Patrick Maxwell flew to Sulaymaniyah, Iraq last December to fight alongside the Iraqi Kurdish army, also known as the Peshmerga.
Veteran Patrick Maxwell received a flurry of media attention during the past few months. The New York Times, NPR, and the Texas Standard all vied for interviews, and the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet,” Reddit, was awash in speculation about Maxwell’s recent activities.
Although Maxwell’s term of enlistment in the United State Marine Corps ended in 2011, he recently put a real estate career in Austin, Texas on hold to return to the Middle East as a volunteer troop.
Maxwell paid a visit to Incline Village this April to spend the weekend with his friend and fellow veteran, Sierra Nevada College Sophomore Anthony Martin. Martin said that they first met a few years ago.
“I went down to visit some buddies in Austin, and he lives in Austin,” said Martin. “So we all decided to meet up and get some beers. It’s kind of funny. Marine Corps infantry is so small that you can know one person and kind of know everybody.”
But before Maxwell, a Texas native, came to visit the Tahoe Basin, he decided to embark on a much longer voyage, to the northern region of Iraq also known as Kurdistan. Prior to this trip, Maxwell had deployed on several occasions to Iraq during his eight-year term of service. His experience informed his decision to make a return trip in early December of 2014.
“I just wanted to get away for a while, away from my job. I was kind of burnt out,” said Maxwell. “I saw all of the atrocities happening in Kobani, and I thought it would be kind of cool to get over there and join them before it became another Alamo.”
Maxwell took the money for travel and equipment expenses out of his savings account. He bought life insurance that would cover him in the event of a tragedy. This brought his total trip cost up to approximately $7,000.
“Once you disclose that you’re doing something like that all that you find is pretty pricey,” said Maxwell of his search for life insurance.
Although he had originally planned on going to the city of Kobani, a battlefront in Syria, Maxwell got in touch with a Kurdish army lieutenant through Facebook, and packed his bags shortly thereafter.
“I ended up not going to Syria, but to northern Iraq instead,” said Maxwell.
Prior to traveling, Maxwell met a Canadian veteran named Dillon Hillier, who was also in touch with the Kurdish lieutenant and en-route to the region.
“Dillon got there about two weeks before me,” said Maxwell. “I wasn’t really worried about it being a trap, but once he got there and didn’t have his head cut off, I knew it wasn’t.”
Kurdistan is a large region spanning several Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Iran and Syria. The Kurdish military in Iraq, also known as the Peshmerga, have been highly effective and instrumental in the conflict against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
When Maxwell arrived at the airport in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, Hillier and the Peshmerga lieutenant he had contacted through Facebook were there to meet him.
On Kurdistan’s flag day, the Peshmerga launched an offensive on an ISIL outpost only 100 meters from base, according to Maxwell.
“On the day I got there, we attended a change over ceremony where one shift left and another shift came on,” said Maxwell. “About 200 meters away, right across the river, there was a flag and a block house with three or four ISIL militants in it, and 600 to 700 meters back was their main base. They had a little watchtower right there.”
The date was December 17, and it was Kurdistan’s flag day.
“They were like ‘Hey we’re going to take that flag down with machine gun fire because it’s our flag day,’” said Maxwell.
U.S. citizens have a history of traveling to fight in foreign wars. During the Spanish Civil War, a coalition of nearly 3,000 American men and women formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to help fight fascism alongside the soldiers of the Spanish Republic. During World War I, American pilots volunteered to serve with the French Air Service in a detachment called the Lafayette Escadrille.
When Maxwell and Dillon arrived in Kurdistan, they were given a shipping container to sleep in. The Peshmerga gave them weapons, ammunition and food, but the pair were both acting in a voluntary capacity with no compensation. They fought alongside the Kurdish army for a period of seven weeks, but the atmosphere began to change.
“A few westerners started trickling in here and there, but we didn’t really deal with them a lot. We had our own routine down,” said Maxwell. “They were civilians that didn’t have any military experience. Me and Dillon were trained combat veterans.”
Maxwell also said his American status made it difficult to be viewed as an equal by the native army.
Maxwell and fellow veteran, Dillon Hellier, were given weapons and ammunition by the Peshmerga, in addition to food and a shipping container to sleep in.
“These guys were more worried about our safety than they were about treating us like one their guys and putting us on the front lines,” said Maxwell. “They were too distracted by us.”
In late January, Maxwell returned to New York, but not before receiving a warning from a few U.S. Special forces troops he had encountered in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
“They took us aside and told us that what we were doing was ballsy, but that the consulate advised us to stop and go home, and lawyer up,” said Maxwell. “That’s when I talked to Thomas Brennan.”
Brennan, a Marine Corps veteran and graduate student at the Columbia Journalism School in New York, advised Maxwell to come and stay with him.
“He told me, ‘If you get your story out there first before they have a chance to write their narrative, they can’t cast you as some kind of home grown terrorist,’” said Maxwell.
Upon arrival in New York, Maxwell expected to be detained. He was surprised to walk out of the airport unimpeded. From there, he went to stay in Brennan’s apartment.
Before long, Brennan took the story to the New York Times, and a tidal wave of media attention befell Maxwell.
“NPR asked me if I was a Tea Party redneck that was going to fight them [ISIL] over there so I didn’t have to fight them over here,” said Maxwell.
But Maxwell didn’t fit neatly into his prescribed demographic. With nearly a decade of military experience under his belt, including time served in Iraq early on in the conflict, Maxwell had formed his own opinion about U.S. involvement in the region.
“They want more U.S. military involvement,” said Maxwell. “As someone who’s seen the effects of all thirteen years of war, we’re just killing a bunch of 18 to 20-year-old men for no reason. There’s no point to this. Let’s stop doing that.”
Lounging on a black leather sofa in Incline Village and nursing a half-empty Icky IPA, Maxwell reflected on his motivation for returning to the war-torn region.
“A lot of people asked me if it was about friends I lost in the war,” said Maxwell. “It wasn’t. It had nothing to do with 9/11 or my friends in the war. It was a personal motivation. It’s the one time I’ll have a chance to do something like this. I always wanted to work with refugees in war zones. This is the one time I’ll ever be able to take those guys on.”
He smiled and took another sip of beer, adding, “I’ve got the coolest story in the bar.”