A former football coach from North Carolina, a community of Kurdish-Americans and a trio of former GIs have found themselves on the front line in the fight against suspected chemical weapons deployed by the Islamic State.
The unlikely group is part of an effort to set up a string of field hospitals in northern Iraq for Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga, troops who have proved to be among the most effective soldiers in the field trying to turn back the jihadi group.
The first of the field units, staffed by American volunteers serving with the unit called Qalubna Makum, Arabic for “Our hearts are with you,” opened just in time to take in 12 Kurdish soldiers suffering from vomiting and stinging eyes apparent victims of the Islamic State’s mortal shells carrying chemical munitions, said aid volunteers at the scene. The six volunteers — half from the United States, half from Europe — are an adjunct of the peshmerga’s 9th Brigade based in Kirkuk.
More than 30 mortar shells with chemical munitions hit 200 yards behind the Kurdish front line near Sinjar City, the site of a fierce battle with the Islamic State.
Islamic State fighters have used mortar shells and Katyusha rockets tipped with chlorine gas and mustard gas several times since June 2014, Falah Zrari, a Kurdish-American volunteer fighter, told The Washington Times.
“They’ve got a homemade factory, and they mix mustard gas with mortars and Katyusha rockets,” said Mr. Zrari, a Tennessee resident now serving as a rifleman and an assistant to bomb specialists at the Makhmour front, 50 miles northwest of Kirkuk.
The peshmerga fighters taken in at the new field hospital in Sinjar were assessed and transferred to a formal hospital in the city of Dohuk, according to the Qalubna Makum project director, a former U.S. Army officer who goes by the nom de guerre Kat Argo.
How the field hospital and its staff arrived at what is becoming a critical front in the global war on terrorism is a remarkable story in itself.
The field hospital tents and equipment came into Iraq in mid-January, courtesy of philanthropist Tom Kelly, the former football coach, and the Kurdish Community Council based in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mr. Zrari was living until 14 months ago. Mr. Kelly secured and delivered three shipping containers with hospital equipment, some of which he passed to Qalubna Makum.
Mr. Kelly, who has donated hospital equipment for countries in Africa and the former Soviet Union, met with Ms. Argo in January and arranged to stand up five field hospitals that would be named after Mr. Kelly’s late mother, Rosie Kelly. Other “Rosie” hospitals are scheduled to be set up at Mosul Dam, two near the major cities of Kirkuk and Irbil, and one at a large camp for internally displaced people near Dohuk in the region controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government.
Sinjar was occupied by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, until it was liberated on Nov. 13, after a weekslong military campaign involving more than 10,000 peshmerga, local militia of the Yazidi religious minority and supporting Kurdish military units from Syria known as the YPG. Despite their ouster, Islamic State elements continue to operate in pockets in the area.
The Qalubna Makum volunteers are unpaid. Three are American military veterans who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and others are Europeans with combat experience. The field hospital in Sinjar is staffed by two team members and a peshmerga physician. The volunteers buy their own air tickets to Iraq and get only room and board during their tour of service, Ms. Argo said.
The mission statement of the group specifies that it has both a combat component, or “fighting team,” and a medical team, which helps with refugees and displaced local residents as well.
Kevin Burns, 29, a U.S. Army veteran infantryman who served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, plans to join a Qalubna Makum medical team in early March. Mr. Burns is an emergency medical service professional who has planned on volunteering with Kurdish forces for more than a year.
“I’ll bring my own chemical gear and two fully stocked combat paramedic bags complete with hemostatic bandages and equipment for helicopter evacuation,” he said.
Mr. Burns also will bring an essential item that is rare in the Kurdish combat theater: the individual first aid kit, which contains hemostatic bandages and a coagulant that can be self-administered. Because the peshmerga do not have these, their mortality rate from wounds is high.
“Many peshmerga wounded die on their way to the hospital,” Mr. Zrari said.
Mr. Kelly said he has delivered hospital equipment to 12 countries in Africa and began visiting northern Iraq to offer assistance to the Kurds in November 2014.
He recalled on that first visit accompanying Kurdish Gen. Rasheed Muhsin, a surgeon, to the front lines during the battle of Kharbaroot, 22 miles west of Kirkuk. During the action, Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes launched attacks to retake territory from the Islamic State.
“The peshmerga brigade simply overwhelmed the ISIS companies,” Mr. Kelly said. “At one point, two ambulances came up our hill with peshmerga wounded.”
Gen. Muhsin and his colonel entered both vehicles, then emerged with bloodied thumbs up, indicating signs of survival, while fighting continued less than a mile below. Gen. Muhsin later confided that the two wounded fighters had died of blood loss.
The general, Mr. Kelly said, repeated complaints frequently heard in Kurdish-controlled lands that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, which has long been skeptical of Kurdish dreams of an independent state, were not supplying vital weapons and medical supplies.
Mr. Kelly said the general told him, “‘Tom, Washington sent many field hospitals and hemorrhaging tools to Baghdad meant for our people. But Baghdad won’t give them to us. Please do something. Brave peshmerga warriors deserve better.’”