(Marine combat veteran Jamie Lane, 29, here at home in Las Vegas, traveled to Syria early this year to join Kurdish fighters in their war against Islamic State militants. (PHOTO: ISAAC BREKKEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)
“America is not fighting Islamic State,” he says, “but Americans are.”
Mr. Windorski and Mr. Lane augment their accounts with videos, photos and notes they took during their travels, elements of which aren’t independently verifiable. The FBI declines to discuss the men, and U.S. military officials say they don’t typically track volunteers like them.
Unlike Americans joining Islamic State, who can face terrorism charges, citizens like them risk little trouble back home. U.S. officials say volunteering to fight overseas, while discouraged, isn’t illegal if an American isn’t joining an enemy or group the U.S. labels terrorist.
The foray can be deadly. At least five foreign fighters, including one American, have died this year in Syria, according to Kurdish groups. There is the grim prospect of capture by Islamic State.
And Americans expecting a good-versus-evil battle find themselves fighting alongside Marxist-inspired guerrillas with close ties to militants Washington calls terrorists. Volunteers face new risks now that Turkey has started bombing some Kurdish guerrilla bases in Iraq where Western fighters gather before heading into Syria.
“We think it’s probably ill-conceived for a lot of reasons,” says a senior U.S. official. “On the surface, this is a perilous road, and it’s a muddled place over there.”
A Ranger’s mission
Mr. Windorski anticipated none of that in rural Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and children. The self-employed graphics designer had fantasized about visiting Kirkuk, Iraq, where his older brother, Philip, died in 2009 when his Army helicopter was shot down while searching for a handgun that had fallen out of another chopper earlier that day.
Then he saw reports last year that militants who took credit for downing the chopper were joining Islamic State, and he decided he had to go. He bought a plane ticket to Iraq, figuring he would go to Kirkuk and come home in two weeks.
“I kind of went there on a wing and a prayer,” he says.
He hadn’t told his wife. Courtney Windorski, 33, says an FBI agent called on Jan. 7 to tell her that Mr. Windorski was about to board a Chicago flight to Istanbul, and then onto Iraq. The agent asked: Is he going to join Islamic State?
Ms. Windorski couldn’t believe it. Her husband had just called, saying he was at a logging-equipment training class.
“Call me,” she texted. “It’s important.”
Mr. Windorski, awaiting his flight, didn’t reply. He told the FBI agents at the airport he was traveling to get closure for his brother’s death, dismissing their attempts to scare him out of going.
“You need to call me RIGHT NOW,” his wife texted. “Remember I love you please remember that.” She says she became so frantic she called airport police to try to have him arrested.
His phone kept buzzing. He turned it off. “Please answer me,” she texted as he flew to Istanbul. “I’m so scared.”
Mr. Windorski joined the Army in 1993, served as a Ranger, and left in 1995, his federal personnel records show. His Army stint took him to places like South Korea and England, he says, but he hadn’t been to Iraq and knew little about the region.
And he didn’t grasp crucial distinctions among Kurdish guerrilla groups when he landed in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in part of a Kurdish-populated region spanning Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
The main group is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought Turkey for three decades and has turned its guns on Islamic State. The U.S. lists the PKK as a terrorist group, and Americans could get into trouble if they join PKK fighters.
America has teamed up with the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, by carrying out airstrikes to help the group in its battles against Islamic State.
Waiting at the Sulaymaniyah airport were members of the YPG, which Mr. Windorski had contacted through one of its websites. He had been told to appear innocuous: no camouflage, no night-vision goggles.
He wanted to see where his brother was shot down in Kirkuk, about 80 miles away. “That won’t be possible,” the Kurds told him at their Sulaymaniyah safe house. “But we can take you to Syria.”
Mr. Windorski determined to keep going. “Baby, know that I am in good hands,” he texted his wife. “I wish I could say more about what is happening but I can not risk the security breach…I will come home and promise it will be in one piece.”
He turned off the phone and waited.
A Marine’s new war
Mr. Lane, a decorated Marine veteran, was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployed in San Diego and living on a VA check. Then he saw footage of Islamic State seizing the village of Saqlawiyah in Anbar province, where he served in 2007 as a lance corporal who believed in America’s “hearts and minds” campaign.
“My friends were killed on these very streets,” he says. “I felt a big part of my PTSD is trying to find a reason for that mayhem and bloodshed, and I thought maybe if I go back I can fill that hole.”
Mr. Lane saw an enemy he considered a byproduct of bad U.S. decisions in Iraq. “ISIS is America’s dog to fight,” he says. “I crave that fight, man. I crave a good fight. And a just one.”