SAN MARCOS, Texas – Warren Stoddard, 24, was injured on the frontlines while helping the Kurds fight against ISIS, but he's not in the military.
Stoddard is a civilian from San Marcos who felt a connection to the cause and went on his own to join an organization of international volunteers. He said he knew what risks would be involved.
The U.S. State Department's website lists a "Do Not Travel" alert for Syria, particularly warning "private U.S. citizens against traveling to Syria to engage in armed conflict."
"It also says that it's not illegal, but they strongly advise against it," Stoddard said.
When Stoddard graduated from Texas State University last year, where he was in ROTC, he was determined to join the battle against ISIS and what the terrorist organization stood for.
"To find a true democracy or to find women even having political rights is nonexistent," he said.
Stoddard eventually found a Kurdish military organization in Syria called The People's Protection Units, or YPG.
In June 2018, Stoddard flew to the Middle East to train with YPG and fight alongside them.
"There were guys from France and Canada and Germany and all over the place," Stoddard said.
The groups of international civilian volunteers received military training, but they didn't have to use it until months later.
"While we were waiting for the training, we were working with the reforestation project, planting all sorts of plants and learning the language," Stoddard said.
In that time, Stoddard found a deeper purpose for his mission. He wanted to support a group of Kurds working toward a government that includes environmental sustainability, religious freedoms and gender equality.
"Women have to make up 40 percent of government. Everyone is required to vote. Women and men fight alongside each other on the frontlines," Stoddard said.
When asked if he was willing to die for those causes, he said, "Yeah, it's the model of what society should be."
On New Year's Day, his YPG group was allowed to go to the frontline, where he often encountered ISIS as well as U.S. troops.
"They'd talk to us and be friendly, but, I mean, they didn't want to know too much about what we were doing because it just seemed psychotic to them," Stoddard said about the U.S. troops.
Later in January, after a series of intense air strikes, Stoddard said, ISIS launched a counterattack.
"Right as I shot the second round, the wall blew up in my face. A bullet had gone through the wall, pieces in my armpit, most of the bullet hit the back of my leg, and then I've got a small piece the size of a .22 in my foot," he said.
Stoddard received medical care and flew back to the U.S., where he was interviewed by officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI before settling back down in San Marcos. He's been back for less than two months.
Stoddard said adjusting back to life in the U.S. has been difficult after his seven-month whirlwind in Syria, but he said he'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.
As for what's next, he said he would like to join the military, but he believes his injuries and hearing issues would stop him from being put back on a battlefield. He said he may apply to a graduate school for creative writing.