A grandfather from Tyne and Wear with no military experience has flown to Iraq and joined a front line unit fighting Islamic State. He said he was inspired to go as an example to his two grandsons, and because no one else seemed to be doing anything to protect the Christian communities threatened by the Islamic State’s jihad.
White van man Jim Atherton, 53, financed the £18,000 cost for travel and weapons by selling his beloved car, a Sierra Cosworth, as well as two motorbikes, a boat and an array of car parts. £3,000 of that was spent on weapons: £650 for an RPK light machine gun, £1,500 for a Glock pistol and £200 for a shotgun. As an unpaid volunteer, he even has to buy his own ammo, as a cost of £1.30 per round.
Speaking to The Sun, Mr Atherton said: “I couldn’t stand seeing IS killing women and kids. People were commenting online about IS atrocities then five minutes later it was all forgotten. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, so I decided that I would.”
He admitted that his wife and children were against him going, but he felt he had to. He said:
“My wife is devastated I’ve come out. She said, ‘Please don’t go’. The kids were panicking too.
“I’m not a young bloke, I had a heart attack in 2007. But it’s something I felt I had to do. I wanted my grandkids to know what I’m really about.
“I’m Christian, although not a churchgoer. I’ve got a good sense of right and wrong.
“I’m a middle-aged white van man. I thought if I’m going to do anything with myself it’s going to be now.”
His family weren’t the only people opposed: Special Branch has visited his wife, urging her to persuade him to come home, and when he returned to England for a two week break, officers were waiting for him at Manchester Airport, holding him for questioning for two hours. He told them that he would be returning to Iraq.
Mr Atherton travelled to Dohuk, about 70 miles north west of Erbil, via Turkey. He was forced to make two attempts at the journey, as on the first attempt the Turkish authorities turned him back. He successfully got through on the second attempt by flying through at night-time.
He admitted that as his plane came in to land at Erbil he was shaking with apprehension, but his nerves subsided when he was met by Dwekh Nawsha fighters, who took him to their headquarters in Dohuk. He had got in contact with the group, whose name translates as “The Sacrificers”, online.
Back home, Mr Atherton spent much of his time caring for rescued dachshund dogs. Now, sporting a dachshund badge next to his Union Jack patch, he patrols the front line, protecting the local Christian population in local villages such as al-Qosh. Jihadists have threatened to kill the villagers if they don’t convert to Islam.
“Anyone with any sense is frightened when you come under fire. I didn’t know whether I’d drop everything and jump on a plane straight back. But I think I’ve done all right,” he said.
“I’ve been made to feel very welcome. I arrived with no military training but I’m fairly savvy with weapons already because my dad was into competition shooting.
“Our lodging is taken care of and so is our food. But the grub is not always great for Western stomachs. I really miss bacon sandwiches — although you get HP sauce.”
Of the Peshmerga fighters which his unit fights alongside, he said: “The average peshmerga lad is 18 to 25 years old. It’s an honour to stand beside them. They call me Jimbo and queue up to shake my hand and give me a cuddle.
“I don’t encourage anyone else to come out — it was just something I had to do.
“I don’t think I’m Rambo but I believe I’m a good soldier. Of course I miss my family and dogs. I’ve still got my white van. I’ll get my job back — there’s always work for a van driver. But I think this war will be a long one and I want to be here when IS is defeated.”
Jim’s brother-in-arms, Marcus said: “Jimbo’s a good soldier and a funny guy. We’re honoured to have him. Some foreign fighters come for fame or money but Jimbo came for the right reason, to help us protect our villages.”
Mr Atherton commented: “I’m prepared to die fighting IS.”