Born dead

From the boredom of Denver, to the sheer terror of Syria


Alone and bleeding, Jordan MacTaggart could do little but listen to the bullets whizzing over his head or bouncing off the small pile of rocks that made up his inadequate hiding place. He tightened the tourniquet around his bloody, right upper thigh and waited, maybe for help, maybe for the end. He didn’t know how badly he was injured. He only knew that the Islamic State fighters in front of him weren’t likely to stop shooting.

As the minutes passed, MacTaggart tried to move his leg but was overwhelmed with pain. Then he saw them; two trucks, two motorcycles and an armored personnel carrier (APC) making rounds to extract his fellow YPG fighters. But to his dismay, they pulled back without him, forcing him to spend the rest of the day and a maddening night alone in the middle of the battlefield.

“I waited there because I was waiting for something to happen,” MacTaggart says. “I was waiting for them to pick me up or die, I guess.”

As darkness blanketed the Syrian desert, his mind began to race. The young man from Denver contemplated the worst-case scenarios, like being blown to bits by an airstrike or being taken hostage and beheaded. He knew if he tried to crawl back to his lines he would most likely be killed by his own fighters, mistaking him for an ISIS infiltrator. Matter of fact, if either side saw his silhouette slinking across the ground, they would assume he was the enemy and open fire. And so he lay there, still as he could, certain that death was imminent, so much so that he made what he now calls his “death recording.” Believing he would never see the morning, MacTaggart pulled his phone from his pant’s pocket, shoved it in the dirt in front of his face and hit record.

“If I’m about to die, I just want to say… I don’t know,” the recording begins. “If this is it, I don’t regret it. I did what I had to do. I believe in this… Don’t let it be in vain… It’s probably past 8 o’clock… One moment at a time. Don’t let the revolution die.”

The desperation is palpable in the 21-year-old’s voice as he expresses his love for his family, especially his mother, and his fellow fighters in the four-minute-long video of words in blackness. MacTaggart says he felt he had to say everything because he was sure that his time had come. He was wrong.

As night gave way to dawn, he decided to end his waiting game. He began crawling backwards feet first, not wanting to turn his attention away from the Islamic State group’s position. As he inched along, dragging his rifle, a water tower came into view, which put the wounded man on high alert. Being the tallest structures in Syria, water towers are a sniper’s dream and a terrifying prospect when you’re flat on your stomach in the middle of an active fire zone. His mind told him to stand up and run but when he tried he collapsed. But grabbing on to the determination that only appears when death shows itself, he managed to regain his feet and put together a disjointed hop and skip motion until his fellow YPG fighters finally saw him. At that point, they ran out, grabbed him by his arms and pulled him back to the relative safety of his own front lines.

They told him that when they first realized he was missing (the day before), they just assumed he had been evacuated to the hospital. They were astonished when he emerged from the desert, bloody and haggard.

One of the first people MacTaggart saw upon his return was the female commander who laid down fire for him as he ran the previous day. He was shocked, believing she had been killed in the earlier fighting. Overwhelmed, he hugged her, which under normal circumstances is forbidden. MacTaggart’s initial elation of having survived, faded somewhere along the painfully bumpy, three-hour route to a civilian hospital friendly to the YPG. They were just the latest three hours of what had been a long and bumpy journey spanning years.

A Colorado native, MacTaggart was born in Alamosa and went to high school in Castle Rock. The youngest of two children, he describes his parents as typical open-minded Americans. His father is more Republican and his mother a Democrat, but they raised him apolitically. Growing up, MacTaggart says he was “pretty radical left,” but never felt the urge to come home and tell his parents that the system needed to be overthrown. An atheist, he and his parents, whom are both Christian, don’t discuss religion. This more or less average upbringing begs the question: how does a person born in the middle of the United States, with no ethnic or geographical relation to Syria, the Kurds or the YPG, end up fighting against the Islamic State some 7,000 miles from home? It’s a good question, but one even MacTaggart seems hard-pressed to answer.

It’s not as if he’s always been intrigued with war.

“When I was a little kid, I thought I wanted to hold large snakes, that’s all I thought,” MacTaggart says. “And then when I got older… I was like, ‘I just want to be so far Left.’”

As a teenager, MacTaggart had a 14-inch mohawk and wore combat boots and a bandana tied around his neck almost daily. Though it was known by his friends who also attended Daniel C. Oakes High School — an alternative school in Castle Rock — that MacTaggart had leftist tendencies, no one thought he would ever enter the military or anything close to it. After dropping out of school, receiving his GED and working construction jobs, MacTaggart felt unfulfilled in his life.

“Every other day I woke up and I had to go to work, but it wasn’t a purpose. I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed,” MacTaggart says. “[In Syria] I woke up and was like, ‘I can’t wait to be bored and suffer because at least I’m doing something.’ Even though it was as bad as it was, it felt right. I liked it. I love being out there. It’s such a break from all this.”

War, to MacTaggart, is preferable to the “hum drum life” he lives when home in Colorado, a life that he says, “drags on and hurts so much.” There are permanent reminders on his body of his displeasure with the mundanity of civilian life, the first being the scars on his hands. Two white ‘X’s dominate the space on the backs of his hands and are related to the straight edge subculture within the punk movement. Typically, a person tattoos large black ‘X’s on the back of his or her hands to tell others he or she doesn’t do drugs, because straight edge people perceive mind-altering substances as destructive.

In high school, MacTaggart cut the uninked Xs into his hands instead, a choice stemming from his prior drug use, a period which he describes as “insanity.” But drugs don’t explain his decision to fight in Syria. He says he was clean when he decided to fight along side the YPG against the Islamic State.

Self-harm scars also ascend each of MacTaggart’s arms. Making his hands even more notable, he has a letter tattooed on each of his knuckles, which together spell, “Born Dead,” his chosen mantra.

“When it comes down to it, even if you believe you have purpose and meaning in your life, when I really think about it, everyone here is just born to die,” MacTaggart says. “You can say what the purpose of life is but we’re just another living organism and the point of living organisms is to live, survive, reproduce and die. So, your purpose is you were born to die, or, like I say, ‘Born Dead.’”

It’s a mentality that likely helps MacTaggart cope with conflict, violence and perhaps death. But even in Syria, it couldn’t help him escape his greatest nemesis: boredom. The Syrian version was just more tolerable, he says, because it was punctuated by terror.

“Eight times out of 10 [in Syria] you were just bored and filthy and disgusting and sick and then … just sheer terror,” he explains. “And then the terror ends and you’re like, ‘Thank God,’ and then you’re bored again and you’re like, ‘Why can’t I be terrified? Someone shoot at me.’”

It’s a hard mentality to comprehend, but one that most soldiers who have been in combat unfortunately understand all too well.

When he first started thinking about the conflict last year, MacTaggart researched the YPG and found they shared many of his values and beliefs. As a result, he had no issue in joining their fight. He saw traveling to Syria to help them in their struggle against the Islamic State as something productive he could do with his life.

“I’ve always wanted to do something and this felt like something I could do for once. When I found out they were taking foreign volunteers,” MacTaggart says, “I looked into it and saved up the money and went on my way about it.”

He informed his parents of his plans the day before he left the country, a bad decision in hindsight, he says, because they didn’t have much time to process it. At first they were skeptical, but eventually they came to support his decision.

“They know who I am and my parents believe in me and trust me with my intentions, so they were supportive,” MacTaggart says, “but, worried, as any decent parents would be.”

MacTaggart, whose Syrian name is Cîwan Firat, first traveled to Syria in April of this year and returned to Colorado in October. Flying to Iraq was his first venture out of the U.S., and he got his passport just prior to making the trip. His initial reaction upon landing in Iraq was one of culture shock. But he had little time to worry about such matters as he was quickly whisked away by the YPG, who placed him in a safe house before moving him to a PKK mountain camp where he would remain for two weeks.

At that point, according to MacTaggart, the Kurds used the two weeks to evaluate and educate him and the other foreign volunteers because most of the newcomers arrived with no knowledge of the Kurd’s history, culture or goals. Most were even unaware that the Kurds are one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world.

After leaving the mountain camp, MacTaggert’s journey into Syria began. First, he and the other volunteers used the cover of night to sneak into fields alongside the Tigris River where they waited for a small pontoon boat to take them across.

“[The boat crossing] is probably the worst part [of the journey] because you can’t do anything. If you’re in a field you can run,” MacTaggart recalls. “Who knows if any of the stories are true but people are always saying maybe the Peshmerga will shoot at you for crossing the river because they don’t know who you are. They just see some boat crossing the river in pitch black.”

Once across the river, MacTaggart and the others hiked for five more hours in the dark, arriving at a small command post on the Syrian border. It was at this point that the Coloradan first saw the small, waving YPG flag that he would soon be fighting under and potentially dying for. A short time later, MacTaggert and the other volunteers were loaded in a van and taken to a place aptly referred to as “Purgatory” by the YPG volunteers. It is a windy hill seemingly in the middle of nowhere where volunteers do little more than exist in limbo.

MacTaggart says he was thankful he was only in Purgatory for one day before being sent to the Academy in Rojava, which is where the YPG conducts its version of basic training. At the Academy, seasoned YPG fighters teach new volunteers how to operate Russian weapons systems while providing Kurdish language courses and a basic orientation to the region where they will likely be fighting.

It was during his time at the Academy that MacTaggart first learned how to operate fully automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, skills hard to come by in the suburbs of Denver. At the end of his training, MacTaggart was assigned to a Tabor and issued two uniforms, a rifle, a chest rig and a pair of shoes… tennis shoes.

“They have a room full of boxes of Adidas shoes. It’s literally the YPG shoe,” MacTaggart says. “It’s funny because PKK also has a brand of shoe. You can tell who’s YPG and who’s PKK by their shoes.”

Once he was deployed, however, he didn’t wear his tennis shoes for long. A Kurdish fighter gave him a pair of boots he’d taken from the body of a dead Islamic State fighter. It was a kind gesture that stuck with MacTaggart. He has gone to great lengths to hang on to those boots even though they are slowly falling apart. For him, they are a reminder of his time in Syria where he says he felt like he was a part of the YPG, and never like an outsider, from the moment he arrived.

“There’s no choice but to be a part of it because you’re just with them. You hang out in some lonely abandoned village with these guys and you cook your food on some gas burner or an open fire,” MacTaggart says. “They’re actually really, really welcoming. It’s weird. I didn’t think you would be able to communicate as well… [but] they want to talk to you.”

Despite the language barrier, MacTaggart says he was still able to converse and even joke with the Kurdish fighters. One ongoing witticism from his time in Syria revolves around his earrings, more specifically his gauges. In Kurdish culture, it’s not acceptable for men to have earrings, so Kurdish fighters call MacTaggart “Jin,” Kurdish for “woman.”

“Everyone knows me as that fucking American with the girl earrings,” he says.

Despite the wide cultural gulf that exists between Colorado and the Kurdish regions of Syria, MacTaggart claims he wasn’t really surprised by anything he encountered. He admits he generally enters new situations with low expectations. His biggest surprise was to find that “the YPG [does] more of the asskicking than getting their asses kicked.” This is largely due to the airstrikes, MacTaggart says, without which the YPG would be in quite a different position. Partly because of the air support, MacTaggart’s Tabor was more often than not on the offensive, their primary mission being to connect the three cantons (states) of Rojava.

MacTaggart says that while he was in Syria, the Islamic State fighters were, for the most part, just trying to hold their lines in the region, unless the YPG fighters got careless. He says that every time his Tabor was attacked, it was when they were being nonchalant and let their guard down. This was true the first day he came under fire, a day he admits he disobeyed orders and did something pretty stupid.

It was a typical day a couple months into his time in Syria — typical as in the sky was cloudless and the air was permeated by the stench of a country wherein everything is breaking down and decaying. MacTaggart and three other foreign fighters decided to go ahead of the rest of their group to investigate a burned-out vehicle on the road directly in front of the village they had been ordered into. They had heard a rumor and believed that other YPG forces were already inside the village. And a rumor it was.

“I just wanted to see what was in the burnedout car because I wanted to go see the dead guys, which I thought were Daesh (a term used by YPG forces to refer to the Islamic State group; ISIS considers the term derogatory),” MacTaggart says. “I’m not just like, ‘Yeah, let’s go fucking see dead people,’ I thought they were Daesh. I’m not afraid to admit, I love seeing dead Daesh. It makes me feel good inside.”

The car, which did not seem that far off when they started walking, ended up being more than 1,000 meters away. MacTaggart and his friends, rifles on their shoulders, strolled toward the car down the middle of the paved road, which had ditches on both sides. When they got to the vehicle, he saw it was a truck that had most likely been hit by a heavy machine gun, causing the cab to burn. Inside the cab he found the remains of two people burnt to a crisp, but miraculously, a mob of sheep in the back of the truck had survived the carnage.

After a few minutes exploring the macabre, one of the men with MacTaggart asked for his hatchet so he could break the lock keeping the sheep trapped in the charred vehicle. He raised the hatchet, but before he could swing, gunshots shattered the air, and the hatchet hit the ground. The first 10 shots or so went directly into the car where they whizzed and bounced around against the twisted metal while the men scrambled to crouch behind the engine block.

“We just keep hearing these shots hit the truck and whip over our heads and impact the asphalt of the street,” MacTaggart says. “My first thing was, ‘Let’s get down in that ditch and crawl the fuck out of here. Even if we get shot, that’s the only place we have to go! Or we can sit here and wait for them to RPG this thing.’”

MacTaggart and his friends crawled into the ditch amid heavy fire, never bothering to shoot back.

“Once I was running away, I didn’t want to stick my head up above this berm and be like, ‘I’m over here! Come shoot me,’” he recalls.

Eventually, the YPG sent an APC to pick them up. The Kurdish fighters were irate. MacTaggart says the other men made up excuses to defend themselves, but he wasn’t going to lie. He says he just apologized for making a dumb decision. This was one of approximately seven shooting confrontations MacTaggart experienced between his Tabor and Islamic State fighters during his first sixmonth stint in Syria.

While the burned-out truck was the first time MacTaggart came under fire, it was not his most terrifying experience. Nor was it the previously described day and night he spent alone and wounded hiding behind the pile of rocks in the middle of a battlefield. MacTaggart says that at least when he was wounded behind the rocks, he had a sense of what was happening.

For MacTaggart, his most difficult and frightening experience came when his Tabor was ambushed at an Islamic State school. At the time of the ambush, his Tabor was the only one in the region. He had spent the night on the roof of a two-story building that had previously housed the school. Many of his fellow fighters were still asleep when the first sounds of bullets ripping through the calm morning air jolted everyone awake. Suddenly, everyone was shouting and rushing around. It was utter confusion. Once he got downstairs, his commanders split up the Tabor. His closest friends were sent to the front of the village while he was relegated to the back, having recently been wounded. They were trying to set a perimeter, he recalls, because they had no idea where the Islamic State fighters were.

Eventually, MacTaggart found himself standing under a cluster of trees, a few buildings behind the school. Leaves started falling from the branches above his head as the gunfire became more intense. Thankfully, he wasn’t alone. He had been placed with a Kurdish group leader, otherwise, he says, he “probably would have freaked out more.” He remembers his group leader shouting as he unloaded his entire magazine while urging MacTaggart to do the same. But then things took a turn for the worse. His group leader appeared exasperated, and suddenly sprinted away to deal with other members of the unit. MacTaggart could hear them shouting but because it was all in Kurdish he had no clue what was happening. He was alone and confused.

Little did he know, this was only the beginning of a 36-hour firefight, the longest exchange of gunfire MacTaggart has ever experienced. Isolated and detached, he took fire by himself for two hours that seemed like two days. He didn’t fire back because he knew his own men were somewhere in front of him, but wasn’t sure exactly where. This was the only time he says he ever felt completely overwhelmed.

“In that moment, I was actually almost ashamed of myself, how nervous and scared I was,” he says. “But, for whatever reason, I didn’t hyperventilate, I didn’t breakdown. My only option was to fight. That’s all I had to do.”

His group leader eventually returned and MacTaggart was able to calm back down. A short time later, another YPG Tabor of 20 people came to their assistance and he knew they had a chance of surviving, which they ultimately did.

But surviving doesn’t mean that the scars from having done so don’t run deep.

As horrible as it can sound, the dehumanizing of the enemy is a basic and even necessary mental survival skill for those who find themselves in a war zone where the unthinkable must be transformed into the ordinary in order to cope. MacTaggart admits he was mildly taken back when he saw his first corpse, but he says he still harbored no sympathy because he knew it was an Islamic State fighter. So he took pictures of the body, which was mangled and burned to the point it was hard to tell what it was, let alone who.

“After that, oh it’s a fucking treasure hunt. You’re looking for them,” MacTaggart says. “You’re just like [sniffing sound].”

The 21-year-old from Denver says he doesn’t know if he personally killed any Islamic State fighters. He knows that some members of his Tabor certainly did, and many more were killed by allied airstrikes. He says that most of his exposure to the grotesque scenes of war came after nearby bombings when his Tabor would go in to investigate the carnage. He says the airstrikes resulted in incredibly gory scenes, many of which he documented with his phone’s camera.

“I look at these pictures, and as long as I know it’s Daesh, I’m so desensitized to it,” he says while thumbing through the photos on his phone that has a sticker on the back reading “Fuck ISIS.” “It’s like, I would even care more about animals. If I saw a picture of a cow blown up, [I would say], ‘Oh, Christ. What the fuck’s wrong with you?’ But I look at these and it’s like, ‘Just some dead guys.’”

For most of us, we only view airstrikes from the distant perspective of the plane or drone that fired the missile. Such a sanitized view makes it easy to forget what targeted airstrikes actually do to human beings. MacTaggart’s pictures, most too graphic to publish, are a reminder of the horrors of war which are the instrument that inflicts the mental wounds on all who experience them to one degree or another.

The constant stress brought on by harsh conditions during war is another factor that takes its toll even when no one is shooting at you. At night, YPG fighters sleep under any conditions they can. If they’re lucky, they have a blanket and occasionally a pillow. Every now and then, they come across an abandoned house with mattress pads that can be dragged to the roof to sleep on. At other times, recalls MacTaggart, they just slept in fields with nothing.

“It’s just dirt and rocks. It’s nothing, there’s nothing out there. I would call it a desert but it’s not sandy, just dirty. It just feels of nothing,” MacTaggart says. “The one thing that grows out there is weeds. It’s all hell.”

He goes on to describe how vacant villages are overrun by wild dogs and cats. The dogs remain in their packs and are skittish for the most part, he says. The feral cats are worse. They just run around peeing on everyone’s belongings and knocking things over.

Food can be similarly disappointing. The fighters were generally fed only rice, beans and potatoes, the staples of Kurdish cuisine but nothing to write home about when it’s served up day after day after day.

It all takes its toll.

MacTaggart decided to return home to Colorado in October to deal with some personal issues. His entrance back into the States through Customs was understandably challenging. He was traveling with an Islamic State flag he had found, a headband bearing the same insignia as the flag and a bayonet from a Kalashnikov with remnants of blood and guts on it. MacTaggart actually had the headband in his pocket when he was wounded so it was, of course, soaked in blood. The headband reads, “There is no god but Allah. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.”

Though he’s working and living in Colorado for now, MacTaggart intends to return to Syria on Jan. 10, 2016 to rejoin the fight. He is slightly bitter about the fact that after he left Syria, his rifle, which he carved the words ‘hate’ and ‘abandon’ into, ended up in the hands of the Peshmerga, though it’s not the Peshmerga’s fault. YPG forces most likely gave them the rifle.

On his return, he’ll be able to bypass all of the orientation steps he had to take the first time. He says he can’t wait to get there because the normalcy and repetitiveness of civilian life here at home still wears on him and he prefers war to commuting and working a traditional job.

“I could live like that (war) forever,” MacTaggart says. “If you provide me housing, food and water and all I have to do is not get shot and kill those guys, I’ll do that for the rest of my life. I’m totally OK with this. It’s so much better. I’ll shit in a hole and throw up on myself.”

For most people, one night of laying behind a pile of rocks, wounded and taking gun fire in the middle of a field would have been enough, but for Jordan MacTaggart, the thought of a mundane life in Denver is more frightening than death.

“This time when I go back, I don’t know how long I’ll be there,” he says. “Like, six months was nothing. I could be there for years. I don’t give a shit.”

There is a price to such violence… but it’s nearly impossible to describe or comprehend.

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