TOWERING over his Kurdish partner at a checkpoint in northern Iraq, United States volunteer John Cole cuts an unusual figure on the road to the newest front in the war against Islamic State.
Seven feet (2.1 meters) tall and holding his assault rifle upside down, Cole is among a relatively small band of Westerners who have made their own way to Iraq to take up arms against the militant group – even though Kurdish authorities say they need foreign money and weapons more than men.
Exactly how much fighting Cole has done is unclear, but the 23-year-old said that – unlike most regular U.S. soldiers stationed nearby – he has participated in offensives against Islamic State that involved artillery fire and airstrikes.
“You can feel the explosions in your teeth. It’s kind of cool actually,” he told Reuters, nervously pulling on a cigarette.
Cole, from Charlotte, North Carolina, said he had come for more than excitement after quitting his job transporting biohazardous materials such as medical waste. For all the violence, his fascination with northern Iraq – a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups – was a strong draw too.
“Some people take a year off before they go to college, other people just do this,” he said. “I’d like to spend time here and learn more about the culture, the people, the history of this land and then go home.”
Thousands of foreigners have flocked to Iraq and Syria in the past three years, mostly to join Islamic State. But smaller numbers – estimated now at several dozen – are with groups fighting the radicals.
Cole fell in with Kurdish fighters in neighboring Syria last July and a few months later went to Iraq, where he plans to stay until at least October.
He says he had been inspired to come after Islamic State overran the northern town of Sinjar, slaughtering, enslaving and raping thousands of people from the Yazidi minority.
Peshmerga forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, retook Sinjar in November while he was back in the United States for a break.