The American Vets Fighting Against IS (And They’re Not Mercenaries)

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Brett Royales fights alongside an Assyrian Christian militia.
“I’m here to kill Daesh,” says U.S. Marine Corps veteran Louis Park, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State group.
Park is one of a small but growing number of foreign fighters who have come to northern Iraq to join Dwekh Nawsha, an Assyrian Christian militia that is fighting against the Islamic State group. The group, whose name means “self-sacrificers” in Aramaic, was formed by Assyrian Christians to counter the advance of the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Park and a second American veteran, Brett Royales, spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq this week about their experiences from their current position near the Assyrian town of Batnaya in the Nineveh plains.

Park says he served four years in the U.S. armed forces and in 2012 did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he gained some combat experience. He told Radio Free Iraq that he believes by fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq, he is also protecting the United States.

“I know that if [IS] is allowed to stay here, we will see violence in the United States as well, eventually. So I’m protecting my homeland too,” Park said.

Park said that he volunteered with Dwekh Nawsha after completing his four years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I’m not being paid at all, I’m being fed and I’m being armed and clothed and everything, but any gear that I need, I’m paying out of pocket. This is all money that I saved for this effort myself, because I believe in the cause a lot, so I’m willing to finance everything,” Park told Radio Free Iraq.

An experienced soldier, Park says that he is involved in training the Assyrian Christian militia.

“I’m here to provide anything they [the militia] needs — so training, just being a fighter myself. I’m here to kill Daesh, but in the Marine Corps we learned about small unit leadership [so] I’m going to help them train as a small unit as well, and that way we can all be more effective,” Park said.

Asked about the U.S. military presence in Iraq — American troops are present in the country to train and advise Iraqi forces, but there are no “boots on the ground” — Park said that the Americans were “doing the best they can with the stance that our military has chosen to take.”

“I support that. I would support further military action, but that’s not my call,” Park added.

According to Park, there are several Americans in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, perhaps as many as 30.

Asked whether he is concerned about possible problems when he returns to the United States — it is possible he is breaking the law by fighting abroad in a foreign militia — Park says he is prepared to “answer any question” he is asked.

“I have nothing to hide. I am patriotic,” Park said.

Asked whether he thought the fight against the IS group was worth sacrificing his life for, Park said he was “ready for that.”

“I already made that choice in Afghanistan,” Park said.

Brett Royales, a former infantryman, machine gunner, and marksman in the U.S. Army, says he joined Dwekh Nawsha after seeing the atrocities committed by Islamic State gunmen in the region.

“I’ve been given a skill set. I’ve honed it over the years. I can’t sit home and watch what’s going on here — the atrocities, crucifixions, rapes, sex slaves, people being driven out from their towns. It’s unacceptable to me, so I’m here to do what I can to get people back in their homes and protect their way of life,” Royales told Radio Free Iraq.

Royale says his experience in the U.S. Army, including his tour of duty in Iraq, is a “huge asset” that can help in the fight against the Islamic State group.

“I can take all these skills and everything I’ve learned, through many trials and many tribulations, and give it to my brothers here so they can protect [themselves].”

Royales said that he joined the Assyrian Christian militia, rather than another group like the Peshmerga, because he trusts them — and because he wants to help the local people expel the militants so that they can return to their homes and peaceful way of life.

“If I wanted to fight for money, I’d have joined a mercenary group, the YPG [Kurdish People’s Protection Units]. But I don’t want to come here and fight. I want to come here and defend, so that these people can come back to their land,” Royales explained.

The Iraqi people should be given the tools to defend their own land and expel the Islamic State group, Royales believes.

“Daesh doesn’t belong here,” he said.

Many of Iraq’s Assyrian population — up to 200,000 according to the Assyrian International News Agency — fled last July when Islamic State gunmen pushed north from Mosul and overran the Nineveh Plain, the last stronghold of Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

Royales said that there are now three cities in the Nineveh Plain that are not under Islamic State control: the Assyrian towns of Baqofa, Alqosh, and Sharafiya. The towns are being guarded by the Assyrian militias, he says.

Royales says that he has engaged in active combat against the Islamic State group. According to Royales, the Assyrian Christian militia he is fighting with recently identified several houses and churches near Batnaya where Islamic State gunmen were hiding.

The gunmen set tires on fire in the hope that the smoke would obscure their locations so that the militia’s drones could not spot them, Royales said.

“We picked out the houses they were hiding in, and the U.S. came along and bombed out the houses,” Royales told Radio Free Iraq.

Like Park, Royales says he is not afraid of being killed or captured by the Islamic State group.

“The last thing I’m afraid of is dying. I’m not worried about being captured, I’m not worried about being killed,” he said.