You Can’t Go Home Again

American volunteers joined western allies in the fight to dismantle the Islamic State in Syria. What happened when they came back?


Lucas Chapman left home for Syria in the fall of 2016. He’d just graduated from college and had begun working as a courier for Postmates (his ’98 Ford Mustang was too battered and “old” for Uber) in Washington, D. C. Equal parts idealist and adrenaline junkie, he spent the summer saving money for a plane ticket. He had been watching the developing news out of northern Syria, where a semi-autonomous territory, founded on democratic socialist and feminist ideals, was emerging as a beacon of a wider hope for stability in the Middle East. He felt an urge to help in some way, later telling me he wanted to “work for this cause.” He was hoping for something to come through when he received a message in September about the opportunity in northern Syria he’d been hoping for: a position as a volunteer fighter with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which had been locked in a heated war with the Islamic State. Soon after, he flew to northern Iraq to await his or-ders.

When the first reports of westerners joining the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came out in 2017, the focus was on the gamut of Marxist revolutionaries who wanted to dismantle the jihadist caliphate and defend a perceived utopia, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also called Rojava, built by the Kurdish population of northern Syria and threatened by ISIS’s growing strength. These foreign fighters were heading to the Middle East not to join ISIS, but to fight alongside the American-led coalition of forces that were protecting the re-gion from collapse. They bolstered the ranks of the Kurdish fighters and helped push back ISIS to a postage stamp swath of land before eliminating the group’s last major outpost in early 2019. De-spite the challenges Rojava still faced—the continuation of a decade-long civil war and constant threats from its northern border with Turkey—ISIS had been expelled, and its fighters, both for-eign and Kurdish, felt some semblance of optimism. Some foreigners believed their mission was finished, and returned to their home countries. While there was an outsize response to their leaving for war, few have reported what happened when they returned.

Those young adults, like Chapman, had joined the International Freedom Battalion of the YPG, the American-backed Kurdish fighting force within the broader Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF had for years battled ISIS with the support of United States special operations forces, war-planes, drones, weapons, and artillery. Foreign fighters—including Americans, Britons, Italians, and Germans, among others—had previously fought alongside the Iraqi Peshmerga, the de facto military of an independent region in the north of neighboring Iraq, which by June 2017 had pushed ISIS out of its last Iraqi strongholds. The overflow spilled into Syria. Now, young American men and women were guarding checkpoints in northeastern Syria and patrolling bases with their Kurd-ish comrades on the outskirts of ISIS territory.

Some of these Americans would be killed in action. Some would remain. And some of them would never come home again, not really, displaced in away I had yet to understand when I first started covering the Middle East. They were returning home alive, but hardly living.

The world and global stage once supported the idealism and bravery of foreign fighters. Nearly 60,000 men and women (including George Orwell) fought in international brigades in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Americans flew sorties for the British forces before the United States was ever formally involved. But even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the world was turning inward and away. Nationalism was and is ascendant. Against this backdrop, some young people were turning their backs on traditional forms of political resistance and taking up arms, which is how Chapman found himself four years ago, half a world away from his native Georgia, smuggled into Syria one evening, crossing the Tigris on an inflatable raft to the town of Dêrik, and then walking to a safe house that served as a small military base. Chapman was then in his early 20s, a thin man with a kind face and a small gold hoop in one ear. He was a stranger to war, but not to its weapons: he’d learned to shoot at eight, and had his own gun at 12. But he’d never shot an AK-47 before.

He spent a month training on the base in Dêrik, the smell of the dirty, littered river wafting up the valleys to their perch. The house was idyllic and calm despite the calamitous background of current events and the violence tens of miles away on the Syrian border with Iraq. The western recruits had weapons and ideas, but they also had each other. There was the edgy volunteer from Denmark who spoke faster than his weapon fired, the union organizer with thick-rimmed glasses, the British fem-inist who brought her hopes for a sanctuary of gender equality, the slight ex-Marine with the words “The Noblest” tattooed in Arabic across his jugular. After a month, the YPG command di-vided the group among the Kurdish units going to the front line of the battle to unseat ISIS from its de facto capital.

By the time Chapman reached Raqqa, having driven and hiked more than 200 miles from Dêrik, the fighting had only just begun. On November 6, 2016, units within the SDF had begun advanc-ing on the city. He worked alongside American military forces and saw battle every so often, but soon came to realize that war is mostly experienced in the negative spaces between firefights. Some of Chapman’s contemporaries wanted to kill other humans; others were pushing an agenda of po-litical rhetoric that would not mean much to a country in the midst of civil war. But often the reality of war is much duller, softened by the constant waiting.

Beneath the coalition warplanes, which bombed ISIS out of Raqqa and destroyed more than 80 percent of the city, Chapman learned to speak Kurdish and met with tribal elders and commanders across Rojava, often settling minor disputes and translating for United States special forces. He fought, by his estimate, roughly a full week out of his six months there. Many of the most difficult struggles were internal: tending to the war-hungry or the homesick, or dealing with the death of a friend who was told, just before leaving for the front line, It’s not a good idea. This time you won’t come back, I have a feeling.

Those who enlisted would have different experiences over the course of their time in the SDF and YPG. Most committed to a six-month contract. Some stayed longer. Some left within a month, an-gry at the lack of fighting or the food, like days-old boiled chicken or unseasoned rice porridge, served cold.

By March 2017, Chapman had stayed the requisite six months and completed his tour. He took the long way home.

“We went there on our own and it is still seen as suspect,” said Christopher Helali, an American and former SDF volunteer who holds dual citizenship with Greece. “Alliances shift there all the time.” He did not need support networks, he said, beyond his family and the reassurance of the broader Kurdish movement that he went to Syria to defend. Besides, finding support amongst his comrades can be tough. “A lot of people don’t really talk to each other,” Helali told me. “A lot of people who I was with over there tend to keep distance from each other just to protect themselves, and each other, from possible state action.”

“There have been quite a few battling really bad depression and PTSD,” Helali said. “There is a support network in Kurdistan and even in Europe in some places where there is a huge Kurdish population, where you can be kind of integrated back into the community and people will come and see you every day and bring you food and things like that.” But “in the States, it doesn’t really ex-ist.”

Those who fight over there, Helali said, were once lionized by the media, but are now attached to a Kurdish group with diminishing support in Washington, D.C., as President Trump’s U.S. troop drawdown in December 2019 unleashed a Turkish ground and aerial invasion. His list of living former comrades has started to dwindle. Helali counted off the dead: two Spanish fighters, another American who remained unnamed, and Jac Holmes, a British volunteer who was killed after re-turning for a third tour in Syria.

Helali’s friend Kevin Howard—a former U.S. Marine and subsequent French Foreign Legion and SDF volunteer—committed suicide two summers ago. His death, memorialized on the cover of the Los Angeles Times, cast a deeper shadow over the country’s network of YPG vet-erans. Howard’s body was found atop Sentinel Peak in Tucson, Arizona, next to his 12-gauge shotgun. Moments before he had texted a friend, “Yo, I’ve committed suicide. Take care of the cat. Sorry for the inconvenience.” He had posted messages to Facebook using his Syrian nom de guerre, Hawro Christian, along with a photo of his apartment wall. He’d scrawled on it, “I was a rebel commander in Syria” and a quote from a former comrade: “I don’t know how to get back on this road.”

Once his six months were up in the spring of 2017, Lucas Chapman returned to the small military base in the town of Dêrik. He waited there for days and ran into a small coterie of returning fight-ers—a Dane, a Frenchman, another American, and a Brit whose arm, broken by a grenade blast, had become infected after surgery. They were all planning to cross back into Iraq and make their way home to Europe and the United States. They waited. Belke sibe, Lucas was told, Maybe tomorrow. Then one night a commander entered the room where the fighters sat aimlessly blinking into their cell phone screens. “Go change into your civilian clothes and pack your stuff because you are leaving in a little while,” the commander said, and disappeared.

A few hours later, Chapman crept through the mountains and down into the valley and shouldered an inflatable raft that carried him and the others across the Tigris River into Iraqi Kurdistan. For a week he stayed at a safe house two hours south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where the SDF would fix his passport and visa stamp. That first night he got sick and had no access to a doctor. He wilted for days with a stomach virus that made his body feel raw and gutless. Eventually his plane tickets were ready, and he was given $200 and a ride to the airport, where he would fly to Cairo and connect to a flight bound for the United States.

He flew home from Syria through Montreal, then boarded a plane to Vermont, where he was brief-ly detained, something that has happened each time he has flown home from abroad. That type of hollow reception made him feel as if his own government viewed him as a criminal, even though he had been fighting on the same side as the United States.

Chapman initially welcomed the chance to resume a boring, civilian routine. He admitted himself into a hospital in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and was put on an IV drip for his stomach virus. He just needed to flush his system, reacclimate. His mother stood by his hospital bed, asking not about his experience fighting in a foreign military for what he believed was a progressive Mid-dle Eastern government, but about whether he had begun applying for any jobs. She had his ear. He was happy to be home. He planned on spoiling himself at Chick-fil-A and spending hours playing video games. He liked multiplayer online games in which he could wander around and feel like a free agent in a massive, untapped world.

“When I first left Syria,” Chapman told me, “I swore that I would never come back.”

But home is the opposite of war. And that’s the problem.

Meanwhile, Chapman’s European comrades were facing prosecution. YPG fighters returning to Italy, Denmark, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom had been criminally charged under rela-tively new terrorism laws enacted to curb foreign recruitment during the rise of ISIS. In Denmark, Tommy Mørck faced months in prison while Joanna Palani was already serving a sentence for having entered Syria, a region to which the Danish government had forbidden its citizens from traveling. In Great Britain, Josh Walker was detained at Gatwick Airport on suspicion of preparing terrorist acts, though all charges were dropped a year later. Aidan James, 28, from a coastal town outside Liverpool, was cleared in April 2019 of two of the three charges against him, but found guilty of one. Just this past December, Paul Newey, the father of a British YPG volunteer still in Rojava, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences—making him the first Briton to be inves-tigated for a family member’s decision to join the YPG. There are at least half a dozen more people in the UK, Italy, and Spain facing similar issues. Most of these countries are part of the internation-al coalition arming, aiding, and training the same army their citizens joined.

By contrast, the Americans looked to be in the clear. U.S. law doesn’t criminalize foreign fighting, and even today a number of Americans fight alongside the Israeli Defense Forces or the French Foreign Legion.

As recently as July 2017, an American joined the YPG to aid in defeating ISIS and to protect the Kurds from an impending attack by Turkey or Iran. But the migratory trend was reversing. In the coming year and a half, as ISIS slowly lost ground in Iraq and then its footholds in Syria, and as the Kurds sought protection from the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the primary factors driving Western recruits to join the Kurdish militias waned. For one, as Christopher Helali explained, for-eign fighters who were there for less than noble reasons undermined the Kurdish dream. Another reason was Turkey’s increasing existential threat to Rojava, which, the foreign volunteers knew, would decimate Syrian forces if an invasion ever occurred. When Trump announced his December 2018 drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria, American volunteers with the Kurdish militias worried that they would be trapped. They looked at their European YPG hevals facing criminal trials and years in prison. Every front seemed filled with chaos. When the drawdown was post-poned to October 2019, a lot of the hevals left, believing Rojava could survive without them. They came home, one battlefield blurring into another.

American volunteers returned to enhanced screenings at border crossings and invasive searches of their personal belongings, but they were ultimately allowed back in. A 20-something American volunteer, who gave his name only as Ben, had prolonged his return home to New York by bounc-ing around Europe and Mexico. He felt that he was safe from prosecution, but decided against at-tending a comrade’s funeral in Italy because the Italian government had begun cracking down on SDF volunteers. Ben said that he found this—and his inability to speak with others about what he experienced—particularly distressing. Focusing on what might greet him at the border, however, occupied him more. He knew there was a chance he’d be questioned and held up at his port of en-try. But from stories of other Americans returning, he knew that would be temporary. Then he could go home.

“I think it took a minute to set in,” Chapman said. “Maybe it took a few days, maybe it took a week after indulging myself in worldly pleasures of food and those types of things.” That’s when he started to think, What am I doing back here? What am I doing with my life? “I do think some people are more susceptible to trauma and sort of retuning that trauma and holding on to it. People deal with it in different ways.” Chapman knew his hevals were facing difficulties, and that it was becoming easier for people like him to tumble, unnoticed, into depression and violence against others or against themselves.

After a brief stay at the hospital and that sandwich from Chick-fil-A, Chapman returned to a net-work of friends who welcomed him home with a party at a D.C. apartment. He began working again at a restaurant in a town he described as “an intersection to the middle of nowhere.” But after a while, those same friends started having the same conversations they’d been having when Chap-man left, small-town worries and complaints about customers and weak tips. “The same old con-versation seemed kind of boring,” Chapman said. He found himself avoiding all talk about his time abroad. He wanted to reacclimate. He wanted to find a better job, if only for his mother. He went to work, came home, played video games, but “it just wasn’t enough for me.”

In August 2017, Chapman had been home for six months when ISIS lost control of Mosul, Iraq. Fighters with the Islamic State were receding to fortify their positions throughout Syria. News reached Chapman that he had lost another friend, his frontline commander in Raqqa, to a Turkish airstrike. He felt powerless and alone, watching bombs go off in towns he’d once helped liberate, watching suicide explosions kill the people he’d worked to protect for months.

The next morning he got a tattoo of the place where his commander was killed, and soon he started receiving news of more American hevals who had died—Paolo Todd, January 15, 2017; Albert A Harrington, January 25, 2017; Robert Grodt, July 6, 2017; Nicolas A Warden, Ju-ly 6, 2017; David Taylor, July 16, 2017—and this pushed him slowly into a state of disrepair.

Being at war had created a sense of purpose, camaraderie, and trust, three things absent in the daily life of home. For all the privilege of life in a developed country—the video games and the fast food and the security of not being bombed—every day seemed like a ritual of false kindness and nice-ties, wondering whom to trust with your despair and what to say in polite company. In war, life is simpler.

In the fall of 2017, Chapman started a nonprofit, the North American Kurdish Alliance (NAKA), to organize protests and publicity campaigns about the oppression the Kurds faced from all sides: the regime forces and Iran to the south, Turkey to the north. The group’s mission was to “promote the rights of Kurds to live in freedom, security, and self-determination by working with stakehold-ers in Washington, through publicity campaigns, and with outreach with groups and individuals.”

Chapman—no longer in military fatigues, but rather a tie and messenger bag—spent his days lob-bying on Capitol Hill, in one instance managing to persuade the office of Representative Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) to support legislation favoring refugees. There had been several pro-Kurdish ral-lies and protests that year and many more in September, when the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, held a referendum to declare its independ-ence.

He built his own scaffolding against the long dark nights as he watched news coverage out of Iraq—where a September 2017 referendum led to the killing of Kurdish forces—and the reports coming out of Syria. One of the board members for NAKA returned to Rojava and died of a heart attack; another was killed in a military operation. A third board member left for Vietnam for “per-sonal issues.” Chapman bankrupted himself trying to juggle his day job at the restaurant in Virginia with the commute to and from Washington to keep his nonprofit alive.

On those drives, Chapman often asked himself, Is what you are doing right now really as important as what you were doing before? He was running out of money and struggling to find a place among his friends, but “part of it was just selfish,” he told me. “I just wanted to go back.”

That conflicting desire to return to Syria suffused the conversations I had with volunteers across Europe and the United States. They knew that going back for a second tour could kill them, but that, because of depression and suicide, staying home didn’t necessarily improve their odds. They were lonely. They felt unfulfilled, deeply restless, teeth-grinding anxiety, all the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress without a diagnosis. They were afraid if they connected with one another that their government would see them as colluding toward an act of terrorism. One described this feeling “like a black hole in your chest and it’s pulling everything into it.”

Some of them had been on the receiving end of Turkish airstrikes and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. But they did not feel that what they had experienced was enough to justify how much they wrestled with inner darkness. “I am not really that traumatized by events that I was a part of, or by what I saw,” a former volunteer told me in a phone call from his home in the United Kingdom. “I am more traumatized about not being there anymore.” He described a culture of war similar to what he imagined living in Israel was like: everyone had military training and felt under constant threat from all adjacent countries, which became their baseline. In Syria, at war, that was normal. That was now his default. “Now I came back to a place that is a modern society, the West, and it’s just so alienating it’s crippling. I think I was better over there than back here because back here there is nothing.”

The most successful former fighters were those who one way or another put their experience be-hind them, compartmentalized it and went about the life they led before leaving. Those who kept their focus on Syria stayed there from afar. Their experiences fighting for a foreign military slightly mirrored that of enlistees in the U.S. armed forces. Though YPG volunteers did not receive gov-ernment benefits and pensions, or the economic benefits that followed a four- or six-year tour of active duty with the U.S. military, the public’s ambivalence to a little-understood war was the same. Returning home is disenchanting if no one cares where you were. Like American forces coming back from fighting wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, YPG volunteers returned home feeling rootless. But they couldn’t come home proudly waving an American flag, or reconnecting with veterans of their ilk over drinks at the local VFW. Abroad, they were heroes. At home, they were forgotten, lower than nothing.

Another American volunteer, Brace Belden, featured prominently in a 2017 Rolling Stone article about volunteers in the SDF. It was this article that encouraged Chapman and many other Americans to make their way over to Syria in support of the Kurds and the SDF. Belden came back after one six-mouth tour in Syria to a girlfriend who was waiting for him.

He felt similar longings to stay in Syria, but the transition from war zone to home was softened by commitments he had made before leaving for his tour. “A lot of times [coming home] is pretty de-pressing,” Belden said from San Francisco. “It’s just less glamourous to people.” He threw himself into organizing the Anchor Brewing Company with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, forming one of the first craft brewery unions in the country. “That was really good for me to do because I had a project,” Belden said, “But without that I felt kind of unmoored.”

Chapman returned to Qamishli, one of the largest cities in northern Syria, several times before set-tling into an apartment in June 2018. The kitchen table held an energy drink, a water bottle, a bowl, and his laptop, from which an episode of Golden Girls streamed merrily into the room.

Earlier that afternoon, Chapman’s bicycle got a flat tire. He had taken a job at the Curriculum Insti-tute, which makes all the textbooks for schools across Rojava. It was volunteer work for the last month or so, but he was paid $25 for his time and finished the books. He told me he could ask for the salary of a teacher but he didn’t need it: the SDF paid for his housing and food—and the bicy-cle.

The fighting had ebbed. The occasional suicide bombing was still a threat, but Turkey had slowed its advances against northern Kurdish outposts. Chapman didn’t see himself fighting again unless Turkish forces invaded. He spoke about the perception of the YPG back home, how the European fighters are having a difficult time, and how he wasn’t sure whether they could ever settle. Mostly he sees conflicts between former volunteers bubbling up on social media—fights about who stole money from the movement, or who was promulgating half-truths or outright falsehoods about the YPG using child soldiers.

“‘This guy didn’t even fight, this guy did this, this guy did that’—I don’t care,” Chapman told me. “I think we should all be working towards unity a bit more.” He noted that there were some grass-roots efforts to create a community for those who had served in the YPG, a safe haven of sorts, like that he had found back in Syria. But not everyone, like Chapman, could return.

“It is different for everyone,” he said. “This place really digs its claws into you. There is a lot of need here for a lot of things.” He said that skilled labor and more English-language teaching skills were necessary to carry the movement’s momentum into a brighter future. He showed his tattoo of the place from which he entered and left and then reentered Syria. The little outpost in Dêrik. It was representative of his search for freedom and inclusion.

His answer couldn’t be the answer for everyone—but whatever the answer was, it simply had to fill a void. “Going back is not like going home. It’s going back to America or just go-ing to D.C. My heart and soul are here,” he said. “It is increasingly difficult for me to even see America as home.”

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Kenneth R. Rosen is the journalist in residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior editor at Newsweek. His work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, and Pacific Standard, among other places. He is the author of Bulletproof Vest, which was published this spring.


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