Given the choice between fighting Islamic State in Syria as a volunteer — sleeping fitfully, subsisting on rations and fearing for your life — or playing slots in Las Vegas, most people would choose the latter.
Marine Corps veteran Jamie Lane isn't most people. He already has traveled to Syria once to fight with Kurdish forces, and he might do it again.
"It's tougher for me to live in Las Vegas than it is to live in Syria," said Lane, 29. "I'm just really struggling."
After two tours as a machine gunner with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, Lane hasn't been able to settle into life stateside. He feels restless in Las Vegas. He is trying to write a memoir, but he spends more time gambling. He daydreams about going back to Syria.
"I can't even afford to go back right now," Lane said. "I don't have anybody to blame except my damn gambling habit. I despised these little video poker casinos, but now here I am, dumping my government money into it like an idiot."
A $3,000-a-month disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a blown eardrum, an injured leg and post-traumatic stress disorder means Lane doesn't need to work. That gives him no incentive to find a job, he said.
"I'm good at one thing," Lane said. "I'm good at being an infantryman."
Lane is one of more than 100 Americans who has traveled overseas as a volunteer fighter — the majority with the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia. The volunteers go even as their government is determined to keep its role in the conflict limited to the air.
Why? The men go for a number of reasons, mostly because they are outraged by the atrocities committed by Islamic State, have trouble adapting to civilian life after serving in the military or believe that U.S. efforts in Iraq were in vain, a report by citizen investigative journalism organization Bellingcat found. Most of the volunteer fighters have prior military experience, specifically in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Transitioning from military to civilian life can be even more difficult for post-9/11 veterans than it was for veterans of previous wars, the Pew Research Center found. The draft ensured that a broad swath of people from all backgrounds served during earlier wars, said Claire Lawless, a senior veteran transition manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Service in recent wars has been all voluntary.
"It's such a small number that you don't have the same kind of connections that you would've had in the past," Lawless said.
Veterans with PTSD have an even harder time re-entering civilian life as they battle their illness and the stigma often associated with it.
Lane, like many in his situation, resists his diagnosis.
"I don't like counseling," he said. "It just feels like it's a sham. It's hard to talk through something like that with someone who's never been in that situation."
Instead, Lane found relief in an AK-47, fighting against the Islamic State.
Raised in central Michigan, Lane joined the Marines a week after he graduated from high school in 2004. He spent his first tour in Iraq clearing roadside bombs, searching houses and manning vehicle checkpoints.
"I bought the whole 'Saddam needs to go' thing hook, line and sinker," Lane said. "As a 19-year-old infantryman, I was ready to go and ply my trade, and I got a chance to, quite a bit there. I loved it."
Lane's outlook changed in December 2005, after 10 Marines were killed in a land mine blast during a promotion ceremony.
"I realized we weren't invincible," Lane said. "It was such a heavy thing. It's hard to put into words."
By his second tour, in which he conducted census operations, Lane was disillusioned with the war.
Stationed in Saqlawiyah, near Fallujah, he chatted with locals in the conversational Arabic he had picked up. He told them he didn't want to be there, that he was just a cog in a wheel. He told the villagers life would be better when the military left.
When Lane returned to the United States, he had trouble settling back into everyday life. He and his wife got divorced. He took a couple of jobs but couldn't hold onto them for more than a few months.
"They say I'm disabled, but I'm not," Lane said. "I just can't hold onto a job because I'm (a jerk)."
Finally in 2013, Lane's life settled down. He reconnected with a woman he knew, moved with her into a house she had bought in San Diego and got serious about school. He took classes in finance with the goal of becoming an accountant. He got engaged.
The couple lived well until Lane stumbled on a video of Saqlawiyah, which Islamic State laid siege to in September 2014.
"It looked like Dresden in World War II," Lane said. "It was just demolished. Through all the promises I made to the civilians in this town that things would be better once we left, it had just gone to hell — not to mention the sacrifices me and my brothers had made."
Lane contacted the YPG via Facebook. Organization officials told him all he needed to do was buy a plane ticket, which he did.
Traveling to Iraq was difficult. Lane spent hours at the airport in Philadelphia telling U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, and FBI agents what he planned to do. The agents tried to dissuade him.
"I finally got tired of the interview," Lane said. "I missed my flight. I said, 'Is what I'm doing illegal?' and they said, 'No, but it's dubious.' "
Without reason to hold Lane, the agents let him go.
By the time Lane met up with the YPG, he no longer was sure he wanted to join. His goal of helping the Syrian people now seemed far-fetched.
Lane didn't know anything about the YPG when he went, including its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a group the United States government considers a terrorist organization.
The PKK fought against Turkey for decades but now works closely with the YPG and focuses on defeating ISIS. The United States works with the YPG, carrying out airstrikes to help the group's ground forces, while avoiding mention of the PKK connection.
YPG organizers took Lane and other Western volunteers to a PKK training camp in the Qandil Mountains. Lane said his training was less militaristic and more ideological. Members embraced secularism, feminism and socialism.
"They don't care about religion," said Lane, who describes himself as right-wing economically and left-wing socially. "They don't care if you're Muslim or atheist. They really don't care what you are."
The YPG assigned Lane to a team. The group's main responsibility was clearing towns after airstrikes.
Lane and some of the other volunteers were frustrated; they wanted real action. They told YPG leaders that if they weren't allowed to fight, they would leave. The unit was dispatched to the front line.
Lane's closest brush with Islamic State came in March in Tel Nasri. During a nighttime battle, Islamic State fighters spilled out of a nearby building. Lane fired, he said, killing two. The Islamic State forces fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the YPG team.
"As soon as it explodes, I hear all the ISIS guys go, 'Allahu akbar!' " Lane recalled. "There were like 20 of them. I'm right in the middle of these people, and I'm just like, 'Oh my god, what am I doing here?' "
The battle raged for five days, and Islamic State gained on the Kurdish forces. As daylight broke on the sixth day of fighting, Lane and the other Western volunteers saw their Kurdish companions had retreated. The volunteers had no choice but to flee as well.
That was the last battle for Lane and eight other Westerners. Lane said they felt like they were risking their lives for the YPG, but the Kurdish fighters weren't putting in the same effort.
"They wouldn't come up and hold these positions we had just risked our lives for," Lane said. "We quit after that. We said it's pretty much suicide."
If Lane found relief fighting in Syria, it was fleeting.
Reality kicked in when he returned to Iraq and went online. He learned that his fiancee had packed up his belongings and moved him out of her house. A friend in Las Vegas offered to let Lane stay on his couch for a while. Lane hasn't left Las Vegas since.
He doesn't know what to do next.
"I just haven't really got the discipline to not do Vegas," Lane said. "I don't have any friends. I don't know anybody. Everyone I come across is dirtballs. I'm not having a good time. I want to go back."
(c)2016 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)
Visit the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) at www.lasvegassun.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.