Dozens of Americans have left the comforts of home fueled by atrocities Islamic State militants have ravaged against their countrymen in Iraq and Syria, but also in places like Paris, and most recently, San Bernardino, California.
Just south of the city of Kirkuk, Iraq, another group of Americans not sanctioned by the U.S. military have entered the battlefield. The small team, comprised of American and foreign fighters with various specialties, hopes to rescue injured Kurdish forces as they battle Islamic State aggressors in their area of Daquq.
A former Army officer who operates under the alias "Kat Argo", and five other volunteers make up “Qalubna Ma'kum,” translated from Arabic to mean, “Our hearts are with you.”
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m more effective here than I when was in the military,” Argo said in a telephone interview with Army Times Dec. 22. “We have the liberty of movement here, and...we’re not limited to U.S.-only expertise.”
Argo requested Army Times not use her real name, citing security concerns. Army Times verified Argo's service background with the National Guard.
Argo has assembled what she calls her “dream team” with the few who have backgrounds in intel, marksmanship, humanitarian assistance, medical treatment and mechanics. Argo recruited a former Navy corpsman, Michael Wagnon, who’s been by her side since they conceived the idea last year. “We also go to places in the area the U.S. military may not consider a payoff, but we think going to them is important. It’s enough for others to trust us and cooperate with us,” Argo said.
In 2004, Argo enlisted in the Army National Guard before commissioning as a junior officer in 2007. She deployed a few times to Afghanistan, and even after she left the Army in 2012, she worked as an intelligence contractor for NATO in Kabul and later for Central Command until 2013. She also spent almost a year on the eastern front of Ukraine, documenting the hostility between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces as a freelance journalist.
One separatist has since joined her in their fight to curtail the Islamic State because “ISIS is the universal threat,” she said. “It’s the one enemy that unifies everybody, and it’s the non-controversial enemy to have.”
The CASEVAC group has only been in Iraq four weeks, but have already seen fighting from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS. The first night they arrived to the undisclosed base operated by the Peshmerga — Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq — ISIS militants repurposed propane tanks on slingshots and “began flinging them at us,” Argo said. The ISIS fighters aren’t ever more than six miles away from their location; the front lines of fighting, even closer.
“Our group wants to emphasize the medical and training side,” Argo said, even though their team carries weapons — AK and G3 rifles. “When you’re fighting ISIS, you need to emphasize all of your training to be effective on the front, including that you know how to fight.”
The Qalubna Ma'kum group is looking forward to opening new lines of communication. “I’m the first female in this sector,” she said, giving a glimpse inside the Kurdish force structure, which she says her group has assimilated to while they operate out of their base. Even in a patriarchal society, it shows a female’s willingness to help, and “boosts their trust,” she said.
Argo and her team believe they are risking their lives for the greater good. The Defense Department has not weighed in on former service members fighting the Islamic State on their own, but the State Department has repeatedly tried to discourage U.S. citizens from doing so.
In the next few weeks, Argo hopes to train more Peshmerga fighters in basic medical assistance; with too many obstacles on the Syrian front, Qalubna Ma'kum plans to work solely in Iraq, and is asking for donations so they can effectively acquire more medical equipment, and a truck they anticipate will be their ambulance. They will provide evacuations from front lines to the Kurdish base, where they have three rooms to use as their clinic.
Argo said she has heard of some U.S. military being in the area, but hasn’t seen them. She said she plans to send any legitimate information to former colleagues still in the Army if her team believes it will help.
“We want to push ourselves to the next level and become a mobile team — we can go in further, speed the injured to the rear faster, and get them all the way to a long term care facility and a sterile environment within the golden hour if necessary,” Qalubna Ma'kum advocates on their IndieGoGo donations website, where they wish to also acquire a drone for extra surveillance. “Our fighting unit can also be more aggressive, and participate in the fight.”
Argo and her team will stay between eight and 12 months.
“Because it’s voluntary, there’s no harm, no foul if people can’t stay the full time,” she said. “But those of us who started this, we hope we can hand it off to someone else to keep it going. For me, my family has gotten used to the multiple deployments, and they’re supportive of this project. They think this could lead to something good if we work hard enough.”