Saving Lives on the Front Lines Against ISIS

In a region stunned by violent conflict and instability, few non-governmental organizations operate like Spirit of America (SoA) does in the Middle East. Our mission is straightforward: leverage private sector funds and expertise to support the mission of U.S. personnel deployed in over 30 countries around the globe.

What does that really mean? In Iraqi Kurdistan, this means providing the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers with nonlethal assistance, including life-saving individual first-aid kits, metal detectors to uncover hidden explosives, and binoculars to see the battlefield. Over the last year, SoA has invested over $80,000 in the Peshmerga, developing their tactical capacity and helping advance the U.S. mission against ISIS in Iraq. A huge thank you to Garrett Electronics for their donation of metal detectors.

Peshmerga troops training with SoA provided metal detectors
Peshmerga troops training with SoA provided metal detectors

Yet the numbers fail to tell the whole story. How does this support translate in human terms? Recently, I rendezvoused with Captain Dilgash, the commanding officer of a Peshmerga engineer company that dismantles IEDs (improvised explosive devices) ahead of advancing infantry units – no easy task.

Sharply dressed in green army fatigues, tan combat boots and three stars indicating captain’s rank glinting on his square shoulders, Dilgash shook my hand firmly as he greeted me in accented English that he probably picked up from working with American advisors. He exuded calm military professionalism—the sort honed in the fierce fog of war.

We sat in the cab of his parked Nissan truck, the heat on full blast to stave off the cold. After some small talk, we realized that our Arabic was too elementary for the demands of the technical conversation, so we called a mutual friend to translate over speakerphone. The setting and the situation felt slightly surreal, but the combat gear, Kalashnikov rifle, and ammunition in the backseat served as a sober reminder of the reality of things.

Kurdish Peshmerga commander Captain Dilgash (second from right) at Sinjar, Iraq
Kurdish Peshmerga commander Captain Dilgash (second from right) at Sinjar, Iraq

Early in November, Captain Dilgash’s company received an array of SoA-provided equipment to help detect and safely disarm IEDs. This included metal detectors, ropes, hook knives, and multi-tools. The next day the unit was ordered to advance on Sinjar where fanatical ISIS fighters were holed up. Combat at Sinjar was brutal: ISIS terrorists, determined to fight till death, planted IEDs throughout the area. More than 1,200 Peshmerga have been killed in the fight against ISIS since the summer of 2014, many of them by buried explosives and booby traps, a preferred tactic of the terrorist group.

“I used your [SoA] equipment immediately in the Sinjar Operation,” Captain Dilgash explained. “Your equipment helped us discover buried IEDs. It also helped us discover small explosive devices. The ropes that you provided helped us remove IEDs from long distances without casualties.”

Captain Dilgash then described to me how SoA equipment was used on 11 November at a critical point in the Sinjar operation: “At the Um-Shababit intersection [a tactically significant area] there were many old IEDs buried in the ground. We could not find the pressure plate [the detonating device]. I searched with your equipment and discovered five IEDs with lots of explosives. If we did not have your equipment, probably 20 Peshmerga would have lost their lives, if not more.”

SoA's Zack Bazzi with Captain Dilgash in Iraqi Kurdistan
SoA’s Zack Bazzi with Captain Dilgash in Iraqi Kurdistan

As I listened to this affirmation, a rush of pride flowed through me. I told Captain Dilgash how I, as a former soldier, appreciated his work. He asked me if I had served in the Iraq War. I replied in the affirmative: I deployed here in ’04 where I was a stationed at a base near Balad, just north of Baghdad. My infantry unit conducted daily IED clearance operations. I could directly relate to his job.

Captain Dilgash and I settled into a lively exchange that felt more like two friends chatting. He recounted to me how an American soldier saved his life in 2007 during operations in Mosul. A terrorist was about to shoot Captain Dilgash when the U.S. soldier shot and killed him before he could fire.

No camaraderie cuts across nationalities like the one forged between combat veterans. It is something inherently understood by anyone who ever picked up a weapon in the service of their country. Captain Dilgash serves in the Peshmerga. I served in the U.S. Army. Our experiences could not be any further apart—but the nature of our service was nearly identical.

It was time to wrap things up. In closing, I asked the commander if he had a message to those who have contributed to SoA. He did. “Although you live in America, I know how you feel about us. We appreciate you helping us from another continent, and helping us destroy this enemy. This enemy is bad. This enemy is criminal. Because of your help from far away in support of freedom, peace, and stability to the people of Kurdistan, we thank you.”

Nothing more needed to be said.

The captain and I embraced then parted ways. On the ride back to Dohuk, I got lost in my own mind as I gazed at the peaks again. One thought in particular struck me: a kind individual from somewhere in the United States contributed funds for equipment that saved the lives of soldiers he or she will never meet from a country he or she will never see. This shows that despite the great physical distance between them, Americans and their Kurdish counterparts stand shoulder to shoulder in the long war against terrorism and religious extremism. In that struggle, SoA is committed to serving as a bridge between the good will and generosity of the American people and the Peshmerga troops on the front lines of this fight.

We would like to thank our backers for their generosity and for going the extra mile to support the mission of our troops abroad and their Peshmerga partners.

Zack Bazzi
Middle East Project Manager

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