By Bill Neely, NBC News
It began with coalition airstrikes that pounded ISIS positions in three villages until early morning. Black and white smoke rose from the targets. As more than 100 Kurdish troops prepared to move in, they were joined by half a dozen volunteers.
They were Americans — not working on behalf of the U.S. military but volunteers to the cause of battling the militants. They had just arrived in northern Iraq, and they were getting an early taste of the fight.
On Tuesday, they joined the Kurds as they moved into burning, deserted villages. Bulldozers piled fresh earth into new defensive lines. At the entrance to one village, the Kurds had painted over the mural of a black flag, a remnant of ISIS control.
“They’re taking over cities that hundreds of Marines and soldiers died for,” one of the American volunteers, Ryan Gueli, of Ohio, told NBC News. “If they’re allowed to get more powerful you just leave them to your children to fight, and that’s not right.”
The Kurdish militia has estimated that there are more than 100 Americans helping them fight ISIS, most of them veterans. They are unpaid volunteers who served in Iraq with the U.S. military and felt drawn back to the country and the new cause.
One of them, Samuel Swan, from Texas, described ISIS as “pure evil” and said he wanted to do his part “so they don’t do it back home.”
As they moved through the villages on Tuesday, the Kurdish troops were wary of venturing into houses for fear of booby-trap bombs.
“They’re taking over cities that hundreds of Marines and soldiers died for”
As he finished talking to his men at an intersection, the Kurdish commander, Gen. Araz Abdulkadir, decided to press on and take a fourth village two miles away, the ISIS flag flying above it. The Kurds jumped into Humvees and pickup trucks and were off.
As they spread out in the village, four or five homes caught fire. Then gunfire erupted from houses half a mile away. ISIS gunmen were hitting back. Just as suddenly as they had gone in, the Kurds pulled back.
Aaron Core, an American volunteer from Tennessee, said later that he was not surprised by the ISIS bombs or gunfire.
“It’s war,” he said. “Expect the unexpected.”