After serving with the Iowa National Guard in Iraq in 2007-8 and then in Afghanistan in 2010-11, he went back to Iraq earlier this year of his own volition. The intention, hetold the Des Moines Register in June, was to train Kurdish soldiers — the Peshmerga — to drive ISIS out of its northern Iraqi strongholds. “ISIS isn’t just a fight for them,” he said then. “It’s a fight for all of us.”
But the 28-year-old’s journey took a slightly different direction once he got to Iraq. Now, O’Leary is patrolling the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan embedded with a faction of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) deep in the Qandil mountains.
And he’s training the soldiers not to fight ISIS, but Iranian forces he says are repressing Kurdish minorities in the region. “I’ve pretty much changed my view,” he tells TIME in a telephone interview. “There’s no difference between Iran and ISIS, they do the exact same thing to these people. It’s just not reported as much.”