‘Life over limb’

Amid gunfire, bombs and death threats, Syracuse local volunteers to save lives on Mosul front lines


n the back of a makeshift ambulance in Mosul, Iraq, Jonathan Rieth couldn’t figure out where his friend, a Kurdish commander fighting ISIS, had been shot. He took off the commander’s body armor and searched for the wound. Then he saw the back of the commander’s skull open, the result of a gunshot to the head.

“I put some dressings on it. I did a few things that were against textbook rules,” Rieth said. “My thought was this guy is going to die — I’m going to try everything I can. Life over limb. He lived.”

Rieth has volunteered on the frontlines in Mosul as a combat medic on and off since May 2016. Back home in the United States, the Syracuse local works in the textile industry and as an EMT.

“It isn’t very fulfilling and maybe that’s why I became a (volunteer) EMT in the U.S. — to augment that and give back a little,” he said as he explained how, as an American with no ties to the Middle East, he ended up in one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. “Maybe that was part of the evolution to winding up overseas.”

Rieth’s voluntary tours in the Middle East aren’t out of character: He’s an adventurer who is up for new challenges. When he went to Mosul without speaking a word of Arabic or Kurdish, he wasn’t at all intimidated, he said. After returning from his three-week trip in March to early April, Rieth had no plans to return to Iraq. Yet after two weeks in Syracuse, he received word that advances were being made into a portion of the city that could end with full Iraqi control — so he left again.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State group has held Mosul since 2014, according to the BBC. Since October 2016, factions have fought to retake the city. Ethnic groups in the Middle East, modern Turkey, the former Ottoman Empire and Western nations have long coveted Mosul, whether for historic claims to the city, or simply for oil.

The Tigris River divides Mosul into the east and western portions of the city. As of last month, the Iraqi government declared that Iraqi security forces, U.S. coalition warplanes and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, had “fully liberated” the eastern section, per the BBC.

Fighting, however, continues as an unknown number of IS fighters remain on the western side — in addition to 750,000 residents. Rieth spent a few weeks in Mosul in March and has already returned to help treat the wounded as Iraqi military forces fight to retake the Old City.

When he’s in Mosul, Rieth works alongside two volunteer combat medics: Derek Coleman and Pete Reed.

Combat medics in Mosul are so few and far between that Google searches on rough estimates will lead only to Reed and Coleman.

Working on the battlefield isn’t what Rieth anticipated doing. After landing in Mosul with the intention of training Peshmerga fighters how to treat basic combat injuries, he realized there was greater need. Within weeks, Rieth had trained Kurds as medics, but knew his skills were necessary on the battlefield. He took his medic work into combat, traveling feet behind military offenses.

“They are really good with their mortars and they would bracket us,” he said. “If we stay in one position long enough, then numerous times they were on either side of our position and the mortars would just creep in. So numerous times we would just pack up and move over a little bit. We got shot at a lot.”

Rieth is often working with minimal equipment. Strapped to his body is gauze, ace bandages, IV needles and quick clot gauze. Pickup trucks with stretchers in the bed of the truck comprise the makeshift ambulances.

In March, however, most of Rieth’s treatment areas were set up in an old school or mosques, considering fighting had moved more toward the Old City than how it had previously been outside of city lines.

“We always ended up indoors,” he said. “We had some level of creature comfort, the mosque had running water and electricity so it was actually quite nice. It’s a little different, when I was with the Peshmerga it was more of a field battle so we made makeshift tents with tarps strung between trucks, or just treating outside. Here it was urban warfare, so we could just commandeer a building.”

With fighting intensifying within the city, Rieth said IS would often use civilians as human shields. He said they would pack buildings full of civilians, then put a sniper somewhere within the building so the only way to take down the sniper was with an airstrike. In his most recent trip, he often found himself treating civilians.

“One of the days I wasn’t there they had 130 patients in one day. And you’re talking a (treatment area) that’s got eight, 10 beds,” he said. “So you think about that for a minute, we don’t really have the resources to be able to handle that level of volume, but when a car bomb goes off and there are 30 people, they come right to us because we’re the first level of triage before they get pushed to a hospital — sometimes the floodgates just open.”

Being this close to such fighting also put a target on Rieth and his co-workers’ backs.

Word had spread, Rieth said, that there were Westerners in Mosul and members of the community had heard that ISIS had put a bounty out for them.

“We don’t know how much. I’d like to think I’m worth a few bucks but maybe I’m not,” he said with a smile.

Rieth added that IS had put out word that it needed four volunteers to get suicide belts, act like they were injured, come into the treatment center and blow themselves up.

“It never happened, thankfully, but I don’t know how close it came,” he said.

Upon hearing this, the volunteer medics had to put into place safety precautions, including searching civilians before entry and allowing only a few in at a time.

Beyond fearing for his own life, there are times when the immensity of being a combat medic hits Rieth.

Medics were standing around a treatment center one day hearing a cell phone ring. The phone continued to ring and soon they realized where it was. There was a pile of bloody clothes medics had cut off the wounded, Rieth said.

“When I say they were soaked in blood, when you pick it up it would drop blood. And somebody’s phone was ringing in there, and my heart sank,” Rieth said. “That’s somebody’s wife. ‘You said you’d call me in two hours and it hasn’t been,’ but I don’t speak Arabic or Kurdish. That person is calling to see if their husband is OK, and I can’t even, and even if I did speak it, is he the one that died or didn’t?”

Banner photo courtesy of Jonathan Rieth