BYU student left family to combat ISIS in Syria



(Porter Goodman via Cellphone)
Porter Goodman, second from right, poses with two Kurds and two other volunteers in Tal Tamir. Goodman traveled to Syria in 2016 to help fight ISIS. (Porter Goodman)

Porter Goodman told his family he was leaving Utah and heading to Connecticut for his new summer job in January 2016. He kept in constant communication with his family, specifically his mother, regularly updating his family with texts and phone calls. Everything seemed normal.

But Goodman wasn’t going anywhere near Connecticut. He was on his way to Syria, where he stayed for eight months.

Goodman, a 28-year-old BYU student from Utah, flew to Iraq and smuggled himself into Syria, hoping to provide any form of assistance to the Kurdish militias in the Syrian Democratic Forces. He felt his previous experience as a medical specialist in the U.S. Army would help the Kurds. He knew this could only happen, however, if he misled his family.

“When I arrived at the Iraq airport, I told them I was not in Connecticut, but that I was in Iraq headed to Syria,” Goodman said. “It was actually really bad. My family was panicking and I put them through something really terrible. I do feel really bad about that.”

Knowing his family would do everything in their power to stop him, including contacting the U.S. government, Goodman describes this choice as an unfortunate necessity.

“It was not a good way to do things, but there was a reason I did this,” Goodman said. “I thought I could actually be prevented from going by the U.S. government if my family knew why I was flying to Iraq. I thought the U.S. government would stop me, not because it was illegal or anything, but because people who go become a liability. Imagine if I was captured by ISIS, then the United States would have to expend resources, send in troops, special forces operations and it’s just like a nightmare.”

Porter’s mother, Teresa Goodman, said she had always been uneasy about his decision to travel to Connecticut.

“I didn’t know why I felt anxiety when I thought that Porter was driving cross country back to Connecticut,” she said. “My husband and four of our children served in the military. Three of our children served in war zones. All five served LDS missions. Our children were very independent and capable and mostly level-headed.”

But after reading Porter’s blog post about his actual plan, Teresa said she felt like she was living a nightmare.

Porter Goodman, second from right, watches as a volunteer updates the casualty log in Syria while other medics rest in the shade. (Porter Goodman)

“I had heard about and even seen a couple of interviews of former American soldiers who had gone overseas to join the Kurds in the fight against ISIS,” Teresa Goodman said. “I thought, ‘Oh, their poor mothers.’ So, my first thought after reading Porter’s blog was, ‘Oh, great. Now I’m one of those poor mothers.’ I thought that having children in war zones was a thing of the past.”

At first, Porter spent the majority of his time teaching kids to use computers. As the Manbij operation approached, he ended up joining a medical unit on the front line. Manbij, a city in northern Syria, was an ISIS stronghold.

With assistance from U.S. air support, the Syrian Democratic Forces, including many foreigners like Porter, successfully liberated Manbij from ISIS control.

Even though the Manbij operation was just one conflict among many, BYU political science professor Donna Lee Bowen believes ISIS will eventually be defeated with the use of military force, but cautions against other groups forming from it.

“I think its very likely that ISIS will be defeated militarily and will be pushed out of the area it occupies. This will take time,” Bowen said. “It sets forth an ideology and is trying to posit a legitimacy, a legitimate way to look at Islam. There will always be a few angry, disposed young men and women who are looking for a home and who find some of the ideology convincing.”

Porter said he believes the Kurdish efforts to combat ISIS and form democracy are remarkable.

“I feel people should know what’s going on in northern Syria,” Porter said. “The Syrian Democratic Forces have been able to establish a successful democracy, overcoming a lot of racism and mistrust between ethnic groups and they are the most effective force fighting against ISIS.”

The Kurdish militia’s medical training, unfortunately, was a weakness in their military system, according to Porter.

“A lot of Kurdish fighters would get wounded and maybe a friend would wrap a scarf around the wound and then be thrown in the back of a two hour ride in a truck to the hospital,” Porter said. “A lot of people were dying that didn’t need to because they were bleeding out.”

Porter said he helped to organize a medical unit because basic first aid wasn’t very well known.

“Prior to the operation, we were providing medical training to the (Kurds), and then once it began we operated at the front line to treat and transport casualties, whether they were civilian or military,” Porter said.

Porter said his team’s main purpose was to treat causalities, knowing they may need to fight.

“We did come under attack a few times,” Porter said. “One time, I did fire on the enemy. They were pot shots. I stood up in a window and shot at another window where there were muzzle flashes coming out of like 500 yards away. I’m almost sure that I didn’t hit anyone, but the point was to suppress fire. I shot at them and they shot at me.”

Porter’s time in Syria, however, ended sooner than he expected. An American volunteer just like Porter stepped on a land mine and was killed. Consequently, the explosion flung shrapnel at Porter. The U.S. military had to evacuate him from Syria.

“I have no memory of it because I couldn’t fully regain consciousness,” Porter said. “I was like a person with dementia for a little while. The U.S. military was worried I might have a brain injury, so they sent me home.”

Porter now lives in Vineyard, Utah and is planning to return to school in the fall.

“I didn’t think that I would have a second war,” Porter said. “But that would probably be my last.”

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