Pete McKenna chain-smokes Marlboros as he paces around the porch of his safe house in northern Iraq. A couple of weeks have passed since he was last in battle, a hulking American veteran carrying a Russian Kalashnikov and rocket-propelled grenade launcher into the fight against the Islamic State extremist group. But soon enough, he’ll go back, risking his life in battles no one asked or expected him to fight.
McKenna, who grew up in the Richmond area and attended Benedictine High School, joined the Kurdish peshmerga this summer, traveling more than 6,000 miles to return to the country where he first fought as a young Marine.
He had watched as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, blitzed into Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking control of the same swaths of territory that his friends and fellow Marines had bled to defend. He had seen the ISIS propaganda videos that ended with innocents having their heads hacked off. And as he discussed the state of affairs with other veterans, his anger bubbled into a plan.
“We all still feel somewhat responsible for what happens to this country,” said McKenna, 27. “We don’t need to have government approval to do good in the world, and we don’t need to look to politicians for answers. We can do good voluntarily on our own.”
Politicians around the world are still trying to find answers to the rise of ISIS, the band of brutal extremists who control parts of Iraq and Syria. U.S. fighter pilots have been dropping bombs on Islamic State positions since last year, and President Barack Obama has been reconsidering his pledge not to put boots on the ground to fight them. The White House on Friday announced that fewer than 50 U.S. Special Operations troops will deploy to northern Syria to help coordinate attacks on ISIS.
As a freshman at Benedictine, McKenna told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter on the first anniversary of 9/11 that “watching those planes go into that building should make every American realize we need to take action.”
Images of Islamic State members beheading and burning prisoners left him with a similar feeling. And ever since he left the Marine Corps, McKenna had found himself yearning for the adrenaline rush that only the life-and-death stakes of battle could provide.
Tom McKenna said his son Pete, the oldest of five siblings, was always an aggressive, strong-willed kid who enjoyed swordplay and had an outsized sense of adventure. The family moved from Lynchburg to a neighborhood in northern Chesterfield County about a year before he entered high school.
Once, during a Boy Scouts trip on the Rappahannock River, a boy fell and hit his head, then slipped into the river. Before any of the adults could react, Pete McKenna jumped into the river and pulled the younger boy to safety.
At Benedictine, McKenna wrestled and played on the defensive line for the football team. McKenna remembers ditching class sometimes to smoke cigarettes in a back alley.
But McKenna had another side. He was voted poet laureate in a junior English class, which led him to an onstage recital at the Library of Virginia. W. Barry Gibrall, McKenna’s English teacher, remembers him as an outstanding writer and poet.
After graduating in 2006, McKenna went directly into the Marine Corps.
“He’s always had a sort of big idealistic notion about saving people and defending the right and being the champion,” Tom McKenna said. “I think I can see that strain definitely in what he’s doing now. I think that’s what attracted him to the Marine Corps.”
Lt. Col. Brad Green became friends with McKenna during their deployment to northern Iraq in 2007 when he was a major and McKenna was a private first class.
One night, they would be sitting in a watchtower talking about Julius Caesar, modern politics and poetry. Another day, McKenna would be itching to hunt down insurgents who intelligence reports said were planning an attack. Green calls McKenna, well-read enough to discuss practically anything but usually first in line for a fight, a “berserker monk.”
“He’s a very thoughtful guy but also intensely focused with a martial mindset,” Green said. “He was a good Marine, the kind of Marine you want to take into battle with you every time.”
McKenna toyed last year with the idea that maybe he didn’t have to be part of the American military to go fight such an obvious enemy. He knew other Americans were already in Iraq, and he knew there was historical precedent. Some Americans had renounced their citizenship to fight Nazi Germany with other nations before the U.S. joined World War II.
By January, McKenna’s idea had transformed into a mission. ISIS has a well-documented history of using social media to recruit and post propaganda. But their enemies are online, too. Using Facebook to connect with foreign fighters and Google to check their bona fides, McKenna soon linked up with a member of the Kurdish peshmerga, a military force fighting ISIS in northern Iraq.
All the while, he was training for battle. When he wasn’t running or lifting weights, he practiced shooting and reloading Kalashnikovs. A cousin initially planned to travel with him, but a family emergency stopped him.
So McKenna arranged a solo flight through Jordan and into Iraq. He packed a set of first aid bags, maps and some clothes, knowing a cache of weapons would get him stopped at the airport.
The State Department does not condone American citizens traveling to fight ISIS, and a spokesman said they don’t track the activities of citizens abroad.
The number of people like McKenna fighting ISIS is hard to pin down: One American told The New York Times that he has met approximately 100 foreign recruits who came to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. McKenna won’t divulge any numbers, but notes that there are several Americans and other Westerners in his unit.
Tom McKenna remembers keeping his fear and emotions in check as he drove his son to the airport. As they approached the gate, a stone-faced Pete reassured his father that he would be fine.
“He gave me a hug, we shook hands, and then I just watched him until he faded out of view,” said McKenna, who works as a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Chesterfield. “It was hard, not knowing if you’re going to see him again.”
Pete McKenna is standing in the dark, a cigarette in one hand and an iPad in the other. At this house on the outskirts of Kurdish-controlled Sulaymaniyah, he’s taking a short vacation of sorts from battle and telling his story through Skype to a reporter on the other side of the world. The big, bearded American doesn’t know his next move this night, but he’ll soon decide to go back to the front lines in a unit where he’ll be the only Westerner.
McKenna landed in Iraq during the first week of June. A peshmerga soldier picked him up and drove him to the front lines near Kirkuk, the same area where an American Delta Force soldier died earlier this month in a raid on an ISIS prison.
There was no boot camp, and they handed him an RPG, a weapon he had never fired before.
McKenna estimates he has shed about 40 pounds since arriving in Iraq, bringing his weight to about 230 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. His meals are mainly beans and rice, with the occasional chicken before an operation. He rarely wears body armor in the desert, in part because the next drink of water is never guaranteed.
McKenna says he stays focused on what he can accomplish on any given day, blocking out the politics and bigger-picture issues. And from his view, he sees progress. The front line of ISIS was about 10 minutes from Kirkuk when he arrived in June. Now it has been pushed about two hours away. McKenna knows he’s in a different kind of fight now, where he’ll do without the full support of a military power like the U.S. and he’ll always be a high-value target because of his homeland.
“Don’t end up on a video,” some family members have told him.
The peshmerga provide food and weapons, but McKenna doesn’t collect a paycheck. He said medical supplies have been the biggest expense since he landed. Fighters know they won’t have the assistance of a medevac helicopter if something goes wrong, so medics have trained everyone in his unit in basic combat first aid. So far, McKenna has avoided injury.
“Everybody’s scared of that sort of thing, but in my mind you can’t let that dictate your decision-making,” he said.
McKenna keeps in touch with friends and family online. Even when the bathroom is a hole in the ground and the closest thing to a bed is a patch of dirt beneath a Humvee, McKenna said, somehow there’s almost always Wi-Fi.
“The Kurds love their Facebook,” McKenna said. “There’ll be bullets coming downrange, and they’ll be snapping selfies.”
Those intermittent messages from war offer some level of comfort, his father said. But back home, where every newscast on ISIS seems like the one they could be dreading, the McKennas are scared but proud.
“In some ways it’s easy to say it’s crazy, but I think of it more as noble,” Tom McKenna said.
Pete McKenna says he has been in three major battles during his five months in the country: a pair of offensives to capture villages and a battle to beat back an ISIS attack on Kirkuk. But most of the fighting, he says, is done at long range, much like in World War I. Each side has its berms on the front line, and most days they fire machine guns and mortars at each other.
During one of those typical days, an ISIS sniper had McKenna in his sights. He could feel the air pressure change and ruffle his hair as each bullet zinged by with a loud hiss. He had found the life-or-death situation he’d been craving.
Two months ago on Sept. 11, 14 years after watching those airplanes become missiles on American soil, McKenna found himself rolling into a hostile village to pick a fight. As part of a volunteer unit made up mostly of American and British combat veterans, they had picked the operation date on purpose.
The streets were packed with refugees when McKenna’s team arrived at the small village near Kirkuk. Something from his prior stint in the country told him the situation didn’t seem right. While the unit was stopped and giving water to the locals, a white truck full of explosives barreled into town.
Two men in McKenna’s unit shot at the truck, triggering an explosion close enough to kill about a dozen civilians but far away enough to leave the soldiers mostly unscathed. Had no one stopped the truck, the casualties would have easily been in the hundreds, McKenna said. The same day, McKenna’s group overran another ISIS-controlled village and set it on fire.
“I’ve had the opportunity to stand between some bad people and some good people. And that’s always a rewarding experience,” McKenna said. “Although to be fair, I don’t want to paint myself as some type of humanitarian. I’m kind of in it for thrills, too.”