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Why some Americans are volunteering to fight the Islamic State

The State Department estimates that more than 150 Americans, including some U.S. military veterans, have packed their bags and flown to Iraq and Syria to volunteer with forces fighting against the Islamic State militant group. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on what’s driving these soldiers.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight: an exclusive story from Iraq on American citizens, civilians, fighting the Islamic State group. Many are former U.S. military, but some have never seen a battle before.

    Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    American boots are back on the ground in Iraq. This time, they're volunteers, U.S. military veterans on the front lines against the Islamic State, and among them, one woman; 25-year-old Samantha Johnston was a private in the Army for two years before, she left to be a stay-at-home mom to her three children.

    When the Islamic State dominating the news last year, she says she sat in her North Carolina home, watching videos of their atrocities and felt compelled to join the fight.

    SAMANTHA JOHNSTON, American volunteer: Something inside of me just snapped, and I couldn't allow myself to sit down and do nothing, when all of these children here are in trouble, and I and me and my family are just living happily in America.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    She made contact with other volunteers through social media sites. And three months ago, she packed her bags and flew to Iraq, where she volunteered with the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, in the fight against I.S. She says she's become close to the Kurdish soldiers in her unit, even listing herself on Facebook by a Kurdish name.

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    They became my family. And I plan to stay here for as long as I can, as long as they need me to be here.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    She spends her days training for battle, but has not yet seen any combat. Back in her Army days, her job was making maps for deployed units, but she never got the chance to go overseas.

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    I really wanted to be deployed, but my unit never deployed.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Is that why you're here?

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    Probably. It's probably one of the many reasons I'm here.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    And she's not the only one. Officials at the U.S. State Department believe that more than 150 Americans have voluntarily traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight in the ongoing conflict.

    KEITH BROOMFIELD, American volunteer: I'm here as Gelhat Rumet. I'm from the Boston area, from Lynn.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Just last month, 36-year-old Keith Broomfield became the first American known to die while fighting I.S. He was killed near the Syrian town of Kobani.

    JEREMY WOODARD, American volunteer: The next village is right over there. That is I.S.' home flag.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Many of the volunteers we met are military veterans, like 29-year-old Jeremy Woodard, who spent years fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but struggled back home.

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    It was hard to get a job. You barely can get a job at McDonald's flipping a burger. They look at you, they see your resume for serving in the U.S. Army honorably, but they look at you like you're a hazard, you know, you're going to hurt somebody.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    When I.S. fighters swept through Iraq last summer, Woodard also left family behind, jumping at the chance to get involved in the fight, in honor of his fellow soldiers who fought and died in the U.S. war in Iraq.

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    All those people who got killed over here for fighting for a cause, I didn't want them to die in vain.

  • MAN:

    There's been a lot of intense fighting going on.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Woodard's unit has seen some combat, fighting alongside the Peshmerga. Back in April, they established this defensive line, after a fierce battle with I.S. fighters, a force these volunteers say is one to be reckoned with.

  • MAN:

    We don't recognize them as terrorists. We actually recognize them as an actual Army. They're well-trained, sophisticated. Whenever they get into battle, it's well — very disciplined manner.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Despite never serving in the military, Danny was one of the volunteers who was wounded in that battle, shot in the leg.

  • MAN:

    Are you ready to die for this?

  • MAN:

    Am I ready to die for this? Well, I have been out here for the last seven months already. I pretty much made up my mind to go ahead and help out these people, help out those people that aren't able to help themselves. So, if that will be a matter of fact to do so, then, hey, it is what it is.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    The volunteers say they're here out of moral obligation. They're not even being paid. And while it's not technically illegal, the U.S. State Department is adamant that it doesn't support their participation in this conflict.

    But for these Americans, it wasn't even a question.

    JUSTIN SMITH, American volunteer: I'm having a great time out here. I feel more comfortable here than I ever felt in America.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    After serving in Iraq, Justin Smith says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Several attempts at treatment failed, and he finally sold everything he owned to buy a one-way ticket back. He says Iraq seems like paradise compared to the hell of staying in the U.S.

  • JUSTIN SMITH:

    In the States, there is too much idle time, too much time just doing nothing or sitting around and drinking, or anything like that. It's better here. Like I have said countless times, I get to do my job. I love my job.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Do you think you can ever go back to the U.S.?

  • JUSTIN SMITH:

    Probably. I mean, I won't like it, but I will have to go back eventually.

  • MAN:

    I don't think I could leave for good.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    While the Peshmerga doesn't officially allow foreigners to volunteer, local authorities often look the other way when volunteers arrive. And they have been largely embraced, sometimes simply out of Kurdish hospitality.

    But one Kurdish officer told us that, while he appreciates the volunteers, this is not what they need from the United States.

    1st Lt. Daban Kawa: We don't need exactly people to come fight for us. We need weapons. We need equipment, supplies from American government, from the — from different countries.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    We asked Jeremy why he thinks it's his business to fight in a war that the U.S. is not directly waging.

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    It should be everybody's business. If it doesn't get stopped over here, it's going to keep spreading.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Do you think there are so many ISIS sleeper cells in the United States?

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    I believe it. I think there's quite a few.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Why do you believe that?

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    I mean, that's a good question. I mean, they keep claiming that they're there. I mean, who knows. It's a possibility that they're not. But, honestly, I believe that they are.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    So why not be in the us searching out sleeper cells?

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    I mean, this is where the fight is right now. It's got to get controlled here.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Johnston faces a firestorm of controversy over leaving behind her 5-year-old and her 3-year-old twins to volunteer in a war on the other side of the world, where we're told I.S. fighters have put a $300,000 price on her head.

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    I see these refugee children. I see just the normal poor children here, and I think of my children. And my children are happy. They're safe. They're fed. They have more than they need. And they're OK.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    You said, "My kids have everything they need," but they don't have their mom.

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    They don't, but I will spend the rest of my life making that up to them.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    You cried all the way to the airport?

  • SAMANTHA JOHNSTON:

    I don't want to think about it. That was the hardest day of my life. I will never leave them again when I come back, never.

    Every day is a battle not to come back. Every day, I — I look at prices to fly back. But I have a — I have a goal here, and I can't just give up.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    It's a goal and a cause they all believe in. But it's also an escape.

  • JEREMY WOODARD:

    It's an escape, yes. It's like a vacation here. It's kind of sick to say. After I graduated, I went straight to the Army. I was 17 when I went in. And I just know war. That's it.

    I'm still searching. Searching for what, I don't know, searching for a part of myself, where I belong. I belong in a place like this.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    For those still searching, the fight against I.S. provides yet another war.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I am Marcia Biggs in Northern Iraq.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Since our interview, Samantha Johnston left Iraq for Europe and posted on her Facebook page that, although it is — quote — "time to start heading back to my family," she indicated that she will be returning to Iraq.

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