Amer­i­cans who died in ter­ror fight come home

Civil­ians had fought Is­lamic State in Syria

Baltimore Sun - - ELECTION 2016 - By Sadie Gur­man

DEN­VER — The bod­ies of two young Amer­i­cans who died fight­ing the Is­lamic State group in Syria were re­turned to their sob­bing fam­i­lies Fri­day in sim­ple, gray cas­kets pulled from an Am­trak train in Den­ver as throngs of sleepy pas­sen­gers watched.

Rel­a­tives of Levi Shirley, 24, and Jor­dan MacTag­gart, 22, hud­dled to­gether against the morn­ing chill as U.S. Rep. Ed Perl­mut­ter pre­sented them with folded flags — a sign of re­spect for the men who never joined the U.S. mil­i­tary but felt a need to serve.

The un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous home­com­ing at Union Sta­tion marked the end of a long and com­pli­cated jour­ney for the men, who died sep­a­rately in com­bat this sum­mer af­ter join­ing the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, the main Kur­dish guer­rilla group bat­tling the Is­lamic State in Syria.

“We­waited for this day for nine weeks,” Shirley’s fa­ther, Rus­sell Shirley, said. “But the last thing I wanted to see was my son car­ried off that train.”

The body of an­other fighter, Wil­liam Sav­age, 27, was also re­turned to the U.S. and was be­ing trans­ported to North Carolina, where his fa­ther lives.

The State Depart­ment said it worked to help re­turn the re­mains of the men to their fam­i­lies.

But Turkey’s poor re­la­tion­ship with the Kurds and the U.S. since July’s failed coup stalled the ef­forts.

The re­mains of Keith Broom­field of Mas­sachusetts, thought to be the first Amer­i­can to die along­side Kurds fight­ing Is­lamic State, were re­turned to the U.S. through Turkey last year.

But of­fi­cials de­ter­mined it would be too dan­ger­ous to repa­tri­ate the bod­ies of Shirley, MacTag­gart and Sav­age through Turkey and in­stead shipped them hun­dreds of miles east to Iraq. The bod­ies were then flown to Am­man, Jor­dan, and on to Chicago’s O’Hare In­ter­na­tional Air­port in a process that took weeks.

Su­san Shirley said her friends had con­tacted Perl- Katie Shirley and her fa­ther, Rus­sell, mourn her brother and his son, Levi, af­ter his cas­ket ar­rived Fri­day in Den­ver. mut­ter to help nav­i­gate the be­wil­der­ing ter­rain. He en­listed aid from peo­ple at the White House.

“These were good young men who for one rea­son or an­other didn’t qual­ify for our mil­i­tary but felt the need to serve in an­other way,” Perl­mut­ter said.

As he handed MacTag­gart’s par­ents a folded flag, he told them qui­etly, “He­was try­ing to do some­thing more for all of us in his fight against ISIS.”

Shirley, of Ar­vada, Colo., was killed by a land mine July 14.

MacTag­gart, of Cas­tle Rock, Colo., died Aug. 3 while fight­ing in a squad that in­cluded two Amer­i­cans and a Swede in Man­bij, Syria.

Sav­age, of St. Mary’s County, Md., also died in Man­bij on Aug. 10.

Dozens of other West­ern­ers are fight­ing with the Kurds, spurred by so­cial me­dia cam­paign­ers and a sense of duty rooted in the U.S.-led mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Iraq. The U.S. dis­cour­ages but hasn’t banned Amer­i­cans from fight­ing with mili­tias against ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Is­lamic State group.

On the train plat­form in Den­ver, work­ers loaded the plain, wooden boxes from a bag­gage cart into hearses. Rus­sell Shirley gave his son a fi­nal salute.

Un­like fallen mem­bers of the armed forces, the young men had no mil­i­tary es­corts to ac­com­pany their cas­kets.

Still, the fam­ily mem­bers said they ap­pre­ci­ated the quiet home­com­ing.

“He had no in­ter­est in cer­e­mony,” Robert MacTag­gart said of his son. “Any of this would have been a shock to him.”

DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP

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