But this week, as he watched Russian forces shell cities across Ukraine, he decided that he had to try to go there to help.
“Combat has a cost, that’s for sure; you think you can come back from war the same, but you can not, ”James said in a phone interview from his home in Dallas, where he said he was waiting to hear back from Ukrainian officials. “But I feel obligated. It’s the innocent people being attacked – the kids. It’s the kids, man. I just can not stand by. ”
Chase, a graduate student in Virginia, said he volunteered to fight the Islamic State in Syria in 2019 and felt the same urgency for Ukraine, but he warned against simply going to the border without a plan.
In Syria, he said he knew well-meaning volunteers who were detained for weeks by local Kurdish authorities because they arrived unannounced. He arranged with Kurdish defense forces before arriving in Syria. There he spent months as a humble foot soldier with little pay and only basic rations.
Tactically, as an inexperienced grunt, he said, he was of little value. But to the people of northeastern Syria, he was a powerful symbol that the world was with them.
“I was a sign to them that the world was watching and they mattered,” he said.
A few months into his time in Syria, he was shot in the leg, and eventually returned to the United States. He came home and worked for a septic tank company, then got a job writing about used cars. When he saw explosions hitting Ukraine this week, the part of him that went to war three years ago reawakened.
“Everything here is just kind of empty and it does not seem like I’m doing anything important,” he said in an interview from an extended-stay hotel in Virginia where he is living. “So I am trying to go. I do not think I have a choice. You have to draw the line. ”
Michael Crowley contributed reporting.