Volunteer soldiers: Utahns join fight against ISIS in Syria

(Freeman Stevenson)

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SARATOGA SPRINGS — Volunteers who fly from the United States to join forces with Kurdish troops say fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria amounts to fighting for a cause and a people, not necessarily a country.

Freeman Stevenson, a journalism student from Saratoga Springs, volunteered for 10 months with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG.

"Bad men only win when good men do nothing, and I'm not saying I'm a good guy, but I try," Stevenson said.

The tall, lanky, eyeglass-wearing guy said there were many reasons why he volunteered.

"Simplified version is, there was no excuse for me not to," he explained.

The YPG uses social media to recruit people from around the world, and even though the U.S. State Department and other governments strongly discourage it, people go.

Tyler Lagomarsino has photos of many who fought alongside him.

"I studied the (Syrian) Civil War since it started in 2011," he said.

The Logan-area man, who for medical reasons couldn't join the military, left his wife and 9-year-old child to volunteer. He believes of all the groups fighting in the complex Middle East, the Kurdish YPG are the good guys.

Porter Goodman, a former soldier, EMT, returned LDS missionary and student from Orem agrees. He spent months chatting with fighters online before deciding to go.

"There are definitely people who seem more strongly motivated by one thing, to shoot at somebody," he said, "and there's people who seem more motivated by just wanting to protect people from the horrible things they're seeing ISIS do to people."

None of the men told their families what they were doing until they were out of the country.

"I feel very bad for what I put my family through, to be honest," Goodman admitted.

Goodman initially volunteered to help behind the lines.

"And once I was there and saw that they have virtually no medical support on the front lines, then that's what I chose to spend my time doing," he said.

Both Goodman and Stevenson were involved in the battle for the northern Syrian city of Manbij. It's where Goodman was wounded and Stevenson lost a best friend, Jordan McTaggart from Colorado.

"[A] mine went off, ambush happens and he just got shot running back to us," Stevenson said.

Returning hasn't been incredibly easy for any of them. Stevenson says it's easier to join the YPG than to find a job as a journalist in the US. Goodman is working to pay off some debts before returning to school.

"You know you go from a sniper hole to a frontline position, and the next thing you know you're washing cars," he says.

He's now working another job.

"A lot of the Kurds out there used to say that our streets are paved in gold," he said, "and I laughed and would say, 'Hey man, you're working 10-12 hours a day here just to make it, you know it's not as easy as you think.'"

Goodman was flown home after being injured by a mine blast. Stevenson was wounded by shrapnel and by a friendly fire bullet and returned home after 10 months fighting. Lagomarsino returned home to take care of his family.

All three were questioned by the FBI upon their return, but say they never felt like they were in trouble for going.


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Marc Giauque


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