TORONTO - Dillon Hillier had left military life behind, but the murders of two Canadian soldiers on home soil spurred the veteran to head to the front lines — although not with the Canadian Forces.
Hillier had been horrified by headlines showing the havoc wreaked by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, including the capturing of Yazidi women as sex slaves, and a violent campaign of rape, torture and killing.
"Then, there was also the fact that there was about 90 Canadian citizens over there participating in these atrocities with ISIS," said Hillier, who served a tour in Afghanistan as a corporal in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
"That made me think: 'OK, I may be able ... to at least show people, the Kurds and everyone, that there are Canadians willing to do the right thing as well — even though they're not being asked to."
Hillier said the 2014 slayings of warrant officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo were the "trigger" for him to do more than just observe from afar. Vincent was killed when a man classified by police as a radical Islamist ran him down with his car in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Days later, Cirillo was killed while standing guard at the National War Memorial by a lone gunman who later stormed Parliament Hill.
In "One Soldier," (HarperCollins Canada) Hillier documents the three months he spent in a volunteer effort accompanying the Kurdish army in a series of battles against ISIL in northern Iraq.
Hillier's brother, Russell, who is collaborator on the memoir, was in the know about his plans — but his parents weren't.
"My parents were so angry at me, especially the way I went about informing them. I sent my dad an email five minutes before I boarded the plane in Calgary — and they were really mad. But they understand now why I felt I had to do this."
Upon arrival at a forward operating base of the Kurdish guerilla fighters PKK, they sought to seize Hillier's electronics, describing them as "distractions."
He surrendered his computer, but was able to keep his cellphone to have a connection to the outside world. Hillier said he compiled key details and memories for "One Soldier" from social media chats.
Hillier, 28, said a big part of writing the memoir was providing more than a brief snapshot of the conflict and detailing the realities of the situation overseas.
"I didn't realize that there was 1,000 kilometres of trenches — the Kurds on one side, ISIS on the other — sometimes 50 metres, sometimes a kilometre in between trenches.
"It was very reminiscent of the Western Front in (the First World War). I didn't really appreciate that before I went."
Hillier said the skills developed over his five years in the Canadian Forces were crucial in the fight against the Islamic State, but he found combat to be "pretty disorganized."
"There's bullets going overhead, and people are talking on their cellphones because that's how they're communicating during the battle, whereas in the Canadian military, we have a commander that's controlling everything that's going on."
A notable moment for Hillier during his time in combat was coming to the aid of a Kurdish fighter who had been shot in the face, whom he dragged to cover and bandaged prior to his evacuation. He also recalled the pride he felt in being able to help recapture the town of Tal Ward.
"People were going to be able to return to their homes.... That made me feel pretty good."
Hillier initially had a tough time transitioning back to civilian life. He candidly reveals in "One Soldier" how he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and woke up "terrified and sweating," haunted by dreams of men being killed and children screaming for their dead parents.
"There were three weeks where I was kind of a mess," he admitted. "When you're in the military, when you're in combat ... you have a very defined purpose and mission. Coming home you're like: 'What's my purpose? What's my mission?'"
Hillier credited his family for their support and maintains contact with friends he met while in Iraq.
"The thoughts are always with me, so reading it or even watching the GoPro footage I had, it doesn't have much of an impact on me because that stuff is with me all the time. I'm not saying that in a negative way, but (they are) things that you don't easily forget.
"I focus on the good things that happened there. Talking to Peshmergas and how much they appreciated having me and (my friend) Ethan there. Taking pictures with the kids in the villages right behind the front lines. I love thinking about those things."
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