David Eubank served in the military for 10 years and is now a humanitarian aid worker.
At first, David Eubank thought he was looking at a pile of rags in the street. Then, he realized they were dead bodies.
Eubank, who served in the military for 10 years before founding the humanitarian aid group Free Burma Rangers (FBR), was standing inside Mosul, Iraq, where ISIS and Iraqi forces are entering one of the deadliest parts of their years-long civil war. While he was looking at the dead with his FBR comrades, the 56-year-old suddenly saw something move across the road, amidst fire from ISIS.
«We go, ‘oh my god, there are people alive over there,'» Eubank told A Plus in a phone interview. «So I just prayed, ‘God, how can we do this? How can we rescue them?’ I’ve been 20-something years in Burma, a lot of shooting… in Iraq three years, Mosul nine months, constant combat. So it wasn’t like we didn’t know what we were doing. So when I say, ‘you could not cross the road’ — I mean it. You couldn’t do it. You’d be dead.»
But in just a few moments, that’s exactly what Eubank would do.
The 56-year-old had a long journey before ending up in Iraq. Eubank had served in the military, went to Fuller Theological Seminary, and ended up moving to Burma, where he formed FBR after a Burmese Bible group asked his parents — who were Christian missionaries — for help. The Eubanks thought of their son, who had military experience, knowing the Burmese people — enmeshed in their own conflict — needed help from someone willing to give humanitarian aid in dangerous areas.
Then, close to three years ago, Victor Marx, a Christian counselor and head of All Things Possible Ministries, invited FBR to Iraq to help Marx with his humanitarian work with Iraqis and Kurds living under the oppression of ISIS. At first, Eubank didn’t think they’d be able to help. After all, FBR specialized in combat, administering medicine and reporting war crimes in the jungles of Burma. Iraq was a more developed country with highways and deserts, where people spoke Arabic and were in the middle of a religious and cultural war Eubank didn’t totally understand.
Nevertheless, they came. Eubank said he had a thought, a feeling, a message from God that he should give up the FBR way and come help these people. FBR began their work in February of 2015, did two trips into Syria from Iraq in 2016, started working with Iraqi forces in November of 2016, and have been involved — giving aid, treating the wounded, or fighting — in almost every major battle in Mosul over the last nine months.
And now, piles of rubble and ISIS gunfire stood between the FBR and innocent Iraqi civilians who needed help.
In order to get to the little girl and two other men they saw moving amongst the dead, they’d need some cover. Eubank wanted a tank, a Humvee, armor, and a bulldozer for cover, but he emphasized that as a civilian, he knew he couldn’t get everything he wanted. Instead, American forces were calling the shots. They offered smoke bombs for cover while Iraqi forces offered one Abrams tank. As ISIS shot at them, Eubank and his men ran behind the tank to approach the survivors.
«I don’t know if you know the feeling when you’re getting right to the top of the roller coaster, but that’s what it feels like,» Eubank said. «Except imagine the roller coaster has just now left its tracks, and is just plummeting through the air… that’s what it felt like when we started following the tank.»
Eubank had good reason for his fear: he’d lost a translator and a best friend who were both shot and killed, 31 Iraqi solders he’d fought alongside with and considered friends were now dead, and, in one month, he counted 450 civilians shot by ISIS.
«That’s only a sample of what’s going on in Mosul, that’s just what we saw, that’s just our unit,» Eubank said.
Despite the cover — the United States air force dropped a «perfect» line of smoke — ISIS unloaded on them.
«They were shooting RPG, machine gun, rifle, sniper, they had a GSh-23 and an aircraft gun in ground mode,» Eubank said. «They dropped mortars. It was brutal.»
Eubank and his team took cover behind the tank, but they knew they’d have to make their move soon if they wanted to save any of the people that were still alive. Some, he’d find out later, had been laying wounded in the sun for three days. Bullets bounced off the tank, off the buildings around them, and kicked up dirt amongst the pile of dead, injured and the few that were living. Eubank said he felt no courage — «just fear.» In all his years of combat, he had never thought he’d die until that moment.
«But I thought if I die today trying to rescue this girl, my wife and kids will understand,» Eubank said. «They may cry for me, but they’ll understand. And I just said, ‘God help me, in Jesus name,’ and I ran.»
Two of Eubank’s teammates opened fire on the ISIS combatants, aiming at them as he ran for the girl. He fell down on his way back, with the girl in his arms, as bullets flew past him, but got to his feet and got the girl to safety behind the tank. Then, he and his men went back to retrieve two more men, and one of Eubank’s teammates was shot in the leg.
The rescue, which happened on June 1, went viral on Twitter after video of it was posted online. Eubank and his team couldn’t find any living relatives of the girl — who was hiding underneath her dead mother’s hijab — but his wife and another displaced Iraqi family took care of her for the next week. One of the Iraqi generals who Eubank works with plans to adopt her if the search for relatives remains fruitless. Of the two other men they rescued, only one survived.
«When it was over I just couldn’t believe we lived, I couldn’t believe this girl survived,» Eubank said. «And I just said, ‘thank God,’ it was a miracle. And thank the American air force, and the Iraqis for the tank.»
As the war against ISIS rages on in Iraq, many outside observers see little hope for a resolution anytime soon. With Iraqi forces primed to take back Mosul, experts expect the next few months to be some of the deadliest of the war, as ISIS will dig its heels in and its combatants continue to show little issue with martyring themselves for their cause. Eubanks knows it will take time, but he believes additional help from the U.S. in Iraq and a «way out» for ISIS supporters or family members could help end the war.
«You always present every enemy with a way out, you always realize every human can change,» Eubank said. «But you go in with all the force you can… I think the Iraqi army is key to what happens in the future. If they can keep hammering ISIS on one hand and have mercy and forgiveness for those that supported ISIS on the other, there’s a chance for a new Iraq.»