Not long ago, Dean Parker spent the bulk of his days soaked in the tropical warm-water peaks of Central America. At 49, the Florida native thought he’d carved out a small slice of paradise for himself as a surf instructor in Costa Rica. No wetsuits, no stress, plenty of waves—you know, the dream. One quiet evening, Parker found himself overcome with emotion as he set before his television set. On screen, a Western reporter was reporting on the situation facing the Yazidi people—an ethnic Kurdish minority—in Northern Iraq. These headlines had been on the news for weeks, but this particular story pulled at Parker. For the past month, the Yazidis had found themselves combating ISIS as they steamrolled their way through Syria and into Iraq in hopes of creating a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. In the eyes of ISIS, the Yazidi were infidels that must convert to their form of Sunni Islam or be killed. Facing terrible conditions, they retreated to the top of the Sinjar Mountains where, at the time, they were nearly surrounded by ISIS. Relief efforts were underway, but the conditions facing the Yazidis were bleak.
In the story Parker watched, an Iraqi helicopter crew along with a Western news team frantically flies into the besieged mountaintop to deliver water to the weary survivors, a thousand-yard stare evident in every eye.
Parker describes the scene in vivid detail: “In the report, women and children rushed in and started piling into the chopper. The cameraman filmed this one mother holding her 10- or 11-year-old son. He was dressed for school it seemed. She was crying, holding him. He was looking at the camera and that look of sheer terror in his eyes overwhelmed me with emotions I have never felt before,” he told the Daily Mail. “I actually became physically ill and was crying uncontrollably. This has never happened to me before, and that was it. I knew I had to go.” With that, he made a resolution to join the fight.
A month later, Parker found himself in northern Syria, training to fight with the YPG, the national army of Syrian Kurdistan. Under the tanned arm that once held his favorite thruster, he was now shouldering an AK-47. When he arrived, he was positioned in Northern Syria and stood vigil over one of the front lines along with other foreign fighters of various religions and ethnic backgrounds. In Syria, Parker was not in direct combat, though he still experienced indirect sniper fire and endured trying conditions with little food and little sleep.
“Life on the front was anything but fun,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s cold, rainy, muddy, no heat, no hot water, you’re gonna get sick a lot.” According to Parker, his brief time in a combat zone hasn’t led him to regret his decision to join the fight. If anything, it’s strengthened his resolve to help the Kurds. “Of course it was the right decision,” he says. But if people truly want to help, he says the best thing they can do is to support organizations on the ground like Operation Limitless Compassion, a mobile air ambulance company. More volunteers won’t make a difference now. If you want to help, donate money, he added.
And while Parker has now made it official he will be headed home soon, he told us that he wasn’t sure if his efforts in the Middle East were over. “There are a still a lot of bridges to cross before I get home,” he said. “I might join the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces revered for their skills in combat). I have some new friends that can get me in.”
Despite his time in a combat zone, and his enduring resolve to help the Kurds, it’s clear that Parker’s still a surfer at heart. “You should really come do a story over here,” he told me. “Maybe afterwards, we’ll go to the Mentawais for a follow up!”