Harry M. was a U.S. Marine, a civilian police officer and a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army National Guard. He served numerous combat tours, including a violent stretch in Ramadi as a sniper team leader in 2005, tasked with capturing or killing high-value targets.
He had retired from the service to his home in New Jersey, when two of his sons, Josh and James, told him they were planning a trip to Kurdistan to join the fight against ISIS terrorists. The 49-year-old divorced dad knew he had to go with them.
" 'We want to join with Peshmerga and we want to confront ISIS on our terms,' " Harry said his sons told him. "I've got over 20 years experience and I thought to myself, 'I got two boys going, there is no way they are going without me.'"
Josh, 29, is Harry's oldest son. Tall, handsome and built like a linebacker, he was a U.S. Marine machine gunner, serving two tours in Afghanistan, one of them during the surge in Anbar province. On his left arm is a tattoo of a skull and crossbones -- but the crossbones are .50 caliber machine guns.
"I don't even watch the news anymore because I can't imagine what those people are going through" Josh said about the Iraqis who must deal with ISIS on a daily basis.
"At one point, you had the entire U.S. military protecting them, and then they were gone. And then another group of guys, ISIS, came in and just started slaughtering them by the thousands. And there is nowhere to run. I couldn't imagine that. And I sit at home. The war drew down. The war technically ended for conventional warfare, which put me and my brother basically out of a job. I'm still able to fight and the opportunity arose ... James lit the fire ... and I'm going. That's it. I need to help out."
James, 23, is the baby of the bunch, the only member of the family with blue eyes. He also served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman and registered for college when he got home. But James said he still had a burning desire to serve, and wanted to gain experience as a combat cameraman. So nearly a year ago, he started planning a trip to Kurdistan in northern Iraq to document the fight. After months of discussions with his brother and father, the mission evolved. They decided they'd all go together and film what they could, but their new goal was to help defeat some of the most dangerous and ruthless men on the planet.
"If the military, conventional forces were going, we'd go with them," James said. "We'd sign back up, no problem. But they're not. And that's what it comes down to. They're not and we're capable and we're going."
The family members asked Fox News to withhold their last names for security reasons, but the men said they're not worried about getting in legal trouble, since they're not breaking any laws in the U.S. or in Kurdistan, where they will register with the Regional Government and be deployed under the direction of KRG military leaders.
The U.S. State Department wouldn't comment specifically on the family's trip,but said it's aware that American citizens have joined groups to fight against ISIS. The department said the efforts by those citizens is "neither in support of nor part of U.S. efforts in the region," warning that "travel to Iraq and Syria remains very dangerous."
In other words, the U.S. government doesn't endorse it, but also doesn't forbid it.
James, his brother and his father flew to the Middle East the same evening they spoke to Fox News.
"Hey, I know how to survive in combat," James said. "We are going to contribute on our level. My brother is a heavy machine gunner, my dad is a sniper, I was a rifleman ... we are going to bring that together and present that to the Kurds and aid them in whatever way possible."
"ISIS has threatened our nation and us individually. They came out and said every military member needs to watch out because we are coming for you. We are Marines. We are going to bring the fight to them."
Josh spoke of the importance of the trio's mission
"Every day we're not there, people are dying. I know I can make a difference, I know he can make a difference and I know he can," said Josh, gesturing to his father and brother. "And us together? We're a formidable team. Every day that I'm not there is a day lost."
The men admit the rest of their family and loved ones aren't happy they're leaving and are concerned for their safety. They say they're fully aware of the dangers involved and are willing to risk their lives for the cause. But they also insist they will not be captured and wind up in a prisoner's cage or execution video. They will die on their own terms, if it comes to that, they said, by putting a gun to their own head.
"Worst-case scenario is one or two of us being killed," Harry said. "And we would be fools to think that may not happen. We know that from being deployed. We have already accepted death and we've done everything we can to take care of our loved ones in case that happened."
Josh chimed in, his stare hardened.
"I will not be captured," he said. "I will not. I've seen the videos. Warfare is warfare. When you accept it, it actually becomes very easy. You just go in there and you fight to live. You never go into a gun fight or any type of fight with the expectation you are going to lose."
James added: "Obviously, losing my brother or my father would be terrible, devastating. But this is the life we live. We are warriors."
Josh nodded at the sentiment and said the reason for the mission was clear.
"I don't think we ever questioned why," he said. "I've never one time looked at my brother and asked 'why are you doing this?' It's unspoken."
"Yeah, I mean we celebrate the fights we are in, you know?" he said. "That's just how we do it."
Finally, before they finished packing their bags, the men were asked if they had a message for America.
"I think one thing that is important is try not to get wrapped around the edges of why we are doing this," Harry said. "Try to understand that there are men in this country who are willing to go one step beyond and confront whatever threat is there, whether here at home or overseas. I love my country, I love the ability to debate, I love the ability to worship as I want, I love the ability to pursue happiness and I'm willing to put my life on the line, not just for this country but for complete strangers."
James said he wanted people to understand the family was joining the fight for the right reasons
"I want them to know that we are not out for bloodlust," he said. "We are out there to protect and serve, and not just serving the United States, but people, humanity. Being a good person. We have the capabilities to protect others and that is what we are about."
Said Josh: "I'm an American and this is what we do."
"This is what I do. We are the one percent [who serve] and that doesn't go away. That is driven. Don't hate on that. My intent is to make my brothers who wear the uniform proud of me again and continue to bring havoc to the enemy and protect my family. The foundation of who we are as a people, as a family, as Americans is to protect the ones that can't be protected."
As of Tuesday afternoon, Harry and his sons are already in Iraq, in an undisclosed location, in the process of linking up with Peshmerga soldiers under the direction of the Kurdish Regional Government. Their trip is being partially funded by donations to Humanitarian Defense Abroad, a 501C3 non-profit organization run by another former Marine, Lu Lobello, who has helped dozens of former service members carry out similar missions.
He said the family's mission is "a way to break through this administration's failed foreign policy and make a difference in the hearts and minds of the people we consider our best allies on the ground in that region: the Kurds."
Lobello called such trips the antithesis of PTSD.
"We represent post-traumatic growth," Lobello said. "We are leaders, not broken down vets in need of medical attention. We just need the ability to continue fighting to make the world a better place."
-- Rick Leventhal currently serves as New York-based senior correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network as a correspondent in 1997.