By Fred Dickey San Diego Union-Tribune June 12, 2017
Derek Coleman is a strapping, bright guy of 27 with a woodsman’s beard who recently returned from going to see the elephant.
In the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, young fellows from the east would head for the Mother Lode country, and when asked why, they would say they were going to see the elephant.
Nobody knew exactly where that saying originated, but they all knew what it meant: exploring past the crest of the hill, finding out what the world offered.
The elephant coaxed Derek to Iraq and a lifetime of adventure squeezed into a year and a half.
Derek Coleman was just a guy of 25 a year and a half ago. He grew up mainly in San Marcos and loved being a machinist, certainly better than college, where he had an unsatisfying cup of coffee. He had money in the bank and no attachments that tied him down.
“No kids that I know of, and no dog,” he says.
He’s an irreverent guy, whimsical and penetrating in his judgments. He’s thoughtful and well-read. College didn’t discourage that. He prefers B.S. to remain in the barnyard.
Derek also had a raging testosterone itch. He wanted adventure, and he wanted it now. However, an earlier head injury removed the military option, and he couldn’t circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon.
“I was longing for some excitement. You know, this illogical thing that some men have where they just want to put themselves in danger.” He shrugs. “I know, it doesn’t make sense.”
It hasn’t made sense for thousands of years.
“Nobody learns the lesson of war, you know? It just kind of bounces right off your brain,” he says.
“I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ when I was in high school. It’s about a man who volunteers for danger (the Spanish Civil War). I always thought that was an amazing thing for a man to give up his comfortable life in America and just go fight what he sees as evil.” Another shrug. “I guess I’ve got delusions of grandeur.”
Derek, you’re a romantic.
“I guess. Yeah, for sure. Definitely.”
What he didn’t know he had was an impulse to risk his life to help the victims of war. He would discover that on the battlefields of Kurdistan.
Getting back to the itch: He had heard stories about volunteers going to Iraq to help the Kurds. He had no other offers, so ...
“I sold pretty much everything I owned. I had a gun collection that helped fund it, and I sold my truck. I quit my job, which a lot of people thought I was crazy.”
Derek, acting on the now-or-never throb of impulse, bought a ticket to Erbil, Kurdistan, the homeland of the Kurds, which is a grudging part of Iraq.
He soon found himself standing on that war zone tarmac in November 2015.
“Hello, Iraq. Here I am!”
Derek says, “Kurdistan is unique to the Middle East. Kurds are very open to other people’s religions, other people’s cultures. They’re huge fans of Americans. If you say, ‘I’m American,’ they go, ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’
“Erbil’s a pretty decent city. It’s got restaurants and nice hotels, even a mall. You see women with hijabs and stuff, but you also see plenty of women who could be walking down a street here.
“Here’s the thing. I mean, they’re all Muslim, but they all drink. They break rules like anyone else.”
Would the women date someone like you?
“No. No. It’s a very conservative culture that way. I mean, I would kind of compare it to, like, early 1900s Western culture.”
Of course, too, every girl has a brother with an AK-47.
“Yeah. Exactly. I mean, you wouldn’t want to risk it. There’s a lot of Western women there. In fact, it’s a great place to connect.”
The Kurds have no affection for the rest of Iraq, except they and other Iraqis wallow in the same pool of oil. For the moment, though, they both are fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS. At least many Iraqis say they are, but the Kurds really are.
Why do the Kurds fight?
“Well, ISIS had taken some of their territory and then they wanted to eliminate the Kurds. ISIS had no love for the Kurdish people, especially. I mean, ISIS might find allies in the Arabic world, but the Kurds are certainly not a part of their clique.”
Derek’s original idea was to fight, but no one offered him a rifle. The alternative was to join the thrown-together community of Western medical volunteers. Of course, he had no medical training. But he was there, so he switched to bandages and learned.
He was fortunate to buddy-up with a guy from New Jersey who was an EMT, and who taught him basic first aid, which provided a platform to learn as he “practiced” in the real thing.
Derek’s group was international, but the men who composed it were much like him — soldiers of fortune, but without guns and without pay. Guys in the group would come and go, ranging from a couple members up to a dozen. They ate with the military and scrounged medical supplies from richer groups such as the United Nations or aid detachments from various countries.
“We used our own money to buy a lot of stuff. If an oil company had a bunch of expired medical items, they’d say, ‘Hey, do you guys want these?’
“We were always two days from running out.”
He was a self-taught medic, but he was light years ahead of the Kurdish army, called the Peshmerga.
“The Peshmerga didn’t have medics and few doctors. Most of the soldiers there did not know how to put on a tourniquet. We’d hear about guys who get shot in the foot, then bleed out and die.
“Stabbed in the shoulder? Bleed out and die. They’d put the wounded in a truck, drive them to the nearest hospital, they're dead when they get there. There was literally zero treatment.
“So we trained Peshmerga fighters for months, over 1,000 in a three-day course. It was pretty intense. I mean, if you can teach somebody how to tie their bandana around an AK-47 cleaning rod to stop someone’s bleeding, they’ve learned how to do a tourniquet.”
Has that encouraged you to become a paramedic here at home?
“No. Different world. You know, 40 to 50 casualties a day with serious trauma, probably more than your average paramedic would see in years.
“They called me a doctor, which is funny: ‘Doctor! Doctor!’”
How many days would you go between showers?
“Usually not more than two weeks, so it wasn’t too bad. Very dusty and dirty, though. I’d have days where I’m kind of covered in other people’s bodily fluids.
“It’s the front line. It’s a giant garbage heap. So even if I didn’t shower for 10 days, I was not the worst smelling man. You’ve got thousands of soldiers just dumping things everywhere.”
Including each other.
“Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. ISIS bodies would not be picked up. It was to show disrespect. There were a lot of wild dogs — huge animals — and there was a reason for that.”
As the battle for nearby Mosul widened, the Peshmerga launched major attacks on ISIS in October of last year. Its primary aim was to recapture Kurdish villages close to Mosul, Derek says.
“Our plan (by medical volunteers) was to be as close as possible to the fighting, to where we could receive the casualties.”
Were the Kurds good fighters?
“They were brave. They don’t duck when people shoot at them. You can call them brave or stupid, I guess.”
There are better ideas.
“Yeah, but it was quite entertaining. When they were ducking, then you knew that it was a bad situation. Like, OK, I definitely should be worried now.”
How close were you to the front lines?
Derek describes the snap and crack of a bullet passing close by. “It’s definitely a lot of laughs and joking around. I always used to say, ‘It’s fun, until it’s not.’”
He quotes Churchill after first correcting my mangling of the passage: “‘Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.’
“What we’d do is we’d set up a (battlefield) location. We’d try to tell any officers that were nearby, and they would say, ‘OK, great. You do your thing.’ We were basically the Kurdish military’s medical (support) most of the time.”
Did you talk to any ISIS prisoners?
“I mean, they don’t speak English or maybe their guts are hanging out, so I never was able to kind of chat any up.”
What did the Kurds do with prisoners?
“You would not want to be an ISIS prisoner. Any time they told me, ‘Oh, that’s an ISIS prisoner,’ that was a dead man walking, in my mind.”
What do the Kurds think of ISIS?
“I think most kind of realize it’s just an ultra-fanatic sect. They see it as some kind of loonies within their own religion.”
“Do Kurds and Iraqis like each other?”
“No. They are allies of convenience at this point. So I worry what will happen after the ISIS war is over. There’s a lot of talk about a war between Kurdistan and (the rest of) Iraq.”
What surprised you about war?
“War is mostly boring. It’s a lot of sitting around, you know? Even some of the most intense battles, it’s a lot of sitting around. It’s exciting for 20 minutes and then it’s nothing for three days.
“One thing I didn’t really expect is how many children we would have to treat.
“ISIS has spent the last two and half years keeping other people out and keeping Mosul people in. Mosul was a population of a million trapped people. So people who tried to escape — old people, women and children — that was the most common way for civilians to get wounded.”
The children. Derek hadn’t counted on that.
Next Monday: War — more than an adventure.
(“Going to see the elephant” most likely originated from excited rustics of the mid-1800s traveling to see a road-show circus and its near-mythic elephant.)
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org