The Global Expansion of ‘Free Rangers’

Updated: October 25, 2013


By Kerry Patton

Adrenaline junkies, lovers of life, explorers, and risk takers–these are just a few of many words that describe a “Free Ranger.” If anyone asked me to define such a person, I wouldn’t be able to–I can only describe them.

Free Rangers realize what they do is not necessarily a profession nor is it necessarily a career, it’s a lifestyle.

Some persons I know have said that I am a Free Ranger but considering I really don’t understand the label, I figured it was best to discuss the term with two Americans I consider to be, well, “Free Rangers”–Matthew Van Dyke and Rob Swain.

mvdMatthew Van Dyke is best known for fighting alongside Libyan militants who sought to see Muammar Gaddafi removed from power. He is also the creator of the documentary film on Syria called Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.

“A Free Ranger is an individual who lives life on his own terms following his own course,” said Van Dyke. He continued by claiming the benefit that comes with working as a Free Ranger consists of being “free to work on projects of my choosing, without being forced to do anything that goes against my morality or beliefs.”

Of course there are plenty of dangers that come with working as a Free Ranger. Van Dyke has been captured, tortured, falsely labeled, misunderstood, etc. He revealed some of the dangers he encountered while working abroad.

“I have been arrested or detained in Iraq around 20 times, including being hooded and beaten. I have been accused of being in Al Qaeda and in the CIA. I was attacked by a village mob in Afghanistan. I have been branded a terrorist by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. I was a prisoner of war for nearly six months in two of Libya’s most notorious prisons after being wounded and captured during a reconnaissance mission during the Libyan Civil War.”

–Matthew Van Dyke

Rob Swain is a much less publicly known Free Ranger.

IMG_0733Swain lived a healthy lifestyle making his fortunes working for a major visual effects company in Venice, CA. Like most Free Rangers, he caught the bug and eventually left the security surrounding him in the States and packed just enough of his belongings to survive in the Thai/Burmese border. Through his work abroad, Rob created the 4th Wall Relief International non-profit organization–an organization founded to provide medical, technical, and infrastructure training to Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to support relief and development projects along the Thai/Burma border.

Swain began his Free Ranger life by “collecting medical supplies and recruiting volunteer medic teams to come over and treat the sick/wounded and help train local villagers as medics.”

According to Rob, his work in the Thai/Burmese border started with a dental team and quickly expanded to trauma, mother-child health, combat trauma, and pharmacy training.

“We would pack up and begin to work with soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army. We snuck our teams into what the Burmese Army called ‘Black Zones,’ free fire zones, in areas held by the Karen Rebels. Many of the volunteers were former SF medics, Navy Seals, and Marines. The rest were a mix of doctors, combat journalists, and a stray academic or two. We even had a 55 year old female pharmacist from Washington State.”

–Rob Swain

Being a Free Ranger is dangerous. Plenty of risks are involved. But the dangers that comes with being a Free Ranger can be incredibly rewarding. To me, a Free Ranger, more than anything else, focuses on saving lives.

The ability to pick and choose where you go and when, the people you meet along the beaten path, the thrill of the rush escaping death, helping others in need, not knowing what tomorrow will bring if tomorrow even comes, etc. it’s all part of the lifestyle–and for many, it’s exhilarating.

I speak to many persons and after listening to them voice their passions in life I am convinced we will see the unofficial “Free Ranger” profession eventually develop into something much more mainstream in the very near future–but mainstream is not what the Free Ranger lifestyle is all about.

It’s about a low profile, low footprint, and virtually zero recognition for the work done.

I am also convinced that one group of persons will inevitably saturate the Free Ranger community– veterans trying to simply find their place in life once they leave the service.

Transitioning into civilian life is not easy. Letting go of that high that comes with combat is difficult. Becoming a Free Ranger could fill a missing gap in a transitioning veteran’s life.

Free Rangers, in the very near future, will become something much more than just mercenaries, independent journalists, or non-government organization (NGO) employees. Let me explain.

Poaching is getting a lot of attention these days thanks to the television show Battleground: Rhino Wars. The cast of that show, veteran US Special Operators, could also be considered Free Rangers. Because of their work, African lodges are now actively recruiting similar persons, Free Rangers, to assist in countering the poaching nightmare–a global dilemma every person needs to be aware of.

If I were a betting man, I would guess that due to the International Human Trafficking dilemma, we will also see a rise in persons with aspirations to expose and counter this heinous issue. Some will take action and those that do will also fall into the Free Ranger category.

Free Ranger opportunities are limitless. The world around us is filled with need. But it takes a special person to willingly just pack it all up and leave what they have behind simply to find something more gratifying in life.

There are thousands of Matthew Van Dykes and Rob Swains out there and I expect, due to the world we live today, the Free Ranger community will inevitably grow leaps and bounds.

Kerry Patton is author of Contracted II: America’s Terror Trackers




  1. leftoftheboom

    October 25, 2013 at 9:31 am

    There is already a term for what you are describing. It is call a mercenary. In other parts it is called a free-lance freedom fighter or terrorist depending upon which side is talking. Couching the situation in fuzzy logic and a new name does not change it. I am not denigrating what they do. Humanitarian relief is noble. Humanitarian relief provided to the families of terrorists is still noble while missing the big picture. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist after all.

    And ousting Gaddafi, while a sort of good thing, did not change the situation notably. So, IMO, anyone there was participating to smell the cordite and hear the sound of bullets snapping past their heads. They chose to participate because they got the taste. No more and no less.

    Rebranding it “Free Ranger” makes it sound all sexy and appealing to the uninformed. The mercenary profession, as shown by several groups, can be just as noble and honorable without being pretentious and trying to hide what they are. Using a different name is deception, not truth.

  2. Raed Baroud

    October 25, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    It’s also called war tourism. Narcissistic Western suburbanites wanting to play at being revolutionaries and to use Arab freedom fighters’ heroism as the backdrop for their posturing before returning home to safety and acclaim to make a very lucrative career writing about their time among the noble savages of the Middle East have been doing it for a very long time.

    We will, no doubt, get a Hollywood film in a decade or so about how Matthew of Arabia or some other handsome Western war tourist showed Libyans and Syrians how to fight and led the Arab world to freedom, with the actual fighters who won their nations’ freedom getting walk-on extras’ roles.

  3. marshman

    October 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Is going “free ranger” like going “commando” but wearing flip flops?

  4. P667

    October 25, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    You guys completely missed the point of this article. A mercenary and what this man is describing are NOT the same.

    mer·ce·nar·y 1.(of a person or their behavior) primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics.

    That was a 10 second google search for the definition of “Mercenary”..

    How does that even remotely describe the selflessness these people are demonstrating? It doesnt, its the total opposite. They are leaving behind materialistic items to travel the world and help where they can. Out of good nature, not desire for money. There is no pay incentive for the “Free Ranger” instead it is the opportunity to fill a void by offering their time and abilities to a cause they believe in.

    • leftoftheboom

      October 25, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Different choice for my search. Take a look at your definition then focus on the word “primarily”.
      A mercenary[1] is a person who takes part in an armed conflict, who is not a national or a party to the conflict and is “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party”.[2][3] The term “mercenary” is also used to describe the army itself.
      While this definition does ascribe a material compensation, private gain is also specific to the individual. If someone gains an emotional high from the thrill of combat and also on the darker side, gains the ability to take life without being labeled as a criminal, they are receiving compensation.

      In addition, you attribute selflessness to their behavior. One individual described is setting up a medical infrastructure for a rebel organization. So he is deliberately involving himself in a criminal activity.

      Forget Burma, say that a “SF” medic goes to south central and starts patching up gang bangers after shoot outs with police or each other. Is it still noble? In fact such an individual would be an accessory to any future criminal activity committed by those he patched up.

      I don’t mind mercenaries. But don’t lie to yourself thinking that they are anything but what they are. Thrill seekers looking for a fix in the heart of war. Slap whatever name you want. They are still mercenaries.

      • rightoftheboom

        October 26, 2013 at 9:50 am

        you sound as if you have zero life experience

        being a mercenary and volunteering your time to help train people are entirely different

        that vague and ambiguous definition you supplied is purely to suit your own purposes….a mercenary gets paid to kill

        anything else is not a mercenary

        i suggest u go find some life experience and

        you’re just as bad as FOXnews – using distorted “facts” to sound intelligent when in fact you have not an ounce of intelligence if you truly think volunteering your time to help people can be likened to being a mercenary

        please just go leave and never come back – the internet has places for people like you

        • leftoftheboom

          October 27, 2013 at 8:30 am

          Dear rightoftheboom,

          Where to begin? First, you parody my user name and you prove you are an idiot. My user name is a reference to the military determination to get ahead of the IED and reduce casualties. To be “rightoftheboom” is to have failed and more than likely, died. Great job on that Mr. lifeexperienceboy.

          Volunteering your time, to fight a war, in another country in which you have no ties makes you a mercenary. Your claim that money is the sole defining factor is shit house lawyering. There are individuals who go to fight and they are there because they love the sounds and smell of combat and they will do whatever it takes to get back to that “High”.

          Re read my post. I did not say mercenaries were bad. I said don’t come up with a new name and try and sugar coat the truth.

        • leftoftheboom

          October 27, 2013 at 9:08 am

          As to life experience, what are you, 10? Did your brother run off to be a mercenary and your parents said he was a “free ranger” to make him sound like the shining knight you remember?

          I distorted exactly what facts? I posted a definition available to everyone and reminded a similar poster that words have meaning. We are not talking about volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club or the nearest Food shelter. We are talking about U.S. Citizens, going to foreign countries for adventure.

          Let me put some perspective, because by your definition of “free ranger” John Walker Lindh was not the enemy of the U.S. He was a “free ranger” helping the Taliban and we should have recognized him as such, patted him on the head and let him go.

          I guess that means that Eric Harroun is also a “free ranger”. He went to join the noble cause of bring down Assad when the U.S. Government was afraid to do so. I guess he is a hero to you.

          • Lucky13

            October 28, 2013 at 12:28 am

            Eric Harroun is nothing but a Jihadist, going to help other Jihadists fighting to establish an Islamic State in Syria, and definitely not a “free ranger.” To be perfectly honest I would say, he was probably there as an agent of the US, but his little video got too much attention, and the US charged him with a bunch of stuff, then dropped most of the charges and then let him off with a time served, slap on the wrist, in “secret” closed court proceedings. That wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t working with the US and/or CIA in some capacity.

            Unfortunately for the American people, the Obama administration seems to like to run guns, and support the Jihadists in Syria. Really I think we are on the wrong side on that one, why is a good question? To support the Saudi’s drive to gain influence in the region, or to help Qatar put a natural gas pipeline through Syria to Turkey?

            That is why America is supporting Jihadists in Syria? For those that finds themselves fighting on the side of Islamic Radicals, I question whether they are doing a disservice to their previous service, and their country (perhaps not the current administration who is actively working in favor of the Jihadists, but the majority of Americans that do not want to enter into conflict with Syria).

            Good posts leftoftheboom

      • Lonnie

        October 26, 2013 at 10:30 am

        Nonsense!! Helping rebels makes them a criminal? What if the government is evil and oppressive? Your ideas are skewed!

        • leftoftheboom

          October 27, 2013 at 8:44 am

          The government is evil? Where did you get that determination? Oh and by making such a declarative statement you ruin any impartiality you might have had and then you tell me my evaluation is skewed?

          All I said was that they are mercenaries. Which side they were on did not enter into my statement. I did not even call mercenaries bad. I just said use the name that speaks the truth.

          So my slackjawed friend, you might want to re-evaluate your definition of good and evil because your moral superiority is showing.

      • Bdavisjr

        October 26, 2013 at 3:10 pm

        Your discussion point is flawed. You focus on the term private gain in the definition but overlook the part where the definition states they receive material compensation in excess of the compensation given to a member of the parties military of the same rank.

        Another flaw is in the part where you focus on South Central LA and patching up a gang banger from a shoot out. What you neglect to address is that they will receive medical attention if they go to a hospital regardless of the cause or what they did. Following your logic hospital staff should face the same consequences.

        The flaw is that an oath is taken to alleviate pain and suffering and prolong life. There are countless records of military doctors taking care of enemy soldiers and we did the same for terrorists in Guantanamo.

        • leftoftheboom

          October 27, 2013 at 8:40 am

          Dear Bdavisjr,

          Let’s see, they got a gun from the people they joined to fight with right? Because they could not bring their own. That is material compensation. They get bullets right, those are material. The parts of the world that we are talking about have no money to offer the mercenary. But they have other things. Many other things.

          As for South Central, if a banger goes to the hospital for treatment, they will be turned in to the local law enforcement. That is SOP and that is why they don’t go to hospitals. An ER is required to notify the police any time they treat a GSW. So the theoretical SF medic treating them and Violating that reporting process is, wait for it, a Criminal.

          And lastly, the people taking care of the enemy combatants were following orders duly arrived at by the government, the rules of engagement, and the Law of War. The individuals that we are referring to have involved themselves on their own into situations that they know little or nothing about and they are doing things against the wishes of the host nation.

          Additionally the article stated that one individual was operating in a free fire zone. I am pretty sure that means the host government wants everyone in there dead and that includes any do gooders trying to keep the “freedom fighters” alive.

      • Wc41

        October 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm

        These guys are doing outstanding things. The ones trying to down grade these guys for doing one hell of a job are heartless. I guess we were wrong for helping the Kurds or Kuwait. Guess helping them made us terrorist. They are helping people that are in need and if not for them the people are as good as gone. I would follow these guys anywhere because they have theire shit in check and know what they want and know how to achive it. They are one hell of a group of guys. It’s not all about the thrill of combat. Yea that’s part of it but it’s about doing what’s right morally.

        • leftoftheboom

          October 27, 2013 at 8:54 am

          If you and everyone else are so upset over the use of the term mercenary, instead of the “free ranger” term that makes what they are doing sound all noble and shit, you might want to find out why you get so defensive. Because it sounds to me like you want them to be noble, but you are not sure. And the last two sentences of your post sum up your belief.

          They found a way to assuage their conscience because they were “helping” while they got to kill a bunch of people.

          I hate to break it to you, but enjoying that thrill at all, means they are there for that reason and are just using the rest as justification.

          You don’t have to take my word for it. Go ask a psychologist. Classic “drug” seeking behavior and justification for why they are doing what they are doing.

          Now if you called them Mercenaries then all the good and bad can be evened out. The problem comes from when you try and euphemistically create a new name to make you feel better. And I call bullshit on that.

  5. Frank Lynch

    October 26, 2013 at 1:12 am

    You lost me when you said “Letting go of that high that comes with combat is difficult.” The only feeling that comes with being shot at is an intense anger directed at the people who want to kill your friends and the desire to kill them first. The “high” you describe is more aptly associated with being part of a tight knit group who will give their life for you just as you would give your life for them. You will never be closer than anyone than the person you went to combat with. But that is not a “high.” That is a solemn pact that I will defend you with my life and you will do the same for me.

    Losing that pact, that sense of purpose, is not coming down from a “high” but rather a void left in your heart. Characterizing these Free Rangers as thrill seekers after a high is a disservice to them. Maintaining the brotherhood that you developed in combat and the sense of shared purpose is what matters.

  6. leftoftheboom

    October 27, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Man there are some readers who need a reality adjustment. Let’s play pc word association. See how many you can come up with.

    PC Name = Real Name

    Free ranger = mercenary

    Sanitation engineer = garbage man

    Portable waste disposal agent = port-o-shit sucker

    Professional escort purveyor = pimp

    Problem removal specialist = assassin

    Immediate deceleration expert = crash test dummy

    Child model talent scout = pedophile

    • Gunship Load

      October 28, 2013 at 9:52 am


      I agree with your view on this completely…

      This is what happens when the Politically Correct sink thier teeth in, and we wind up with….


    • JoeC

      October 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      I agree with you guys. As I read that ariticle I kept thinking to my self “I thought we called those mercenaries?”

  7. Lucky13

    October 28, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Actually I think we should call Mathew Van Dyke what he really is, a CIA contractor, he’s not a Freedom Fighter, or a “Free Ranger.” Since Kerry Patton wrote this piece, as well as several books detailing US American Contractors working for the US govt./CIA, it’s no wonder she listed Mathew Van Dyke.
    Being a CIA contractor lets him, and the US govt disavow that he is an agent of the US government. He still is doing their(CIA’s) bidding, and that is who is putting money in his bank account; well I am sure running guns, and smuggling cars in Africa has to pay well also. Besides that it allows him the opportunity for the perfect cover, “international free-lance journalist”, where he can make movies, and blog posts supporting the Obama administration’s objectives in the region; all you have to do is look at his blog to see he’s towing the line for the Obama administration, and the state department.
    If you look here at his own account, minus the missing time frame between 2005 and 2007, his story is full of telltale information that screams “operator.” I mean really who goes on a motorcycle tour of the Mideast to film, and then gets kicked out of Libya, for “filming all over Tripoli?” Only someone who is doing reconnaissance work, and is working as a HUMINT operative. Luckily for him in 2011 he was able to take a US military hop from Afghanistan into Egypt, and then make his way to Libya to fight for the rebels; where he was able to make some calls back to the states, to some “active and ex-military friends” so they could give him an instructional on how to use a mortar system, yep seems pretty legit.

    Not that I have a problem with all that perse, except for the part where America is supporting Jihadi’s in Syria, but where exactly are the rest of his so called films, that he “documented” during his 3-4 years in Northern Africa, and the Middle East? Out of all the countries he supposedly filmed in over the course of his travels, we end up with a 15 min propaganda film supporting the Syrian rebels? I mean lets’ call a Spade, a Spade here why don’t we? Mathew Van Dyke is a US government operative/CIA contractor.

  8. Fretted Ranger

    October 28, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Just wondering if Sister Angelique Namaika is considered a mercenary according to leftofthebooms definition. I do understand the difference between the two,missionary and mercenary .

    • leftoftheboom

      October 28, 2013 at 10:37 pm

      All missionaries are mercenaries. The difference is in the final tally. One wants worldly goods, the merc wants your soul.

  9. hunter

    October 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Oh man. People. Listen.

    Some of you like the handle. Some of you don’t. The ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of it depends entirely upon the men and women on the ground takin’ action where others will not. The handle used to classify the trigger puller or band-aid man ain’t no thing.

    Honestly ‘less you are one of them… ‘lee you’re one of those on the ground knowin’ the how, when and why of each action taken in each situation, frankly (and respectfully) you are way out of place expousing judgements on ‘free rangers’ one way or t’other.

    I call my dog ‘Boonie’. He wasn’t consulted on the choice. Neither were any of you. He seems to like it well enough when it’s linked to phrases like, ‘good boy’ or ‘come git dinner’. It’s his handle. It doesn’t speak to his ethics. Then too he eats road kill so…

    Bottom line up front: if it’s good enough for my dog and I to use a handle ‘twixt ourselves , seems we could all extend some grace to the Ranger that wrote ’bout his brethren still out there passin’ out fire and band-aids.

    It’s their lives he’s writin’ about. Not their gol dang politics or motivations per se. Lighten up. It’s their lives, his phrase used to class ’em as a group and the choice of men/women out there to use it or not.

    T’ain’t my say so. T’ain’t yours. For the record, my dog calls me ‘butt-head’… or seems to… Works for him. Good enough for me.

    • leftoftheboom

      October 30, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Dear Hunter,

      I don’t really have a problem so long as everyone understands that a “Free Ranger” is a brand of mercenary. After all, your dog boonie might have a unique name, but he still has a breed and knowing that breed can tell a person a lot about the temperament of the dog.

      But trying to say “free ranger” is a new breed of foreign adventurer in dangerous lands during a conflict who is in fact a participant in that conflict, is asking me to recognize as a new breed, something that already exists that people are trying to give a new name too.

      Every year people rename things and repackage them and try and pass them off as something new and different. Call them what they are, mercenaries, and accept the consequences.

      And if the entire issue is that someone who was in a Ranger Batt or graduated from Ranger School, wants to hang on to the handle “Ranger” while they are out about doing their own personal business at war, don’t you find that a tad disrespectful to the esprit de corps of the Rangers?

      Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.

      In my opinion, should I enter war under the colors of another country or on my own as a mercenary regardless of my occupation in that war, I would be defiling that lineage and the sprite de corps I swore to. Not by being a merc. But by claiming a heritage that is in direct opposition to what I claim to uphold. I might have been trained as a Ranger, but I am not about to set myself up as the holder of Ranger Honor and link myself to the ideals that are expressed by the lineage of the Rangers.

      I can claim the heritage I learned, the training I received, but I don’t get to claim that I am there as anything but a personal journey.

      And if that is what a “free ranger” is? That is doubly the reason not to accept them. They are mercenaries. And if you must, free Former rangers, that at least tells them apart from the rest of us.

  10. Al

    November 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    This entire thread of replies made my head hurt, I’m just glad leftoftheboom was so on point.

    The main problem I see with the whole “Free Ranger” thing is when U.S. citizens get themselves sucked into a conflict in a country that isn’t friendly to the US. If you acknowledge what they are doing- mercenary work, as opposed to purely humanitarian work, then there isn’t any problem when they are killed, or captured and imprisoned, or tortured. That person took the risk, and because their profession was obvious- mercenary, you can have the appropriate response.

    Let’s be clear- the second you step from pure altruism and working to relieve human misery to doing just about anything else, you’re a mercenary by definition. Fighting to oust a foreign warlord, albeit without monety compensation? Mercenary. Providing medical care to only one side in a foreign armed conflict? Mercenary. Hacking into a foreign governments computer on behalf of a rebel force? Mercenary.

    When you take sides in a foreign conflict in which you have no national ties to either side, you’re selling your skills, whether it be for personal gratification, money, prostitutes, power, whatever. Humanitarian work DOES NOT TAKE SIDES.

    If you want to take that risk, fine. It’s a job. But don’t pass yourself off as a “free ranger humanitarian who also kicks ass and fights for freedom and justice”. No.

    Why does this matter? Well when it hits the fan, who should the State Department be more willing to spend political capital or the DoD military resources on? The doctor who provided care to anyone who came to him in Central Africa and was held prisoner by a warlord, or the guy who went to Syria to help the “freedom fighters”?

Get notified of new Rhino Den articles and videos as they come out, Also, find out before anyone else about new product launches and huge discounts from RangerUp.com, the proud parent of the Rhino Den.

  • Videos (The Damn Few and more!)
  • Military-inspired articles
  • MMA (and Tim Kennedy) coverage
Close this window

Join the Rhino Den / Ranger Up Nation

Read previous post:
Warrior Poetry: 300m

  By Alucin Acies   Once you have snuggled to your prone unsupported, shoulder stock welded, sound dulled, contorted, proper...