Kurt: Who are you and what’s your background besides YPG?
Mitchell: Mitchell Clark — I have a pretty typical small town American story. I grew up playing football and got really serious about it in high school. I was planning on going to college to play, but I had a severe shoulder injury that pretty much ended any chance of that. So straight out of high school I joined the Army at the age of 17. In the back of my mind I kind of always knew that’s what I’d end up doing anyway. I had dreams of being a soldier from a young age, and it’s still a passion that’s never left me. I got out of the Army at age 20 and began competing in mixed martial arts. I pretty much dedicated the next few years of my life to that.
Kurt: What made you decide to go over to Kurdistan and join the YPG?
Mitchell: It was when I first started hearing about ISIS. I came across some videos that stick with me to this day. Also, I started hearing about them in the news, and just couldn’t stop the urge to do something about it. I found the YPG by googling “how to fight ISIS” and they were at the top of my results. From there I began learning about the revolution in northern Syria, and rather than just looking at it as a way to go fight this terror group, I started to sympathize with the Kurdish struggle. I emailed the address on the website that they used to contact volunteers and began speaking to them from there.
Kurt: So what was it like connecting with the contacts you made (no names or specifics that would compromise PERSEC) and ultimately making the trip to join the fight? Were there any significant aspects of traveling this way that stuck out to you?
Mitchell: It was a challenge. They are very busy people and it was hard to get timely responses to coordinate everything. I began contact with them in 2015 and arranged to go in April of 2016. I flew from Chicago To Jordan, then Jordan to Erbil. I stayed in Erbil for a few weeks with many failed attempts to contact them. I tried to join a Peshmerga unit while I was there, but ultimately ended up flying back home. It wasn’t until a few months after that when I began to try to reestablish contact with them. Their responses were more frequent the second time around and I was able to coordinate the trip properly. I took the same route this time. Traveling was way easier than I expected. I got absolutely zero questions the entire time. Keep in mind, I’m carrying all kinds of tactical gear in my bags, so any questions that they may have had for me would’ve been justified. That never happened though, so I strolled into Iraq like I belonged there. Both times.
Kurt: What was it like crossing the border? Into Rojava, that is.
Mitchell: I asked a few guys who had crossed before what it was like. They all had different experiences. I guess everyone does because it’s a situation that requires constant change. In my experience it was pretty simple, although I had no clue what was going on the entire time. We took a car to a mountain somewhere close to the border and got into a different car. From there we were taken to a field that led to a river. When we got to the river we inflated a paddle boat and crossed. All this while dodging spotlights and checkpoints. Once we crossed the river we walked for around 5 hours while still avoiding detection. At the time it didn’t seem as crazy as it sounds. I remember feeling oddly comfortable with the situation as we were crossing.
Kurt: What was it like going through in-doc training and how was your tabur (YPG battalion)? Was it all as you expected it would be?
Mitchell: I’m one of the very few volunteers to never go through the academy. I’d like to think I didn’t have to go through because I’m a high-speed badass, but it was really just a communication error. I was meant to be at the academy, but they ended up sending me to Raqqa with a group I’ll choose to not name. I made the best out of this situation for the first few weeks, but quickly changed to a tabur more focused on the fighting.
Once I got linked up with the YPG Enternasyonel tabur, I was where I needed to be. The best way to explain the tabur would be that it was a YPG special operations tabur made up of all international volunteers. A lot of us were ex-military, and those who weren’t were still very tactically proficient. From what I saw, we were the only tabur with a regular training and fitness routine. In Raqqa, we were typically asked to do the operations that were a little too advanced for QSD or YPG taburs. We almost always operated at night to maximize use of our thermal and night vision equipment. This is something not many taburs had at all and it was a clear advantage for us against Daesh.
We quickly became pretty well-known by the enemy. There’s no doubt in my mind we were specifically targeted on more than one occasion. As far as it being what I expected it to be; I didn’t really know at all what to expect to begin with, so I just kind of took it all in as it happened and made the best of it.
Kurt: Can you give a rundown of a significant firefight, what it was like to engage ISIS and your thoughts on the SDF/YPG’s combat performance?
Mitchell: After a certain period of time, firefights just start running together into one big chaotic memory. It’s hard to recall them all with specifics because it’s so much happening at once that its hard to put everything into words.
However, I do distinctly remember my very first operation inside of Raqqa. I didn’t really know much about the operation ahead of us. All I was really told was that there was a known enemy presence and we were going to try to take a few defensive positions to advance our front line forward. We took a huge building with no hiccups, but as soon as we started escorting a QSD team to the building we began taking fire. That exchange lasted around 10 minutes. After some time passing by with no movement we decided to push forward to take more territory.
Shortly after advancing down the road we began taking direct BKC fire from down the street. Me and two others were able to get into a courtyard area, out of the path of fire. As I began pushing forward to clear the courtyard, someone behind me got my attention and pointed to the balcony overhanging the courtyard. Almost immediately as I looked to where he was pointing I saw a Daesh fighter standing on the balcony. He got off two shots but I quickly raised my rifle and out of excitement unloaded a whole magazine into the guy. This would be my first kill of Raqqa and probably my most memorable one, because it came from around 15 meters away.
Kurt: What made you decide to leave?
Mitchell: I decided to leave mainly because of the liberation of Raqqa. My whole entire goal of going there was to participate in Raqqa from beginning to end, and that’s something I was able to accomplish. Another reason being the direction of the tabur was not going in a direction that I favored. There was a lot of tension between the guys at the time I decided to get out. Most of this tension came from a change in leadership. Where as we were an apolitical military unit before, new leadership started to impose its own politics on everyone and the level of tactical proficiency started to decline
Kurt: That’s understandable, can you walk me through how you got out of Rojava and then Bashur since the airports were closed, and the journey home in general?
Mitchell: My situation getting out was different from almost all volunteers before me for a few reasons. Getting back across the border into Iraq was a challenge because Peshmerga no longer controlled the border. Getting caught crossing was basically a slap on the wrist before. Now with Turkey coming down from the north and Iraqi Army along with Hashda Al-Shabi coming from the south to take the whole border, not getting caught took a whole new significance. I waited at the academy for around 3 weeks as the people in charge tried to find a way. In the YPG they never really tell you anything until it’s happening. They came in the room and said “we are going now,” so within a split second I was getting all my things packed to cross the border. I’m still unsure who was in control of the area of border that we crossed, but at one point they hit us with a spot light and we had to take off running. We hid in a ditch until we were picked up by a truck and taken to Sulaymaniyah.
Getting to Sulaymaniyah was only half the battle. With the airports closed we were required to fly through Baghdad. I wasn’t too excited about this but it’s the only hand I had to play. We had to get rid of all military equipment and create a story for why we were in the country. Luckily, no one ever asked for this story in Baghdad. One of the most memorable parts of leaving was my ability to dodge the immigration officers and avoid the $400 visa fine. I basically just did my best to blend in and I was able to get out of Baghdad with an extra 400 bucks. Hopefully admitting that I dodged the fine doesn’t come back to bite me at any point!
They were surprisingly helpful at the airport and more professional than I expected. However, had they figured out we were volunteers with the YPG leaving Syria it might not have been as smooth leaving. Imagine the suspense you feel when you watch the movie Argo. I was in a real life situation similar to that and my heart did not stop pounding until the wheels were off the ground. Once I arrived in the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol along with Homeland Security was waiting for me as soon as I stepped off of the plane. Lucky for me it was the same CBP agent I had spoken to a year earlier when I arrived home from Iraq. It was a quick security interview then I was a free man.
Kurt: What has it been like being back? Anything that stands out, makes you happy, appreciative, or upset?
Mitchell: Being home has been okay for the most part. I’ve definitely had issues adjusting and I often get lost in thoughts and memories of so many things from Syria. It’s hard to go from knowing that any moment could be your last to being in relative safety. I feel like my mind is still there. I’m still in defense mode. I find myself pretty easily startled and on edge a lot. That being said, I’m still the person I’ve always been and I just stay busy so all the feelings don’t consume me. Lucky for me I have the greatest support system ever in my girlfriend. She has been my rock through the whole process. While I was there, she was there for me every step of the way and managed to stay calm, which made me calm. Since being home she has continued to be my greatest support system.
The situation with Turkey has been hard for me because it gives me the urge to go back. I like fighting for what I believe in and what is right. Generally speaking, I just like war overall. Until the day I die if there is a war going on I’ll want to be there fighting on the right side of it. When it comes down to the plain and simple of it, I’m just a war junkie. It’s what I thrive at and what I love doing. I’m just glad that in doing what I love I have helped make the world a better place.
Kurt: Anything you would like to add or talk about that I missed or could have asked?
Mitchell: I want to express my gratitude for those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting this war. One of the greatest honors of my life is being able to have known people like Jac Holmes, Ollie Hall and Mehmet Aksoy. Their courage and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Kurt: Word. Well I can honestly say this is one of the better interviews I’ve gotten. Thanks a bunch for taking the time to answer my questions and tell your story brother.
Mitchell: No problem, thanks for the opportunity!
Images provided by the author, courtesy of Mr. Clark.