Why This Former American Soldier Keeps Returning to War Zones

The deeply religious Dave Eubank leads the “Free Burma Rangers,” a humanitarian group drawn to conflict areas.

May 7 2021, 9:09am

On a wooded path surrounded by mountains stretching for miles in all directions, Dave Eubank and his team of medics encountered a group of people fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar.

“How can we help you?” asked Eubank, dressed in a shade of green that matched the forest blanketing the Myanmar-Thai border.

“We want our country back,” one replied.

The missionary medic from Texas is well-known in Myanmar circles, and the exploits of his Free Burma Rangers (FBR) humanitarian group have drawn headlines for years. They lately expanded beyond the predominantly Buddhist country to other crisis hotspots, including Iraq and Syria, where they helped Yazidis and Kurds being massacred by ISIS militants. In 2020, a documentary about the group’s time in the Middle East was released, and Eubank published a memoir the same year

But the 60-year-old is now refocused on where it all started in Myanmar – also known as Burma – after the army seized power on Feb. 1. Since then it has crushed protests, killed over 700 people and launched airstrikes near the Myanmar-Thai border. 

Eubank (L) performs a medical procedure on a woman displaced by conflict in Myanmar. He is accompanied by fellow Free Burma Ranger Doh Say. Photo courtesy of the Free Burma Rangers

The unapologetically devout Eubank, whose soldier’s physique belies his age, peppers his language with Christian themes. In a recent interview with VICE World News, he said he thought it would take a miracle for protesters in Myanmar to defeat the military.

“So we’re praying for that miracle… but before that happens, and maybe it never will, we can build towards this by helping those who are suffering,” he said. “We can help by strengthening everyone who’s resisting, and by appealing to the dictators by saying there's another way.”

But Myanmar security forces have shown no interest in de-escalation. Instead, they’ve rolled out a lethal campaign of violence, gunning down protesters in broad daylight and detaining thousands. 

“We can help by strengthening everyone who’s resisting, and by appealing to the dictators by saying there’s another way.”

With his years of work in the country, Eubank understands the military’s appetite for cruelty better than most.  He has personally witnessed human rights violations and atrocities carried out by security forces against ethnic and religious minorities for decades. In the last few months, however, the junta has used more sophisticated weaponry, launching the first airstrikes in Karen State in 20 years, forcing villagers to hide in holes carved out of mountains. 

According to the Free Burma Rangers, the attacks in northern Karen state alone have led to at least 40 dead and 80 wounded in recent months. Some 24,000 people have been internally displaced, the group estimates. 

“It’s not just bombings, but rockets, and machine gun strafing,” Eubank said of the modern arsenal. “This was at a level we haven’t seen.”

The Free Burma Rangers conduct reconnaissance training. Rappelling, swimming, navigation and documentation are all part of their work. Photo courtesy of the Free Burma Rangers

Originally from the United States, Eubank was raised in Thailand to Christian missionary parents. He spoke Thai as his first language. After completing university in Texas, he joined the armed forces as an infantry officer. He swiftly rose through the ranks and was eventually placed in a special forces division. 

During his ten years of military service, he worked all over the world, including Asia. After leaving the military, he went into seminary, where he met his future wife, Karen (the similar spelling to the state in Myanmar is a coincidence). In 1993, he said he received an invitation from leaders of the Wa State army, a powerful ethnic armed organization in an autonomous region in northern Myanmar.

The Wa foreign minister, who was Christian himself, knew Eubank’s parents through their missionary work. He learned they had a son who was a former special forces soldier and he asked if he would consider traveling to Myanmar to help their army train. After receiving the invitation, Eubank asked Karen to marry him. The newlyweds went to Myanmar immediately after. They have been together ever since. For their 20th wedding anniversary, they hiked 25 miles in the remote north of the country.

When they first arrived Myanmar was largely shut off from the world. The couple had to hike across the border illegally from Thailand. Within years, other groups persecuted by the ethnic Bamar-dominated military invited Eubank to come help them, and his reputation spread. He came up with the concept of the Free Burma Rangers a few years later after an army offensive displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the late 1990s.

“I remember thinking, I’ll help one person,” he said.  “I had no plan, but I’ll help one person, they’ll be glad, and I’ll be glad and that’s it,” reflecting on the beginnings of FBR. “I went to the border with four backpacks of medicine myself,” he said. “Then locals slowly started joining, and pretty soon we were the Free Burma Rangers.”

Dave and his wife, Karen, kiss after completing a 25 mile walk in Kachin State, Myanmar to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Photo courtesy of the Free Burma Rangers

The organization now has roughly 500 “rangers” operating in 100 teams across conflict-wracked parts of Myanmar. The majority of the rangers are ethnic minorities but they’re supported by 20 to 30 foreigners volunteering on the ground.

VICE World News spoke by phone to one of the local rangers working deep inside Karen State. Doh Say, a 53-year-old ethnic Karenni and devout Christian, was busy digging a bomb shelter into the side of a thick hill as the roar of fighter jets could be heard through the line. “Now, as I’m talking to you, I hear the planes coming again,” Doh Say said.

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“I haven’t finished the bomb shelter yet. But for me this kind of thing is normal, for others it's scary of course, but we have to do this.”

He said that since the coup, operations have intensified as the need is greater than it has been in decades. The job is a difficult one, he noted, as not only are they at risk of airstrikes, it’s possible to encounter security forces, and the elements on the hills are a challenge themselves.

“Once you start to get tired maybe you just slow down. But you just keep doing the job that God wants us to do,” he said. “At least we can share with them and give them some kind of warmth. Because they are afraid. But then when suddenly someone arrives to help them, it creates so much encouragement. Because of the Burma Army, they are living in fear. But when we arrive, you can see their faces become more relaxed. "

Doh Say said joining the rangers changed his life.

“I always say I want to help people.”

Among aid, NGOs and human rights organizations, there are mixed feelings about FBR. They have undeniably done important work, but the romanticized missionary image has made others uneasy. Writing in the Mekong Review last year, David Scott Mathieson, a former Human Rights Watch researcher for Myanmar, captured some of the complex portrait.

“War zones attract a rogue’s gallery of adventurers, fantasists and psychopaths. Eubank and his Free Burma Rangers (FBR) have been called all those and more,” Mathieson wrote.

It’s true that some find Eubank’s Christian rhetoric disagreeable. Mathieson also notes support for the group’s activities from some Republican members of congress. Others simply can’t come to terms with why he has thrown himself into conflict zones. But as Mathieson points out, although his style of humanitarian relief may put many off,  “you would be a churlishly judgy atheist to claim they haven’t been effective.”

Eubank said FBR is not a religious organization. But there’s undeniably a deep spiritual motivation for the work he does.

Since its founding, FBR has expanded operations to the Middle East and North Africa, working in Sudan, Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria. In 2016, he personally fought against ISIS insurgents to protect refugees who were targeted. One video shows Eubank throwing himself into a line of sniper fire to rescue a child in Mosul.

Eubank’s three children have accompanied him and are involved in relief operations. They help lead a program called the “Good Life Club,” which offers displaced children education and joy even amid a backdrop of violent conflict.

The Eubank family pose in a military vehicle during relief operations in Iraq. Photo courtesy of the Free Burma Rangers

FBR’s primary mission is to offer emergency medical assistance to sick or injured refugees. They train local volunteers in medical treatment, reconnaissance techniques, and try to document human rights abuses. The group has helped hundreds of thousands of wounded and conducted over a thousand relief missions, according to Eubank.

It’s all about helping people who are fleeing violence. But sometimes the violence spills over to the rangers themselves.

The line between medic and soldier can sometimes feel blurred to observers. Over the last 25 years, 30 rangers have been killed. The reality of encountering life-threatening scenarios has led many rangers to carry weapons. Eubank said they don’t have a policy of arming rangers, but that they can carry rifles or handguns to protect themselves and other refugees.

“I look at weapons like a tool,” Eubank said. “There’s a place to use them and there’s a time to use them. So we tell our guys, you can’t use these to go attack the Burma Army, or anybody else. But, if the Burma Army comes, and you have to defend yourself or the villagers you’re with, that’s the time you can use it if you want. That’s between you and God.”

Since the coup, Eubank has spent his time on the hills of Karen State. He’s been providing food and water to those stranded and stitching up wounded IDPs, including a child who survived an airstrike that killed his father.

He’s also pleading with the international community to do more. But the real change must come from inside the country, he said. Until then, he can only pray and keep offering medical aid.

“Some people say you’re doing this to be a hero,” he said. “But self preservation trumps image every time. And so when you’re in those situations, where the danger is clear, and the probability of you surviving is not there, you don’t move forward because of pride. But you go forward because of love.” 

Tagged:

Religion, iraq, Myanmar, worldnews, world conflict

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