Bruce Windorski could hear Islamic State fighters taunting him as he peered down the moonlit Syrian village street early this year. Their voices were getting louder, and their aim seemed to be getting better.
The 40-year-old former Army Ranger from Wisconsin reached into his bag of semi-reliable grenades, chose one, pulled the pin and tossed it over the wall. There was a blast, he says, and the jeers came to an abrupt halt. “It was definitely a satisfying event.”
But the battle continued for days. As militants closed in one night, Jamie Lane, a Marine combat veteran who had traveled from California to fight, wondered if they would make it out alive. “We’re holding our ground,” he says quietly in a video he took in the pitch dark as gunfire crackles. “I imagine it will go until dawn.”
The men are part of an unusual fringe of American veterans joining the war against Islamic State. They go, even as their president and Pentagon leaders strive to keep U.S. forces out of the ground war.
Mr. Windorski and Mr. Lane, 29, joined other Westerners going into combat alongside the Kurdish fighters who have proved to be one of the most effective forces confronting Islamic State. They met fighters from America and England, Greece and Australia, Israel and Iran.
No one has good numbers, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates fewer than 100 Americans have gone to fight Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Still, as military veterans hear of the route to the front lines, more are going, says Lu Lobello, a Marine combat veteran in Las Vegas who has helped some join the battle.
“America is not fighting Islamic State,” he says, “but Americans are.”
Mr. Windorski and Mr. Lane augment their accounts with videos, photos and notes they took during their travels, elements of which aren’t independently verifiable. The FBI declines to discuss the men, and U.S. military officials say they don’t typically track volunteers like them.
Unlike Americans joining Islamic State, who can face terrorism charges, citizens like them risk little trouble back home. U.S. officials say volunteering to fight overseas, while discouraged, isn’t illegal if an American isn’t joining an enemy or group the U.S. labels terrorist.
The foray can be deadly. At least five foreign fighters, including one American, have died this year in Syria, according to Kurdish groups. There is the grim prospect of capture by Islamic State.
And Americans expecting a good-versus-evil battle find themselves fighting alongside Marxist-inspired guerrillas with close ties to militants Washington calls terrorists. Volunteers face new risks now that Turkey has started bombing some Kurdish guerrilla bases in Iraq where Western fighters gather before heading into Syria.
“We think it’s probably ill-conceived for a lot of reasons,” says a senior U.S. official. “On the surface, this is a perilous road, and it’s a muddled place over there.”
A Ranger’s mission
Mr. Windorski anticipated none of that in rural Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and children. The self-employed graphics designer had fantasized about visiting Kirkuk, Iraq, where his older brother, Philip, died in 2009 when his Army helicopter was shot down while searching for a handgun that had fallen out of another chopper earlier that day.
Then he saw reports last year that militants who took credit for downing the chopper were joining Islamic State, and he decided he had to go. He bought a plane ticket to Iraq, figuring he would go to Kirkuk and come home in two weeks.
“I kind of went there on a wing and a prayer,” he says.
He hadn’t told his wife. Courtney Windorski, 33, says an FBI agent called on Jan. 7 to tell her that Mr. Windorski was about to board a Chicago flight to Istanbul, and then onto Iraq. The agent asked: Is he going to join Islamic State?
Ms. Windorski couldn’t believe it. Her husband had just called, saying he was at a logging-equipment training class.
“Call me,” she texted. “It’s important.”
Mr. Windorski, awaiting his flight, didn’t reply. He told the FBI agents at the airport he was traveling to get closure for his brother’s death, dismissing their attempts to scare him out of going.
“You need to call me RIGHT NOW,” his wife texted. “Remember I love you please remember that.” She says she became so frantic she called airport police to try to have him arrested.
His phone kept buzzing. He turned it off. “Please answer me,” she texted as he flew to Istanbul. “I’m so scared.”
Mr. Windorski joined the Army in 1993, served as a Ranger, and left in 1995, his federal personnel records show. His Army stint took him to places like South Korea and England, he says, but he hadn’t been to Iraq and knew little about the region.
And he didn’t grasp crucial distinctions among Kurdish guerrilla groups when he landed in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in part of a Kurdish-populated region spanning Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
The main group is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought Turkey for three decades and has turned its guns on Islamic State. The U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist group, and Americans could get into trouble if they join PKK fighters.
America has teamed up with the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, by carrying out airstrikes to help the group in its battles against Islamic State.
Waiting at the Sulaymaniyah airport were members of the YPG, which Mr. Windorski had contacted through one of its websites. He had been told to appear innocuous: no camouflage, no night-vision goggles.
He wanted to see where his brother was shot down in Kirkuk, about 80 miles away. “That won’t be possible,” the Kurds told him at their Sulaymaniyah safe house. “But we can take you to Syria.”
Mr. Windorski determined to keep going. “Baby, know that I am in good hands,” he texted his wife. “I wish I could say more about what is happening but I can not risk the security breach…I will come home and promise it will be in one piece.”
He turned off the phone and waited.
A Marine’s new war
Mr. Lane, a decorated Marine veteran, was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployed in San Diego and living on a VA check. Then he saw footage of Islamic State seizing the village of Saqlawiyah in Anbar province, where he served in 2007 as a lance corporal who believed in America’s “hearts and minds” campaign.
“My friends were killed on these very streets,” he says. “I felt a big part of my PTSD is trying to find a reason for that mayhem and bloodshed, and I thought maybe if I go back I can fill that hole.”
Mr. Lane saw an enemy he considered a byproduct of bad U.S. decisions in Iraq. “ISIS is America’s dog to fight,” he says. “I crave that fight, man. I crave a good fight. And a just one.”
Then he heard from Mr. Lobello, 34, an Iraq-war veteran and aspiring lawyer who ran a nonprofit called Squadbay that helps veterans set up aid projects around the world. Mr. Lobello wanted to open operations in northern Iraq and agreed to send Mr. Lane to help. What he did afterward, Mr. Lobello told him, was his decision.
Mr. Lane found agents from the FBI and several other agencies waiting at the Philadelphia airport in January, with printouts of his Facebook messages seeking help getting to Iraq. Mr. Lane told them he planned to do charity work, and they eventually let him go.
After landing in Sulaymaniyah, he fruitlessly tried to register Squadbay. Running out of patience and money, he decided to head into battle.
The quickest route to the front lines is the YPG, which has drivers in Iraq ready to pick up Westerners. Its Lions of Rojava Facebook page, named after a Kurdish region the fighters are trying to claim, appeals: “Welcome to our Family Brothers and Sisters. Join YPG…and send isis terrorists to Hell and save Humanity.”
“Hundreds of foreign fighters have joined the struggle,” says Zagros Hiwa, a spokesman for the PKK, with which the YPG is affiliated. “They are fighting with us, shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Mr. Lane called from his hotel in Erbil and waited to be picked up.
Mr. Lane and Mr. Windorski say Western fighters are taken to a Kurdish base in northern Iraq. Crossing into Syria, they spend several days at a camp getting military training and a heavy dose of dogma.
At camp—where women, men and teenagers were all preparing to fight—Mr. Lane learned the Marxist-inspired ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. He took notes in a waterproof Marine-issued notebook he used in Iraq in 2007. “Communists don’t use cuss words in front of each other,” he wrote in one class, and: “Look at women as your friend and equal to yourself.”
There often seemed little to distinguish the “terrorist” PKK and America’s YPG friends, Westerners who fought alongside the Kurds say. PKK militants would become YPG fighters by changing fatigues.
Mr. Lane first met Mr. Windorski near Tal Hamis in February for an offensive against Islamic State in northeastern Syria, joining YPG forces that included fighters from Greece, England, Australia and France.
The YPG let fighters choose weapons. Mr. Windorski picked a sniper rifle. Mr. Lane took an M16. Each got a hand grenade and a few ammunition magazines. Nobody seemed to have body armor.
Videos they took show makeshift camps, drives in Toyota pickups through abandoned towns and Kurdish fighters dancing around bonfires on battle’s eve.
At first, there was little fighting. Enemy forces were in retreat. Kurdish officers with GPS devices pinpointed their own positions so U.S.-led airstrikes could avoid them.
Mr. Lane and Mr. Windorski found abandoned shops transformed into Islamic State bomb-making operations. There were detonator triggers using mattress foam in a room stacked with rockets and makeshift bombs stuffed with ball bearings. One carried a warning suggesting it was depleted uranium.
“It’s a little bit scary,” Mr. Lane says in a video of the explosives. “This is kind of a foreshadowing of what may be to come.”
They helped clear village after village—Tal Hamis, Tal Barak, Tal Tamer.
Then came Tal Nasri, a Christian village where Islamic State made a stand. Clouds hampered airstrikes, allowing enemy fighters to rally. Kurdish casualties mounted. Mr. Lane saw an RPG blast hit his squad, thinking at first it had killed everyone. Mr. Windorski used his sniper rifle to fire on fighters 400 yards away.
Militants closed in, and the two wondered if they would make it. On the night he heard enemy fighters jeering, Mr. Windorski was armed with a bag of unreliable grenades a Kurdish fighter gave him. He tossed one after another until the shouting stopped.
“This is hour eight of a firefight for this small little village,” Mr. Lane says in his pitch-dark video, taken in an empty building on their last night in Tal Nasri. “Can’t see much. It’s about four in the morning.”
After dawn, their commander ordered retreat. As Mr. Lane and Mr. Windorski fled the compound, Islamic State fighters rushed in. Mr. Lane “ran like a white-tailed deer” across a field. A bullet tore through Mr. Windorski’s boot without injuring him.
To the rescue came a YPG bulldozer with makeshift armor. The driver popped up through a hole in its roof to fire on the militants, steering with his feet.
The two had come as close as they wanted to death or capture. They returned stateside in April.
Ms. Windorski took time to come to terms with her husband’s decision. But with him safely home, it was easier to accept how his brother’s death affected him. “I knew he had to go,” she says. “I knew he was struggling with it for many, many years, but it was the most painful chapter in my life.”
Mr. Windorski says the FBI has contacted him to arrange an interview. Mr. Lane, now in Las Vegas, says he recently spoke to the FBI.
Mr. Lane says he found some resolution in Tal Nasri. “I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I tried my best to continue what my fallen brothers were trying to do a decade ago.”
But if anyone asks about going to fight, “I tell them: Don’t go.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he says. “You’re not going to fight ISIS. You’re fighting for the revolution of Rojava.”
If someone asks Mr. Windorski, he will tell them: “Go fight.”
“If you don’t want to fight,” he says, “push the American government to go fight.”