IT was 9pm when Reece Harding’s unit finally got the go ahead to join the battle against Islamic State.
The group of fighters hopped into trucks and headed to the frontline in the dark.
The 23-year-old had volunteered to fight alongside Kurdish militia (YPG) in Syria, more than 14,000km from his Gold Coast home and family.
It has been 12 months since this hot night but Robert Alleva – Reece’s loyal buddy in the Lions of Rojava unit – still remembers it like it was yesterday.
“We could still hear lots of gunfire and (knew) we were about to be in a fight,” the young American recalls.
“They said get in a single file line and I got behind Reece.
“We started walking but we were walking too fast and too close together because we had been waiting all day while we felt our friends were alone in the fight.
“Reece showed me a spot where, two days earlier, he had cleared a mine.”
Reece – part of the sabotage unit, whose job was to go village-to-village clearing undetonated mines left by ISIS – warned his comrades to be careful.
“Those were his last words,” Robert said.
“A few meters later [there was] a bright flash and I felt pain in my face, leg, and hand.
“When my hearing returned I heard myself and others moaning.
“I thought I was blind at first … I was happy to hear people moaning because that meant they were alive I thought.”
Meters away, Reece lay motionless on the dirt.
It was has been a year since Reece died. He stepped on a landmine in the heart of the Syrian war zone.
After Reece was killed, the media coverage focused on why he’d made the choice to fight a battle that many people saw as not his own.
For the first time, his comrades – many of them young, from all over the world, men who made the same choice Reece did – have spoken out to remember their mate.
Robert, in his 30s, was in hospital when he found out about Reece’s death later that night.
“When we got there our Romanian comrade finally showed up injured,” he said.
“I asked about Reece. He gave me the look. We all knew then.
“The Romanian said he did everything he could.
“But he said … Reece was already gone probably before he even reached him.
“He said Reece let out one loud breath and then nothing after that.
“He thinks it was almost instant and he did not suffer.”
In the wake of Reece’s death are a family and unit in mourning but the nature of the combat makes the grief even more complex.
Michael Enright, an English actor who was motivated by the “horrors of Islamic State” to join the Kurdish forces, cried when he recalled the moment he was told his “little brother” was dead.
“It was the biggest shock,” the 52-year-old told Coast Weekend.
“He was the first of my personal friends to die and it has taken me a lot of time to grieve him.
“He wasn’t just a young man with a life in front of him; he was a young man who had courage.”
Reece left his comfortable suburban Benowa home for the Middle East in late April last year.
His parents, Michele and Keith, and younger brother Jordan, only found out Reece had taken up arms in Syria when federal police officers knocked on their door a few days later.
It was hard for the Hardings to understand Reece’s decision to leave everything behind, including his blue-eyed Husky named Zeus.
They were baffled as Reece had never shown any interest in such causes, had no religious beliefs, no Kurdish friends or sources of political influence.
To them, he was a “typical Australian boy” who liked girls, travelling, partying. Reece had also been a champion swimmer with Olympic potential before he injured his hand in a workplace accident.
The young man, who had seen the atrocities committed by Islamic State through videos on the internet, later explained he simply could no longer sit around “watching innocent women and children being raped and slaughtered”.
“ISIS is a cancer and needs to be destroyed before it spreads any further,” he is quoted as having said in a video posted on the Lions of Rojava’s Facebook page.
These videos were like clues, breadcrumbs for his family to follow – the puzzle of why he had left, because he never came home to tell the full story.
What we do know is Reece was given two sets of khaki uniforms and basic military training as soon as he arrived in Syria.
The blonde-haired young Gold Coaster quickly became popular in his unit made up of a mix of Kurdish and foreign volunteer fighters.
Joe Ackerman, a former British soldier, fought alongside Reece and said he always had “the biggest brightest smile I’ve ever seen on a guy”.
Michael also painted a similar picture and said Reece was always gentle – a rare quality in a Syrian war zone.
“We are at the front which means we live in bombed out buildings,” he said.
It’s been nine months since Michael was in Syria, but he still talks about it in present tense.
“We go in a village or town, we clear it and we kick in every single door there,” he said.
“Of course, Daesh [the Arabic name for the Islamic State] can be behind and come out and kill us.
“Wherever we are there is no power, you definitely don’t have air-conditioning and you don’t even have a fan.
“You’re in (43C) heat so you just try and get through the day.”
And on days when the smell of the casualties was almost too much to bear, the fighters were comforted by camaraderie and a sense of mission.
They were all driven by the same purpose and they managed to share moments of lightness and kindness.
“A few days before he passed, we were hungry, and saw some chickens in the abandoned village we were staying in,” Robert remembered.
“We chased them and caught one for dinner.
“We started plucking it but we really had no idea how to do it and we were just laughing the whole time at ourselves.
“We eventually cut it up as best we could -it wasn’t pretty -and boiled it.
“We were (far) from chefs but it tasted great because we hadn’t had meat in days.”
Michael laughed while remembering the day Reece and three other soldiers dressed up in women’s clothes to lighten the mood.
“We were all wooing and whistling,” he said.
“I remember going to Reece and I was flirting with him and saying: ‘You’re a really good looking honey’.
“We were just messing around.”
But Ashley Dyball – a 24-year-old from Brisbane who fought in the same unit – said the war was never far from their minds.
Near-misses were common, and there were times the unit came centimetres from death.
“Joe, Reece, our commander and I were out on a (operation) clearing a village to move people,” he said.
“Our commander led us.
“During the op Joe quickly grabbed our commander and pulled him back and stopped him probably centimetres from tripping a trip wire rigged to well-disguised explosives – probably 150kg worth which would have killed us all.”
Ashley is restricted in what he can tell the media due to pending terrorism charges in Germany but he has regularly visited Reece’s grave in Carrara since returning home late last year.
He even got Reece’s smiling face tattooed on his back because he said Reece always “had my back”.
The 24-year-old was questioned extensively by police upon his return home because, under Australian foreign fighter laws, it is forbidden to enter a foreign country with the intention of taking up arms.
By fighting with the Kurds, Ashley and Reece risked up to 25 years in jail.
The reasons for this is the concerns that foreign fighters in Syria will carry out terrorist attacks in Australia should they return home.
Reece was scared of returning to Australia because of the laws which do not differentiate Australians fighting for ISIS or the Kurds, despite the groups’ radically different ideologies.
“One time, I interviewed all the foreign fighters in the room on camera,” Michael said.
“I wanted everyone there to take part but then Reece left the room because it was a step too far.
“He didn’t want to get arrested when he went home… but it’s a journey he never made.”
The war continues to rage in Syria, but Michael, Ashley, Robert and Joe have all left the frontline.
They are now spread across the world and their bond, forged in the battle, is difficult for other people to understand.
“We all went for the same reasons… because of the horrors of Daesh,” Michael said.
“He (Reece) was definitely there for ideological reasons – he went there for a noble purpose.
“I went because I cannot live in a world where that is going on and I’m not doing anything about it.
“When I went home, none of my family would talk about it and said I should never have gone.
“It was a very hard situation for me.”
Reece’s family will never be sure why Reece chose to fight with the Kurds because he left for Syria in secret.
But the biggest clue is one of his last videos when the young man, proudly wearing his uniform, spoke clearly as he stared directly into the camera and said the war against ISIS should be everybody’s war.
“I believe the Western world is not doing enough to help,” he said.
“The Kurdish people are lovely people and I’ve never met such a nice group of people.
“If anything happens to me, my parents I love you, my brother I love you, and Isabelle I love you.”
Monday marks 12 months since Reece Harding died after he stepped on a landmine in the heart of the Syrian war zone.
In remembrance, his parents Michele and Keith Harding have issued an open invitation to join them for a remembrance ceremony in Nerang tomorrow.
Hundreds of people, including Reece’s brother Jordan from Townsville, are expected to attend the Somerville Chapel, from 1pm.
Brisbane-based Ashley Dyball, 24, who fought with Reece in the Kurdish militia against Islamic State is also expected to make a speech about his close friend.
Source: Gold Coast Bulletin