“You’re a long way from home now, aren’t you son?”
They were standing over me. Their faces were covered by masks. Their hats were camouflage and branded with the logos of college football teams. I could hear the jets circling overhead. The tourniquet bit into my leg.
“You’d think this far away I’d wind up with somebody besides an Aggie and a Sooner fixing me up.”
They both laughed. “Sometimes you get what you get,” the woman said.
Sometimes you do. American Marines were scrambling to and fro on the other side of the open doorway. Their mortars sounded like bank drive-through tubes as they were launched toward their destination. The sky was grey. I was bleeding.
Another instant before or after and it would have killed me – another inch left or right. “You’re lucky,” one of the two standing over me said. I nodded and felt hands grasp my thigh and with the unwinding of the tourniquet I felt a sweet orgasmic release run from my shin to my hip. They flipped me over. Pulling off my boot felt like razors running along my foot, sharp edge in, slicing to the bone. I bit the sleeve of my uniform. I felt pressure growing again in my thigh, then my foot. Bandages winding. They rolled me again onto my back and opened my uniform. They tacked another bandage under my arm, another two smaller ones – the kind you would find on the scraped knees of children – taped to my face. They handed me a pack of M&Ms.
“I haven’t seen any of these in a while,” I said.
They gave my bandages a once-over and helped me to sit. “You’re very lucky,” she said again, her eyes roaming across my body. The mortars were chucking.
“I’m just glad you’re speaking English,” I said.
“I’m sure you are.” She was filling out a chart while I was tossing M&Ms into my mouth. Her eyes darted across my YPG patches and scarf to my injuries. “I think you’re gonna be just fine,” she said. “After this, I don’t have any problem with you going back to kill more ISIS bad guys.”
I cringed at her word choice, but my head perked up. “I’m going back tonight?” I asked. It was growing dark.
She looked at my foot, at my thigh – the pants of my uniform only drawn up around one leg. “No. You’ll be laid up for a while. Tonight you’ll go to the hospital – Green Village. Hand them this and they’ll take care of you. They’ll clean you up. Proper.”
The thought that I would not be returning to the front line hadn’t yet crossed my mind. And why would it have? I’d left my rifle there like I would be coming back for it later. I could hear the chucking of the mortars. The jets were circling above. They were still fighting. They were fighting and dying and fighting and dying and I was eating M&Ms; the shells were hard – they crunched as I bit into them – the chocolate center soft and familiar. My friends were fighting and dying. But I would not. But I could walk. I could still fight; I was sure I could. I had not traveled here around the world merely to be slightly wounded and leave the war for others to win. I could fight. I stood from the stretcher as the nurses beckoned me towards the open door frame and I immediately sank. My foot felt as though a 300-pound man was standing on it in cleats. Another step sent shockwaves of pain radiating from my thigh. “I’m not going back?” I asked.
“No,” the man said. “Follow him.” The Sooner handed me my boot and the chart and pointed toward a young middle-eastern man in black camouflage, Syrian Democratic Forces patches on his arms that matched my own.
I hobbled toward him over hard-packed brown dirt. We made our way across the walled-in yard of the building. There were US military vehicles all around, painted that beige color. The jets were circling above. I leaned on the man. “Kurmanji dizanî?” I asked.
He knew no Kurdish. “Arabî mafîk?” he said.
I knew no Arabic.
He helped me into the back of the ambulance. Another Arab was sitting there and he helped me into the stretcher. “Merheba,” he said.
I parroted him in reply. He too spoke no Kurdish, only Arabic. So I sat in silence as the ambulance pulled away from the American medic station. Its wheels rolled over shards of shattered brick. The road was lined with craters punched into the earth by airstrikes. Its course thus wound about the holes in the ground – a dirt path smoothed out by bulldozers. The walls of the buildings we passed were in shambles. Rebar prodded at the clouds. I could still hear the jets circling.
From the stretcher, I could see pine trees in the window that marked the northern edge of Hajin city. Their needles were covered in dust raised from the surface of the road by the coming and going of modern war. Vehicles laden with men, munitions, food all trundled along this dusty road and powdered the branches. The bloodied men and women in the ambulances all watching the dust upon the trees through the windows, bidding a farewell to arms through dimming eyes, their lids heavy with morphine.
As all wars do, the trumpets and fanfare of revolution and religion had obliterated all other meaning to life here. The war had ripped this oldest civilization in the world to shreds. Kurds, Yazidis, Syriacs, Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims had been scorched from their homes, starved out, decapitated, left in the sun to rot and have dogs tear at their corpses. It was all nothing but a passing joke to people in the west. “ISIS is everywhere.” “ISIS bad guys.” “Space ISIS.” Hundreds of thousands of dead bodies lay in the ground or rotting in the sun and if I was lucky I had added to that count. If I was lucky I was now responsible for the instantaneous end of several human lives – all of whom believed themselves to be the most important such lives on the earth – all of whom believed themselves to be on the side of the good – all of whom knew alone how much their lives meant to them – how much they wanted them to go on. And they were snuffed out. Without premonition. Without last words. Their last thoughts cut short before a nerve-impulse could tell them to duck. Before they could finish their prayers. What sort of luck is that? Where was the glory in any of that?
I woke as the ambulance bounced over a speed bump. In the dark outside, I could hear the rusty squeak of an opening gate. The ambulance came to a stop and the rear doors were opened. I struggled to my feet and limped toward a lit opening. Behind me I heard another vehicle slide to a stop and its own doors swing open toward me. I carried my boot in one hand, the chart in the other. I handed the chart to a man. “Whoa,” he said, “we got a walk-in?”
I attempted a smile but knew that the man found none in my expression. He ushered me through the door and made his way to the casualties stumbling or being stretchered in behind me. The medics inside recognized me immediately for who I was. “Where are you from?” was asked of me before anything of my injuries. I answered and was laid down on a stretcher at the far end of the room. One of the medics leaning over me had gotten ahold of my chart. “Texas, huh? How the hell did you wind up here?”
“I got shot,” I answered.
The medic chuckled. “Fair enough. Can you tell me where?”
I pointed to the various locations where metal had pierced flesh on my body.
“Is this shrapnel or bullets?”
“Well it’s only one bullet, but in a lot of pieces.” I could hear a man on the other end of the room screaming, the medics were rushing to and fro, grabbing saline bags, punching IVs into arms. “It came through a wall. So I guess I was shot once, but it was all the fun of being shot five times.” I was laughing now.
“What’s your pain level like?”
I told them. They attached a syringe to my IV and I watched as the medic depressed a plunger. “This is ketamine. So in about thirty seconds you’re going to feel a little… weird. Don’t panic, some people do, it’s just so we can move you around without hurting you.” I could hardly hear him over the screaming, the ringing in my ears, the pounding of my leg, the circling jets. Then it all went quiet.
It was as though I was having an out-of-body experience within my own body. I could see them turning me about. I was aware that they were prodding me, measuring me – this must have been what being abducted by aliens was like. But they were speaking English, sweet English. The screaming was quiet now. The man’s conscience must have retreated to the same safe corner inside himself that mine had. They removed my keffiyeh. They opened my shirt, took off my pants, piled my things on a shelf somewhere out of view. I lay naked before them. After a time, they covered me with a space blanket and then pumped me full of another dose of ketamine.
A man was standing over me. He was waving like he was saying “Hello.” He wore a black t-shirt with ARMY printed bright and bold and yellow across the chest. Lazily, my eyes looked up to meet his. His face was a silhouette against the bright lights in the ceiling. “Azad,” he said. “Now, I know this is a bad time, but I have to ask you a very important question.” Sweet English. “You’ve got a decision to make. Either you can go back with the YPG, the SDF – go through their medical channels, whatever that entails. You’ll leave here and we’ll have no record of you.” And I knew this was coming. “Or, you can give me your information – your legal information as an American citizen and we can get you on a flight to Baghdad tonight, and you’ll be going home.”
I stared at him like a cow before I spoke, my inner self screaming out from behind dull eyes, “You picked a badfucking time to ask me that, man. I’m high as shit.”
The man cocked a grin at me. “I’m sorry buddy. I know. Now, you’ve got some time – a little bit of time. The decision doesn’t have to be made right now, but it has to be made soon.”
He had very little other information to give me. I would be on a flight to Baghdad. That was it. The logistics and ramifications of what was to come were as unknown to him as they were to me. I would have to decide to find out.
After a while, the room had cleared. It was cold. I was hungry. Jason, a man younger than I was, sat on a gurney next to me. I was still coming down off my high, and I could feel tears welling in my eyes.
“If it were me,” Jason said, “I would go home through American channels. But I don’t know what your situation is. I don’t know how the SDF operates. I do know that if you come with us we can guarantee that you get home safely, we can make sure that those wounds heal properly – cleanly. Look at it this way, you’re out of the fight. It’ll be a month or two before you recover. And in that time you’re recovering, we may be pulling out of Syria. Once we’re gone, who knows what happens.”
“Turkey invades,” I said. Turkish President Erdoğan had been sabre rattling for months. How he would relish in the destruction of our revolution. How he would “bury us in our ditches when the time came.” In the north of the county, unfriendly drones had begun circling – waiting for a moment to strike and set the whole thing off – to kill every Kurd in existence for the sake of Turkish nationalism. If there was any nation vile and brazen enough to wage a genocidal war in plain view of the world in today’s modern age of communication and oversight, Turkey was the one. They’d imprisoned their journalists, their educators for speaking out against the regime. They’d invaded Kurdish-controlled Afrin with little pretext, and the world remained silent on the atrocities committed there – female fighters breasts had been cut off of their lifeless corpses, YPG and YPJ hanged from cranes. Turkey had given Daesh medical care when they were wounded, welcomed them with open arms to hospitals in Diyarbakir, where they were treated and sent back to the front. They’d funneled foreign ISIS fighters into Syria to fight against the Kurdish militias, and they’d recruited them to their Turkish-backed FSA ranks when they’d been defeated. ISIS, in the form of the FSA, was now the Turkish invasion force, now backed by aircraft. It is comparatively easy to win a war when you control the skies and your enemy must live in constant fear of warplanes. The US could pull out any day and the enemy, their jets and drones, would be upon us – circling – striking.
Getting home was no certainty. And here the Americans were guaranteeing that much. And they were speaking sweet English. I wiped my eyes. I told him I would go back with the US Army.
I would have given my life gladly to the Kurdish cause and the Rojava Revolution – in defense of that land, and here I felt I had turned my back on them. The Americans began to drop their standoffish approach to me once I’d agreed to their help, they asked about my life, they brought me food and a blanket. But I was nothing more than an outlier to cut through their boredom. They wandered into the operating room where I lay in the corner, some spoke to me. Many gawked openly at my dirty face, my punctured uniform, the Kurdish scarf I had draped over my head and shoulders like a shawl.
The general of the frontline units of the SDF came to me late that night. “Dem baş, heval,” he said. The medics offered to fetch me a translator. I told them I didn’t need one. They hovered around like bodyguards, as though they expected to have to fight him off. I spoke to General Çîya for some time. He asked about my experience in Rojava, how I had been wounded, what I would do when I returned to my home country. I answered his questions in the best Kurdish I could muster. “Do you make this decision free of oppression?” he asked me. “They do not force you?”
“Yes,” I said, a small reservation in my mind, a small seed of guilt. “Erê.”
Çîya touched his forehead and his heart in a sign of compassion. He ripped the patches off his uniform and handed them to me. “Ser çavan, heval. Serkeftin.” He shook my hand, turned, and left.
“Serkeftin,” I answered. Victory. And though it did not seem like it alone in that hospital room – bandaged, bleeding – victory was close at hand. Daesh – ISIS – was on its last leg; only the night before, we had made the single largest advance in one night of the entire Deir ez-Zor Campaign. American airstrikes were crushing the walls and the wills of the remaining Islamic State fighters. Their weapons caches were being seized. International Daesh were being captured. Flags were falling. The SDF had swept through the suburban villages on the southern outskirts of Hajin meeting little resistance. In Ash Sha’fah that day, ISIS launched what would be one of their final counter-attacks of the conflict. I would bleed, 23 others would die. And the war would be over in 77 days. And victory would be declared and celebrated across the globe, the human cost of defeating the Islamic State largely unnoticed by those singing so loudly of its defeat. And here I was in the hospital room, cold.
“We weren’t able to get you manifested to Baghdad tonight,” the medic told me. “Probably tomorrow.”
That was fine with me. I slept.
And I woke the next day and was brought Pop-Tarts for breakfast warm bland food for lunch and supper. I read a book and sent messages relaying the situation to my friends still at the frontline and to my friends at home. More people popped their heads in when there were no patients being treated like I was some sort of dirty zoo animal. Some asked me my name. “Azad,” I told them.
“No, I don’t mean your terrorist name,” he replied. Were we not on the same side?
The following day I still had not left. “We’re still working on it,” they told me. My foot had swollen up, and pain was lancing through my body. The doctors told me that I needed to walk around as best I could to keep blood circulating in my leg to keep the swelling down. Not being a medical professional myself, I considered this sound advice. And I wandered, sporadically stumbling up and down the hallway, out into the cool desert air, and back inside again for a while.
“You can’t be here,” he spat.
I looked at him. His boots were clean. His shirt was freshly washed, and he sported the thick “tactical” beard so often seen borne by Navy SEALs in movies and disgruntled Iraq War Veterans wearing too-tight t-shirts. He was a sergeant.
“Why?” I asked.
In the brief instant, before he spoke, I could almost see his brain going haywire as it tried to compute my response. Sparking, smoking like a cartoon. Someone had questioned him? “Because I fucking said so, and because this is my camp. And you can’t be here –”
“Alright, calm down you fucking fobbit.”
That got him going.
I cut him off again. “Look, Sergeant never-been-outside-the-wire ‘MyCamp’ I want to get the fuck out of here just as bad as you want me out, but the medic, who outranks you, told me I needed to walk around. So you can take it up with him if you’ve got a problem with it.”
He was so dumbfounded that I could see his jaw hanging open as I walked past him. It was the single moment in my life where the perfect thing to say and my words lined up with one another.
Shortly thereafter I was told I could no longer leave the room without an escort.
In the hospital room I saw many patients – many of my comrades – come and go. Some were quiet. Others screamed in agony, writhing around violently, the tendons of severed limbs flapping about with gravity like pennants in the wind. The blood was dark. And they came. And they went, trio after trio. Some were maimed for life. Others, like me, would walk again and return to action or return to peace, but there was none among our number who would not be marred by that room every bit as much as we were marred by the battlefield forty miles south. Something is lost in the brightness of the eyes of every man and woman and child who has seen war and been unfortunate enough to walk away from it. It is a heavy burden. Brown eyes sink like mud. Green eyes curl over like grass in the summer. Blue eyes turn to ice.
“We’re working on getting you out of here,” the medic told me. I think we’ve got you manifested onto a flight to Erbil tomorrow.”
“What happened to Baghdad?” I asked.
“We’ve been running into a lot of questions of legality with JAG and all that – you not having your passport, that kind of stuff.”
I knew it could not have been as easy as it was made to seem while they were waiting on my decision. “Alright,” I said.
I had been bent over and fucked by the Big Green Weenie of American military bureaucracy more than once in my life, enough to have a sense of what was to come. I hoped I was wrong. I spent the rest of the day lying there, reading. A major came and spoke to me. She gave me the number of an immigration lawyer. She told me to call him when I ran into trouble. I’d done nothing illegal, what good would it have done? No lawyers would be needed for anything.
The next day a pilot came into the room. “Are you Warren?” he said.
I was. He shook my hand.
“We’ve got you manifested on a flight out of here this evening. I’ll give you more information as we get closer to takeoff.”
I would be leaving Syria by sundown, and home was close enough that I could smell the sharp winter air of Texas if I closed my eyes. The medic came into the room. “Did you talk to the pilot?” he asked.
“Alright, well I’ve got a rundown of what’s going to happen. We’re going to fly you to Erbil, at the base there, we’re going to look at your wounds and clean them again, make sure everything is doing alright.”
“Then we’re going to have to talk to the Iraqi government, and probably turn you over to authorities.”
He repeated himself. “Turns out we can’t just stick you on a government flight out of there. We’ve got to play it by the book. They’re saying you’d have to get a small interest-free loan from the federal government so that you can get a plane ticket home if you can’t afford one yourself.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “This isn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I said I’d go back through American channels. That’s not how it was made to sound.”
“I know. I’m sorry. We can get you in touch with the US consulate in Erbil if you’d like. She might know more of the exact details.”
“Yeah. Do that.”
A while later, they called me into a small office crisscrossed by phone lines and Ethernet cables. The walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with computers, blinking red and green lights. Three glasses-wearing men filed out as I was led in and handed the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, this is Janie Springfield at the US consulate in Erbil. How are you doing today?”
“Good. I’m just wondering how this whole thing is gonna work.”
“Ok, well they’ll fly you in here, the Army will take care of your wounds. Then they’ll get you here to the consulate. From there we have to go about getting you an emergency passport and dealing with the Iraqi authorities. Once they’ve got all of the information they need, we will hand you over to them. And you’ll probably be detained.”
“I’m going to jail?”
“Yes,” she said in a preparatory way to where one knows that there is a “but” coming, and there are no “yes, buts” when it comes to going to jail; jail is jail, even a really nice one, this one would not be one of those, “but they’ll take very good care of you, and we here at the consulate will be coming to check on you every day, making sure that they’re taking care of your wounds and everything. And you’ll only be there for about a week, maybe a little longer. The Iraqi government will have you pay off a fine of 19 dollars for each day you overstayed your visa and then you’ll be free to go. Then you find a place to stay and get a plane ticket and you’ll be home in two weeks’ time I’d bet.”
The way she said all this was as though she were reading off a travel brochure to the finest resort in Nassau. “So you’re telling me that you’re going to throw me in jail with ISIS fighters – with the guys who just fucking shot me? And then I’m going to have to come up with 4,000 dollars to pay my visa fine after I’ve spent a week in jail?”
“There aren’t former ISIS in these jails, it’s mostly just petty criminals – people arrested for shoplifting. Stuff like that.”
“No,” I said. “No it’s not. My friends were arrested crossing back into Iraq in November. They were jailed with former ISIS fighters and then the KDP threatened to turn them over to Turkish MIT.”
“No,” she said. “We will make sure you get home safely. They won’t hand you over to Turkey. Think of the alternatives. Think of how dangerous it is to cross the border illegally. I don’t want to be the one responsible for getting your body back to the United States. Now you weigh the options: a week in jail and the cost of the fees and plane ticket versus your life.”
“Wait, I’d have to pay for the plane ticket too? What happened to the no-interest government loan?”
She paused for a moment, “The consulate doesn’t do that, sir.”
I turned towards the medic and his superior officer, both huddled in the corner of the tight little room. I shot them a glance of distrust. “So I’ll fly to Erbil, get cleaned up, spend seven days in jail with former ISIS, then be on the hook for something like 7,000 dollars? Yeah, I’ll take my chances with the SDF,” I said into the receiver. “Have a good day.” I hung up the phone and turned to the men in the corner. “I’m going back with the SDF. I’m not going to jail for this.”
They led me from the room and back to my bed. They looked at me with the disappointment a parent might give a child who has an unshakable drug addiction that will one day kill them. “I’m going back with the SDF,” I said. The medic turned and walked from the room, his head hanging heavy with contempt. His superior officer stood with his arms crossed.
“How do you know they’ll take you back?” the superior asked me.
“They’ll take me back.” The Syrian Democratic Forces practiced a long-forgotten American tradition of loyalty. Those who fought for them, with them, would always be allies. Their backs would never turn to them. They would always be there for one another, for those that were there for them, even those that may have wavered in their confidence a little. A Kurd needs every friend he can get.
“Well,” the officer said. “We’ll have to see if you’re in our custody or in our care.’
I wanted to kill him. I wanted to take my crutch and bash his fucking face in. “I’ve done nothing illegal,” I said. “I’ve done nothing against the law – nothing you can detain me for.”
“We’ll let JAG see about that.”
“Get General Çîya. I’m not one of your men, and I’m going back with the SDF. I appreciate that you’re trying to help me get home safe, but I will not be pinned to that cross because of your bureaucratic bullshit.”
“Me, I don’t give two shits what we do with you,” he snapped. “For all I care you could take that flight to Erbil in thirty minutes, you could go back with the SDF, or we could turn you loose outside the front gate with a little bit of food and water and send you on your merry way. But I do things by the book. That’s how I got my job, that’s how I’ll keep it.” Then the officer turned and left. I could have run. I could have crutched my way across the base and to freedom, hobbling along with my belongings stuffed into a pillowcase and hitchhiked my way north to my YPG unit, but I sat in the cold and empty room and waited for the door to swing open again. “You’re free to go,” he said. “Çîya is waiting.”
Çîya hugged me when we met again. “Come,” he said in Kurdish. He led me across the large, white-walled building to a small room. “Wait here.” And I waited, and the Kurds in the room offered me tea and sugar. Before long I was swept up by a new man. I followed him out the door into a cold Syrian night, the sky thick with stars hanging above a thin scattering of streetlamps on the Kurdish side of Green Village. It was quiet. There were no jets circling.
We walked a ways through a dense garden, down sidewalks canopied by the boughs of trees. We came upon an apartment complex. I was beckoned inside. “Welcome,” a man said, a smile on his worn, wrinkled face.
“I will come back tomorrow,” the man who was leading me said.
“Have you eaten?” the old man asked in Kurdish.
“Na,” I replied. No.
He went into the kitchen and made a tray of fruit for me, placed it in front of me, and he disappeared out the door. I sat alone on a thick pad on the carpeted floor. Posters of martyrs hung on the walls. There was a diesel heater in the center of the room, its black cylinder warming the space comfortably. Fire burned inside. I was lost in it for a while.
Before long, the man came back, his arms were laden with plates of chicken and vegetables, rice, tomatoes, soup, and naan. He set the tray down before me. “Eat,” he said. And I ate.
After the meal was finished and I leaned back against the wall, he offered me a cigarette. I took it and lit it and looked up towards the ceiling, watching the smoke rise. “What happened?” he asked.
I looked back at the man, our eyes met. And he was there with me in the dank darkness of the house. He too heard the mortars booming outside the building, felt the dust showering down from the ceiling, heard my radio crackling. “There’s a sniper that’s got us pinned down,” came the voice of another westerner. “Copy.” I said into the radio. I relayed the information and leaned my head back against the wall. The mattress below me was thick and comfortable. My rifle lay across my lap. Then he too heard the sharp rattle of machine gunfire. The men all around locked eyes and rose from lying or sitting. He grabbed his rifle with us. He too ran up the stairs once, a turn, and out into the bright January sun. He stared down the same sights of my same rifle and felt the recoil in his shoulder as in mine. He watched the enemy run. He fired as I fired. He felt the recoil in his shoulder as in mine. He too could feel the earth tremble, the mortars bursting around me. Rifles firing. The anger, white and hot. The sun, bright and cold above him as well. He too was there with me. He too fired his weapon and fired his weapon. And the wall burst. The bullet punched through it, shattered and hit him too. He felt the lurch of recognition, saw the blood thick on his uniform, his hands.
“Daesh sniper,” I said.
He said nothing. He nodded. He handed me a cup of tea.
Warren Stoddard II, 25, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. Following his graduation from Texas State University in 2018, he travelled to Syria to fight as a member of the Kurdish YPG, where he was wounded in action against the Islamic State.