In a school on the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, bloodied and broken soldiers overfill the beds and splay across the floor. The room hums with the moans of quivering civilians who wait on medics. Minutes before, they’d been running, narrowly escaping an attack from the Islamic State. And then a car detonated, blasting projectiles of steel and glass in every direction.
Sky Barkley, an American with EMT training, narrows his focus to find the person who looks the worst. Dropping to his knees, Sky attends to an older man with a gash across the forehead and lacerations so severe that it’s difficult to locate his eyes. He wraps the man’s wounds in gauze and moves on, praying as he selects another patient.
Noelle Barkley remembers horrors of her own from their first months in Iraq. Streets leveled by warfare, families returning to their homes and finding nothing left. A mother crying uncontrollably because her children had been killed—and Noelle without an available interpreter. “I sat there for an hour and just held her hand, cried with her. But we didn’t speak.”
Sky and Noelle Barkley began their third year of marriage in the worst urban conflict since World War II. They live and serve as members of the Free Burma Rangers, volunteers in a Christian relief ministry created in 1997 to support people living under oppression. The organization now boasts more than 70 teams in Burma, Sudan, Kurdistan, and Iraq.
God has opened many doors for the Free Burma Rangers in Iraq, not least of which was the opportunity to be placed within an Iraqi army brigade fighting to liberate its country from ISIS. The army gave protection to the Rangers as they served in Jesus’ name, feeding the displaced and treating the injured. Sky and Noelle’s team formed a quick bond with the soldiers. The unit commander, a Sunni Muslim general, once said, “You’ve been cold with us when we were cold, and you’ve been hungry with us when we’ve been hungry, and you’ve bled with us when we’ve bled.” He even allowed the Rangers to pray for his men.
As a teenager in Pageland, South Carolina, Noelle spent afternoons with her parents in a mobile home community. They assisted with homework, shared donated clothes, and brought church to the community on Sundays. Out of a lifestyle of compassion, Noelle embraced God’s call to be a living sacrifice. She prayed that God would give her courage to serve Him in even trying and unconventional ways.
In 2004 Sky enlisted in the Marines. At 19, in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, he patrolled IED supply routes, searching for weapons caches while the U.S.-led coalition faced off in some of the most intense battles of the Iraq War. “I have a tattoo on my right arm,” says Sky. “It’s a burning mosque. Because I hated Arabs and I hated Islam, and I hated that whole country. When I left Iraq I said, I’m never coming back to this place.”
Nine years later, no longer serving in the military, Sky met Noelle on a sidewalk in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was a bouncer at a nightclub then, working the door, when Noelle and a friend walked past, looking for a place to eat. “We have food in here,” Sky told them. “Where are you from?” When Noelle told him they attended a Bible college in northeast Georgia, he said, “Well then, you don’t need to come in here.” And they didn’t. Instead, Noelle stood talking to Sky for 45 minutes. She told him about her school and what it meant to follow Jesus. It was a brief intersection of lives—a bouncer and a Bible college student, unlikely to see each other again.
Sky was at his lowest point then. After an unfulfilling season in law enforcement and a car accident that nearly killed him, he was unable to return to the Marines. This left him angry, unhappy, and questioning his purpose. He decided to get away for a while, and after selling everything, he headed to South America with his brother. They stayed with “Uncle Martin,” a missionary living among the Cocama people in Colombia. Thunderstruck by Martin’s love for everyone he met, Sky yearned to have a love like that. It was while sitting in a candlelit hut, with the low murmur of Spanish choruses filling the space, that he surrendered to Christ.
Each day, in the cool after a jungle rain, Sky spent time with God. He read the Bible but struggled with the unfamiliar text. And he prayed, seeking a way to glorify God with his training and experience. After a few days, a man named Russ Turner walked up from the riverbank with In Touch Messengers. Russ was in the region to teach a Bible seminar for the neighboring Ticuna people, and he was bringing the devices to nearby villages.
Sky quickly took to Russ and asked him questions about faith. Every day, Sky kept a Messenger with him as he lay in a hammock, absorbing the lessons of Dr. Stanley. His travel visa was expiring soon, and the Messenger taught him how to live out the gospel as he prepared to return. At one point during his long talks with Russ, Sky heard about the mission of the Free Burma Rangers. They weren’t in Iraq at that time, but the idea of the Rangers and the type of work they did settled into Sky’s heart until he was restless with the possibility of finding something like it.
Meanwhile, Facebook acted like a slender thread keeping the bouncer and the Bible college student connected. When Sky left for South America, Noelle was headed to Jordan for a cross-cultural internship. She took an interest in his journey of soul-searching and sent him short messages he’d retrieve when he could get to an internet café—notes like, I’m praying for you. When he got back to the States, he went to see her in Pageland. She was home from Jordan, sharing her experiences at a local church.
“We went to Applebee’s and had coffee for about five hours,” says Sky. “I drank 10 cups. My heart almost exploded.”
Noelle says they went to Applebee’s because she didn’t want to take him back to her house. “My mom offered, but I was like, no, I just want to say thank you and goodbye.” But this wasn’t the same Sky she’d seen on the sidewalk that night. Not only was he attentive to her, but he also shared the gospel with their waiter. “He was ministering to him the way Jesus would,” she says. “I was just like, Whoa. The hook was definitely in.” And on Noelle’s last night at home before returning to college, the two of them sat up talking all night outside a friend’s house. In nine months they were married.
And two years later they were Free Burma Rangers.
On their first night in Mosul, Sky was on the front lines, caring for the injured. Noelle was on the roof of their team house. “It was shaking, bombs were going off, bullets, all this stuff. But I wasn’t afraid.” And in that moment, with courage supplied from above, Noelle recognized how God had answered her youthful prayers. She was grateful, even if uncertain about how God would use her.
Sky and Noelle understand the danger of their calling. Traveling on the open road, there’s always the risk of attack. Even in liberated communities, where the team hosts Good Life Clubs for the children, they would keep the event from running too long, so as not to attract the attention of ISIS. And as the Rangers moved with the army, looking for people to liberate and support, they came under fire themselves. In one incident, an interpreter with the Rangers was shot in the stomach. He was rescued and mended, thanks to the heroism of Mahammed, an Iraqi who’d recently come to faith in Christ through his relationship with Sky and the team. Shot six times during the rescue and released from his military service, Mahammed is now a Free Burma Ranger.
Sky and Noelle bonded with their hosts in the Iraqi army and developed a godly love for the people they came to protect and serve. But loving ISIS? That hasn’t come easily—certainly not to Sky, who admits to having dreamed about getting a few minutes alone with an ISIS soldier. One day, the team arrived at an Iraqi stronghold in Al Rashidiyah. There, an Iraqi soldier opened a closet to show off three ISIS prisoners, their mouths gagged, their hands bound. Sky stared at them for a while, thinking of a way to put fear and panic in their eyes. Noelle had a different reaction. Though frightened, she thought, Are they getting food and water?
The next day, one of the ISIS combatants was on work detail. Guarded by an Iraqi soldier, the prisoner swept broken glass and debris from the floor. That’s when Noelle stepped forward with another believer, a man from Christian Aid Ministries, and the two of them worked beside the man, helping him to clean up. Sky, recognizing the gospel in action, marched up to the prisoner and, through a translator, told him to stand and face him. He explained that Jesus taught His followers to love their enemies. “I don’t know who you are, or what you’ve done,” Sky told him. “But I love you, and I forgive you for what you did.” And the man started to weep.
Steadily, as the months went by, cities in Iraq were reclaimed. ISIS went on the run, until the entire country was finally liberated. With conflict relatively absent, and the threat of it fading every day, Sky and Noelle turned from crisis care to a more personal and spiritual ministry. They went looking for the people they had treated and rescued, eager to explain why they’d put their lives on the line to come to Iraq and love them.
The tattoo on Sky’s right arm—of the burning mosque—is always a conversation starter. Now he sees it as a way to share the gospel. “I used to hate you,” Sky says to his new Iraqi friends, “but Jesus transformed me. He loves me—and He taught that the best thing we can do is love each other.” The couple also have Messenger Lab resources—both the handheld, solar-powered Bibles with Dr. Stanley’s teaching, and the same content available on microSD cards for cellphones.
Free Burma Rangers are taught to do nothing out of fear or comfort. It’s a sentiment Sky and Noelle have kept at the forefront of their minds while living in Iraq. It’s not always easy to rethink what comes naturally, but slowly they’ve begun to live in that sacrificial way, putting others above themselves. “We don’t get to just put our heads down,” says Sky. “That’s not an option for us. We have to acknowledge the evil in this world and take a stand against it. That’s what we do as the body of Christ, right?”
Photography by Tommy Trenchard