By John Burton |
SEA BRIGHT – As Syria continues to swirl in chaos and death, there is a little-told story of the war, one in which a Sea Bright man has played a role.
Syria is mired in violence as factions supporting and opposing President Bashar al-Assad continue to wage war on each other, tearing the nation apart. A handful of civilian Americans and other westerners have joined the fight, looking to help those battling the Islamic State group (IS) that is waging a jihadist, Islamic extremist offensive in the region.
Some have been drawn to the conflict, radicalized by jihadist recruitment videos. But others have found a role for themselves with those struggling to secure a place in the war-torn nation, joining the Kurdish tribespeople who are confronting IS forces for control of the area.
The Kurds, who have been receiving weapons and equipment support from the United States, have won over some private citizens, westerners, who have taken up their cause and have taken up weapons in the battle against the Islamic State. Most of those volunteers, according to previous reported accounts, have military backgrounds; some come seeking adventure, others upset at the U.S. military’s downsizing in Iraq, believing it allowed IS to gain a foothold after years of combat; and others, like Anthony DelGatto, driven by idealism and ideology.
DelGatto lives in Sea Bright and works security for one of the local popular bars. For about four months this winter he fought alongside the Kurds in Syria, driven by his desire to take a stand, he said.
DelGatto, a 37-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native who has lived for six years in New Jersey, spent four years in the U.S. Air Force, from 1998, when he was 19, to 2002, receiving an honorable discharge. During his stint in the service DelGatto rose to the rank of airman E-3. But he served domestically in the 143 Logistics Group, an Air Force supply outfit.
“I was always patriotic and always been very supportive of the military,” he said, which led him to enlist in the first place. However, he felt like he “didn’t do anything meaningful,” during his time in the Air Force. DelGatto feared he would turn into “that guy sitting at the bar, pounding the bar with my fist when the news came on,” complaining about the state of the world. “I didn’t want to be that guy.”
He came across a Facebook page about American veterans fighting in Syria and became intrigued. He sent a message expressing an interest in learning more, telling how he was upset about IS-inspired incidents in the United States. He was contacted by the YPG, an acronym that translates to the People’s Protection Unit, militia forces of the Peshmerga, the larger Kurdish military force operating in northern Iraq.
After a cursory vetting, DelGatto made his way alone to Iraq by way of Spain and then Cairo, Egypt, quite a journey for a guy who had never been out of the United States.
But before he left, he got an interesting visit at his home. FBI agents came and questioned him about his interest in the region and his intention, presumably, DelGatto suspected, to find out if he was looking to support IS. During the interview, DelGatto discovered one of the agents served in Iraq in 2006 and he “kind of gave me little pointers,” about life in the region.
The federal agents told DelGatto that “there are dozens of guys like you going there,” he said, though the agents did try to dissuade him from going.
DelGatto estimated there were approximately 100 to 150 American civilians serving in the region at the same time he was there.
The U.S. Department of State doesn’t have the numbers, given citizens are not required to register to travel abroad, according to a State Department official in Washington, D.C., speaking on background.
However, “Private U.S. citizens are strongly discouraged from traveling to Syria to take part in the conflict,” the official said in an email. “The U.S. Government does not support this activity, and our ability to provide consular assistance to individuals who are injured or kidnapped, or to the families of individuals who die as a result of taking part in the conflict is extremely limited.”
DelGatto had to supply his own fatigues, body armor, helmet and boots; and as a volunteer, he received no financial support from the YPG. They did supply him with automatic small arms for combat. Those turned out to be aging Soviet Union weapons, such as AK-47 assault rifles and APG shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which DelGatto said were supplied to the Kurds by the U.S., along with some U.S. surplus materiel.
While deployed he met British, French, Irish and Americans who were there for the same reasons, as the forces undertook “a brutal, brutal hike,” from Iraq into Syria.
And with only the most minimal of additional training, DelGatto found himself in combat. In the city of Tagqa, in the Raqqa region, he and the YPG forces waged a building-by-building battle, fighting forces looking to control the area, which includes the Tagqa Dam, a strategic target.
The fighting “was extremely brutal,” he said, seeing the destruction the area and its civilian population were experiencing. Fighting took place mostly as the sun went down, continuing through the night, with both sides breaking down building walls searching out combatants, while the innocent, especially children, huddled in abject fear, in a city that no longer had electricity or running water, he said.
IS “rigged everything to explode,” DelGatto recalled. He said IS troops (the Kurds called them Daesh, the Arabic language acronym for Islamic State) set booby-traps with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to trip up the Kurds and others, including the city dwellers. “That’s their tactic.”
“I was absolutely f – – – – – – petrified,” during the fighting, DelGatto admitted.
Entering a building, DelGatto came into not-too-close contact with an exploding concussion grenade that knocked him down. “It sucked the air out of my lungs,” he said.
As the YPG slowly gained controlled of Tagqa, killing or capturing IS fighters, the beleaguered citizens began feeling safe enough to show their gratitude, DelGatto said, as they threw themselves at the liberating troops, kissing their faces and their boots.
“Even though I was in a war zone,” he noted, “I was never treated with such love and respect,” by those he was helping.
What people in the U.S. mostly don’t understand, he maintained, is the Syrian people just want to live in safety and freedom with their families, something we in this country take for granted. DelGatto said he was also struck by the courage and ferocity of the YPG fighters in combating Islamic extremism.
“The Kurds are our allies,” he said, pointing out the support the Kurds provided to American forces in the first Persian Gulf War. “You know it’s not Islam,” he said. The religion is not the culprit, “it’s just this twisted version of it,” espoused by IS and other extremist groups.
DelGatto was supposed to spend six months on the ground. But when he was finally able to get communication from back home, he was struck by the horrible news that his mother had died. That, and his concerns for the well-being of his 3-year-old twins, in the care of his ex-wife, had him return after only four months, he said.
No regrets about doing this, he stressed. “In that sense, I felt I made a difference,” by staring into the eyes of IS, “the leading evil in the world today.”
“I don’t take all the credit,” he continued, “but I feel like I was part of it.”
DelGatto was hit with more bad news a few days before he spoke with The Two River Times on July 20: He found out three of his western comrades had been killed in battle. Nicholas Ward, from Buffalo, New York; Robert Grodt, originally from New York City; and Luke Rutter, an Englishman, were killed fighting in Raqqa.
This article was first published in the July 27 – Aug. 3, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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