Two Americans, including a United States Army veteran, were killed in Syria last week while fighting alongside Kurdish forces against the Islamic State. Former US Army Sergeant Nicholas Warden, from Buffalo, NY and Robert Grodt, from California, were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on July 5th. A British man, Luke Rutter, only 22 years old, was also killed with Warden and Grodt.
Nicholas Warden, 29, served as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division from 2007 to 2011. He was deployed to Afghanistan twice and went on to join the French Foreign Legion after completing his enlistment. After five years with the Legion, Warden volunteered to join the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG in their fight against the Islamic State and went to Syria earlier this year.
Less is known about Grodt, but he has no known military service. He did take part in the Occupy Wall Street movement as an activist and medic in New York City in 2011. Rutter also did not have any military experience and was from Birkenhead, England.
All three were fighting ISIS in the vicinity of their de facto capital of Raqqa and were working with members of the YPG. The YPG is made up of primarily ethnic Kurds but does include many foreign volunteers, notably Americans like Warden and Grodt. They have also drawn Canadians and other westerners in large numbers to their group since the fight against ISIS hit full stride in 2014.
The YPG has been active for over a decade and seeks an independent Kurdistan. They have received considerable support from the US, including air support and military advisers on the ground. This comes despite the protests of the Turkish government, which considers the YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a terrorist organization.
It’s not difficult to imagine why some Americans have felt compelled to fight alongside Kurdish, Shiite, and other local militias as they battle ISIS. Many are former US military servicemembers who are outraged by the rise of ISIS and feel obligated to help their former friends and allies from earlier military deployments. For some, volunteering is the only way to get to a position that allows them to directly engage ISIS fighters and avenge some of the terrorist groups attacks in the US and Europe. Warden had stated in a video posted by the YPG that he was inspired to fight the Islamic State by the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. Others may just be seeking excitement.
Those who do volunteer usually make contact with local militias through social media. After arrangements are made, they fly to the Middle East and typically enter Iraq or Syria via Turkey. They are given some rudimentary training in Russian-style weapons, local languages and customs, and historical context for the fighting going on there.
It is not currently known how many Americans have fought alongside militia groups in Syria and Iraq. What is known is that roughly a dozen have been killed in the fighting and that those who are serving over there are playing a crucial role in the fight to destroy the Islamic State.