Nfld. & Labrador

Michael Kennedy likely safe in Northern Iraq, says former volunteer soldier with Kurdish army

While Michael Kennedy's family awaits his release from custody in Northern Iraq, one former Canadian soldier is urging them to remain confident.

Many Western soldiers detained, all released, says veteran Dillon Hillier

Michael Kennedy, left, was detained last week by Kurdish authorities. Dillon Hillier, right, spent three months fighting in the region and believes Kennedy is safe. (Facebook/CBC)

While Michael Kennedy's family awaits his release from custody in Northern Iraq, one former Canadian soldier is urging them to remain confident.

Kennedy, a military veteran from Newfoundland and Labrador, was arrested by authorities with the ruling Kurdistan government in the region last Tuesday.

I think he went over there and did what he wanted to do, and helped people out.- Dillon Hillier

"I wasn't overly surprised [Kennedy was detained], and I'm not really concerned," said Dillon Hillier, an Afghanistan War veteran who spent time fighting ISIS in Iraq.

"Obviously, it's likely terrifying for any family having their son over there to begin with, and then hearing about them being detained, but I'd wager to say that he's probably safe."

While the two soldiers have never met, Hillier said they had many discussions online about their missions fighting ISIS in Iraq.

Kennedy, 32, followed Hillier's footsteps into Iraq to take up arms alongside the Peshmerga forces – a Western ally fighting in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq.

Kennedy served in the Canadian Forces for 13 years, his mother told the National Post, but three months after leaving the military in March, he made his way to Syria.

Dillon Hillier, son of an Ontario politician, returned to Canada last February after battling ISIS in Northern Iraq. (Dillon Hillier/Facebook)

Unlike Hillier, Kennedy's fight took him across the border into Syria. It is believed he was arrested by Kurdish authorities and held in custody after crossing back into Iraq.

Hillier said arrests are not uncommon, as many Western fighters cross the border with expired documents.

"I know a lot of Western volunteers that have come back from Syria, re-entering Iraq, have been detained by the Kurdistan regional government," Hillier said. "They've all been let go."

The two men last spoke on Nov. 8, when Kennedy told Hillier he was coming back to Canada. Hillier invited Kennedy over to his home in Toronto, to spend the night and talk about their experiences.

Peshmerga flip-flops on volunteer fighters

Hillier left Iraq last February after being relegated to a secondary role in the war. An influx of inexperienced foreign fighters caused the Peshmerga to reconsider allowing volunteer fighters to join them on missions.

Kennedy was likely frustrated by the same issues, Hillier said, and that could have been a factor in him going to Syria.

Still, he believes Kennedy achieved what he set out to do — to fight what they believe to be the face of evil.

Kay Kennedy with her son Michael Kennedy. She says her son is being held in Erbil, Iraq, by Kirdish authorities. (Facebook)

Hillier decided to join the fight after seeing constant images of the war on TV, including the capture, torture and decimation of the Yazidi people – a religious group in Northern Iraq.

It's nothing like what I trained for, or experienced, in the Canadian military.- Dillon Hillier

"That's enough to make anybody want to go over there and help out in the fight against them," Hillier said. "I think he went over there and did what he wanted to do, and helped people out."

After a five-year stint in the Canadian Armed Forces, Hillier arranged his travel online and met with a Kurdish lieutenant on arrival.

During his three months in Iraq, he saw combat on a regular basis. While most instances were defensive, Hillier was part of a siege on an ISIS stronghold and helped reclaim that town for the Kurds.

"It's nothing like what I trained for, or experienced, in the Canadian military," he said. "There was a lot of pretty high casualties in some of the engagements I was in."

Hillier believes Kennedy travelled abroad for the same reasons, and likely had many of the same experiences.

"I think he accomplished what he went there to do."

With files from Gavin Simms