Saturday, June 22, 2019

After Fighting Islamic State, Civilian Life Takes Toll

At the Los Angeles Times, "Two buddies survived fighting Islamic State, but for one civilian life was too much":

He was dashing up the mountain into darkness, chasing a friend armed with a shotgun.

Taylor Hudson yelled for his friend to wait, to stop.

They had rushed together toward danger so many times before on the battlefields of Syria. They had protected each other, made it home safe.

Cactus pierced Hudson’s sides as he scrambled up to save his buddy.

Then he heard the gunshots.

Hudson had met Kevin Howard three years earlier in eastern Syria, where they discovered they both had volunteered for the French Foreign Legion.

Hudson, 35, was an idealist raised in Pasadena, a lanky college dropout and ironworker kept out of the Marines because of a wrist tattoo he unsuccessfully tried to burn off with battery acid.

Howard, 27, was his opposite: short, with a blond crew cut and tattoos up to his eyebrows. Adopted at birth, he’d been rejected by his new parents at 12, then raised in a San Francisco orphanage. He left at 17 to join the Marines, trained at Camp Pendleton and served from 2006 to 2010, deploying twice to Iraq as an anti-tank missileman.

The men had both joined the French Foreign Legion for adventure, Howard training as a sniper, Hudson as a medic. They adopted noms de guerre: Howard chose Kane Harlly; Hudson became Paul “Doc” Hetfield. Howard had the title of the legion’s anthem tattooed above his right eyebrow: “Rien n’empeche.” Unstoppable.

But they became disillusioned as superiors confined them to southeastern France and enviously followed news of the war raging in Syria. In 2016, each joined U.S.-allied militias to fight Islamic State.

“The war was like a sanctuary, as crazy as that sounds,” Hudson said as he sat in his spare Tucson ranch house. “It was black and white, good and evil, the most pure fight in modern times. That feels so good to be with people in a righteous cause. When that’s over, what has meaning in civilian life?”

A month after Hudson arrived in eastern Syria, he met Howard. Howard served with a poorly outfitted group of Kurdish fighters, who had stopped to visit Hudson’s unit bivouacked in the cow shed of an abandoned cheese factory. Hudson noticed Howard’s camouflage legionnaire pants and struck up a conversation.

The pair soon began working as a team: Howard as a sniper; Hudson, his lookout.

“I knew we were always going to stick together,” Hudson said.

They shifted to an allied Christian militia, the Syriac Military Council. Before an important battle, their commander left and the unit voted unanimously for Howard to replace him. Hudson became chief medical officer. They were reluctant leaders, Hudson said, but “sometimes you find yourself in situations where you know you have a responsibility.”

In summer 2017, the unit moved to the outskirts of Raqqah, capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, for the start of a siege. They remained holed up in abandoned, bombed-out buildings for months.

That July, during an interview in a crumbling house they had converted into a sniper’s roost, Howard and Hudson appeared weary but committed. They pointed out Islamic State strongholds a few yards away and warned that drones sometimes buzzed nearby, dropping bombs.

They never felt safe. Their fellow fighters had scant training and could be careless with guns. The pair looked out for each other, sleeping in shifts.

Howard recalled his time as a Marine, battling Muslim extremists in Kurdish northern Iraq. He had tried returning to civilian life, but “it just didn’t work out.” Staying home as a war raged felt wrong, he said.

He divided western volunteers in Syria into four groups: politically motivated anarchists and socialists; “starry-eyed” dreamers; those fleeing their past; and the “legitimately crazy.”

Hudson noted that his friend hadn't classified himself, and Howard laughed.

Hudson took breaks from the front lines, staying with a Christian Syrian couple. He fell in love with their daughter, got engaged and started planning a future.

Howard had two words tattooed on his knuckles: “love” and “lost.” He stayed in Raqqah and embraced the Assyrian Christian cause, including a new nom de guerre: Hawro, or “Brother,” Christian.

“They are arguably the most oppressed people in the world right now,” Howard said. “I believe in staying and helping them fight because it’s what I’m good at.”

In time, both men soured on the militia.

Hudson, wounded by shrapnel and a drone bombing, left the front line to get treatment. His fiancee broke off their engagement. Commanders refused to allow him to return to battle, he said, even as they pushed Howard south toward the worsening battle in Dair Alzour.

Each of the men heard the other had been killed. When they were reunited weeks later, they decided it was time to leave the militia — and Syria.

Eventually, Howard and Hudson returned home after harrowing months detained by their own militia. Howard was also held by authorities after crossing the border into Iraq, released only after U.S. officials intervened.

Years would pass before they reunited.


Howard floundered in the U.S., stripped of his gun, his unit and his cause.

He visited friends in California and Idaho; reconnected with his birth mother in Grants Pass, Ore.; worked oilfield jobs in North Dakota and west Texas. For a time, he ran with the Hells Angels in Oakland.

Last year, he became homeless in the Dakotas, unable to claim veteran’s disability benefits because he couldn’t find the necessary paperwork until he asked friends to help.

Hudson had built an extra room in his house for Howard, and urged him to visit. Howard initially demurred. Then one day he texted Hudson a photo of pill bottles, threatening suicide. Hudson wired him plane fare. Howard flew to Arizona the next day.

There Hudson helped him rent a nearby house, a life goal Howard had written on a list he carried in his pocket.

Howard went to doctor’s appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder and got a caseworker. He adopted a cat. He met a woman. Three months ago, at an iconic mountain west of downtown known as Sentinel Peak, he proposed. She said yes.

Hudson thought his friend was healing.

But after Howard’s girlfriend moved in, the couple fought. He suspected her of cheating. His caseworker knew he had been drinking too much and tried to get him into rehab.

Howard told friends he missed Syria.

Hudson understood how Howard felt: “That was where we belonged. That was our place and our time in history. We were motivated and focused and knew what we had to do. That’s what’s missing when you get home, that mission-oriented way of thinking.”

Half of their former unit was fighting alongside rebels in Ukraine. But Howard didn’t want to join them.

“It wasn’t really his fight,” Hudson said. “He did love the lifestyle — the camaraderie, the guys. But he wasn’t willing to join a cause he didn’t believe in.”

Howard considered going back to Syria, or joining rebels in Myanmar. Hudson found that odd.

“He didn’t even know what side he was going to fight on,” Hudson said. “It made him seem suicidal, like, ‘I’m just going to roll the dice.’”

Howard admitted he still contemplated suicide. So the two friends made a pact: If one decided to kill himself, he would call the other first...
Excellent piece.

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