“Brother, for you to get hurt, I’ll have to die first.”
These words exemplify the treatment retired Brigadier General Ernie Audino received in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters during his time embedded in Iraq.
Gen. Audino recalled this quote, along with various other narratives during his time in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005 and 2006, during a presentation of the LIFE Global Issues Series in the Pegasus Ballroom on Tuesday.
The Kurds are an ethnic minority located primarily in northern Iraq and Syria. Having escaped near-genocide under the rule of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, they are now spearheading the local Iraqi and Syrian efforts to combat the Islamic State. Known for striking fear into the hearts of militants by using women fighters, Kurdish soldiers are known as Peshmerga, or “those who confront death”.
A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Gen. Audino says his love for the Kurdish people developed in 2002 while studying the Middle East under the instruction of former ambassador Peter Galbraith at the National War College in Washington, D.C. After receiving orders to embed in Kurdistan as an advisor, the Kurds made him feel at home, as much as is possible in a war zone.
“They treated me like a brother, like a son, like a father,” Gen. Audino recalled. “They have become the most open, loving, accommodating people in that region. They would tell me, ‘every American soldier should have his statue cast in gold.’”
Gen. Audino attended most of the funerals for the twenty-two Peshmerga fighters killed during his tour in Kurdistan. However, he points out that no American has ever died in Kurdish-controlled territory.