for their plight than as a frontline fighter.

Other Americans have gone to Syria and fought in the civil war there, but Matson may be the first white Christian to do so. In late 2013, a British think tank and defense consultant IHS Jane’s estimated that a few dozen Americans were fighting in Syria. The fear for the government and intelligence community is that Americans will return from Syria to carry out attacks inside the United States. Already, Americans have been charged with planning to join the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front. Matson is a different case and it’s not clear how he will be treated by U.S. authorities if he tries to return to America. While the State Department didn’t decline to address the specifics of Matson’s case, in the past Secretary Kerry has invoked “the authority to revoke the passports” of any American citizen who travels to Syria to join armed groups.

Matson didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But statements from his friends, a review of his military records, criminal convictions, and social media posts, begin to mark the path—away from his troubles and toward the battlefield, and what he believed was righteous sacrifice—that led him to Syria.

The composite portrait of Matson that emerges is of the type of person you usually only read about after something terrible happens. Friends say he was dedicated, quiet, and generous. Arrest records, including one from a suicide attempt in 2012, evoke the anguish of a person at war with himself, looking for a way out.

A few weeks before he left, Matson confided his plans to one of his few close friends: “He was like ‘You know, Dave, I just want to do something that’s gonna mean something.’” Dave Rosenmarkle owns Gracie Veneration gym, where he teaches Brazilian jiujitsu along with his wife, Kelli, near Matson’s hometown of Sturtevant, Wisconsin.

Matson would hang out with Rosenmarkle, whom he called boss, and Kelli. They’d get together with others from the gym to watch fights at the Rosenmarkles’ house. And Matson would update him by phone and social media, starting off his messages with “Hey boss.” But in three years of knowing him, Rosenmarkle couldn’t name any of Matson’s friends other than himself and his wife. “I know he had friends outside of his gym,” Rosenmarkle said, “but he seemed to be a bit of a loner, most of his friends came through the training facility.”

“When I first met Jordan in 2011 he had a chain around his neck, not a gold hip-hop chain, I mean like a load-bearing chain. I said what the hell is that and he gave me a kind of philosophical answer,” Rosenmarkle said. “He went by the nickname Link at our gym for, like, a year, because of that.”

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In early September, when Matson mentioned going to Syria to fight ISIS, Rosenmarkle didn’t take it for idle talk. “If you know Jordan, when he does something he’s all in. So when he told me ‘I’m going to go fight for the YPG,’ I believed him.” Rosenmarkle is also an Army veteran—he served in Iraq during the invasion. He understood why Matson wanted to put himself in the fight and didn’t try to stop him. “I was just kinda like ‘All right, I understand where you’re coming from. Rumble, young man, rumble,’ you know.”

Rosenmarkle heard from Matson that he was talking with other Army veterans who had contacts with Kurdish forces, some of them with Kurdish guys they had met while they were deployed to Iraq, Rosenmarkle suspected. And he was told that eventually Matson had made contact with the YPG itself, which had put him through a screening process to ensure he wasn’t a jihadi trying to infiltrate their group. On the details of Matson’s contacts—who exactly he was talking to and what they were asking from him—Rosenmarkle kept a distance. “I didn’t really ask because honestly I didn’t want to know.”

Rosenmarkle says he can’t be sure exactly when Matson started preparing to go to Syria. But it was a less than a month from the first time they spoke about it to Matson’s Facebook posting that described a six-hour firefight with ISIS.

The first mention of Matson on Twitter came on Sept. 30, from a Kurdish account affiliated with the YPG.

Since then stories have been appearing in the news, spurred by Matson’s own Facebook post and a series of Kurdish media accounts. None have offered quotes from Matson, who has been silent since his social-media update.

Various news accounts have described Matson as a Marine—he isn’t—but the photos of him could give that impression. He’s square-jawed and broad shouldered with attentive eyes that look like they are waiting for orders. There is no listing of an individual by the name of ‘Jordan Matson’ having served,” a Marine public affairs officer told The Daily Beast.

Matson did serve in the Army, but only briefly and never in combat. From May 2007 to November 2007 he was a private first class infantryman assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Standard Army enlistments run from two to six years. That Matson served less than the minimum suggests he may have been discharged early, which could have been the result of an injury, conduct issues, or because of mental or emotional problems.

The Army wouldn’t comment on the nature of Matson’s discharge but records from his run-in with the police show that it was still on his mind five years later.

In November 2012, police officers in Racine County, Wisconsin, pulled Matson over for running a flashing red light. When he slurred and smelled of alcohol, they ordered him out of the car for sobriety tests. “Matson stepped out of the vehicle, did military parade turns and marched to the area on the sidewalk that the officers pointed out to him to stand,” the police report reads.

After he failed the drunk tests, the officers searched his car and found a handgun loaded with hollow-point rounds, one in the chamber. “Officers asked Matson why he had the weapon and Matson stated that he planned to shoot himself that night,” according to the report. He told the cops that he’d tried to kill himself when they pulled him over but when the gun didn’t go off, he put it back in the console and waited to answer their questions.

“Matson stated that he had been depressed since he was ‘railroaded out’ of the military in 2007. He stated he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.” An Army spokesman refused to comment on the nature of Matson’s discharge but the police records show that Matson’s emotional turmoil had other sources. When police asked why he had chosen that night to shoot himself, Matson said, “he was upset about the election results and could not live under a socialist president.”

The next day, as Mitt Romney conceded the election to President Obama, Matson’s mother called the police and told them “her son Jordan was upset because of the election and no longer wanted to be an American and didn’t want to live.” Jordan wouldn’t hurt himself, the dispatcher told his mother, he was already in custody from the night before.

Matson was sentenced to eight months in prison and served 15 days with one year of probation. Based on the available records, Matson wasn’t violent or a criminal. He was distraught, driven to hopelessness by whatever message about his life he’d taken from the spectacle of the election cycle.

Months after his arrest, he was online acting out a grandiose identity.

“Greeting Angels of Death, Sons of the almighty Emperor!” Matson wrote in February on a gaming message board for Warhmmer fans. “My name is Romulous, I lead the Dark Angels or xDAx a clan primarily based out of Warhammer.”

In April, Matson attended a video game conference and got the chance to play a new Warhammer game still in the testing phase. In his review of the game he talks about “different suppressive fire that you can put down off of buildings,” using a term out of the Army’s combat manual to describe the experience.

Miguel Caron, the video game executive who invited Matson to test the Warhammer 40K prototype, only met him in person once, but knew him through the online gaming community. “He was very passionate about video games,” Caron said, “and he did tell me he was ex-military.” But otherwise Caron said nothing seemed unusual. Matson was polite and focused on the game.

It was only later, through Facebook, where Matson regularly engaged with other Warhammer fans, that Caron learned of his plans. “He was engaged with the community and he let us know he was tired of seeing kids being killed and he wants to act and he decided to go.”

After his suicide attempt, Matson was still missing something that games couldn’t provide him. He wasn’t able or willing to let whatever was eating at him be soothed by work and family. “He doesn’t have a wife, he doesn’t have kids,” Dave Rosenmarkle said. “He’s been killing himself working a third-shift job at Gordon’s foods.” So weeks ago when he told Rosenmarkle that he wanted to join the YPG, it wasn’t a great shock. He told Rosenmarkle, “If I can maybe make a difference or save someone’s life. I want to do something meaningful with my life.”

Matson isn’t the only one. Other military veterans have gone to the Middle East after leaving the service, to witness or to help, or seeking something they felt the world they knew was holding out. Trying to capture the force that drove these men back toward war, Elliot Ackerman wrote: “This isn’t a cause, although it can be. This isn’t a particular war, but it’s often that too. If I were to describe it, I’d say it’s an experience so large that you shrink to insignificance in its presence. And that’s how you get lost in it.”

There are others online now looking for routes to Syria. Some are seeking reasons to go, others hoping to be talked out of it.

As far as anyone outside Syria knows, Matson is still there recovering from the wounds he suffered in a battle where he “delivered an ISIS bastard to hell.” And if that’s so, who can blame him for celebrating.

In his Facebook post, Matson seems casual and assured. But letters sent from war are never the full truth. The Kurds are fighting for their lives in Syria and Matson is there with them. Maybe he’ll tell the full story when he comes home.

—With reporting by Brandy Zadrozny

Editor's Note: This article originally stated that Jordan Matson's friend Dave Rosenmarkle served as a soldier in Afghanistan. The article have been corrected to reflect that Rosenmarkle deployed with the Army to Iraq but did not serve in Afghanistan.