Remains of U.S. Fighters Killed by ISIS Are Finally Homeward Bound

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Lakewood, Colo.-, September 14, 2016 | comments

The bodies of three Americans who died fighting Islamic State as volunteers for a Syrian Kurdish militia have begun a return home after a weekslong struggle by their families and the U.S. government to repatriate their remains.

The remains of Levi Jonathan Shirley, William Savage and Jordan MacTaggart had been held for weeks in Syrian Kurdistan after they died fighting against Islamic State forces. Later, they were driven across the region—in ambulances displaying their so-called martyr photos—before crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan, where the paperwork needed for the flights to the U.S. was secured, according to representatives of the semiautonomous Kurdish Syrian region of Rojava.

On Monday, the bodies of two of the men left the Sulaymaniyah international airport here in Iraqi Kurdistan bound for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, said a spokeswoman for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D., Colo.), who has helped in the repatriation process. The other body had been flown out on Sunday. Both flights were expected to have extended layovers in Amman, Jordan.

The long and logistically complex journey from the Syrian battlefield back to the U.S. revealed a simple truth: It is much easier for Americans to get to Syrian Kurdistan to fight Islamic State than it is for their remains to come home.

“I didn’t think he was going to get out,” Reginald Savage of Raleigh, N.C., said of the remains of his son William, who died in early August. “I was planning on him being buried in Syria.”

About a year and a half ago, the younger Mr. Savage joined dozens of other Americans with an idealistic desire to fight Islamic State as unpaid volunteers with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The Kurds won’t release official tallies, but the open-source investigative group Bellingcat estimated last year that more than 100 Americans had gone to fight with Kurds in Syria. Many use social media to navigate their way into the war against Islamic State.

In recent months, fighting has become particularly intense.

The three men were part of an operation that began in May, when the Kurdish militia known as the YPG, along with their U.S. special-forces advisers, pushed westward across the Euphrates River into what is referred to as the Manbij pocket. That area serves as a staging ground for Kurdish operations deeper in Syria and for an eventual entry into Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa.

Like Mr. Savage, Mr. MacTaggart of Castle Rock, Colo., was killed in early August. Both likely died by gunfire, according to Gharib Hassou, a representative of YPG-affiliated Democratic Union Party.

The third volunteer, Mr. Shirley of Arvada, Colo., was killed in July, likely from a land mine, his mother said. Islamic State snipers shot at anyone who tried to retrieve his body, Mr. Hassou said, so the Kurds had to wait for a fresh advance to recover it.

Family members said State Department officials first suggested the remains be taken through Turkey, considering that logistically simpler than going through Iraqi Kurdistan.

But that route presented a formidable diplomatic obstacle: Istanbul considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG militias to be terrorists, indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who attack Turkish targets. Like Turkey, the U.S. government designates PKK as a terrorist outfit, but Washington considers it separate from the YPG.

The U.S. officially attempts to steer its citizens clear of such forays into Syria. “Private U.S. citizens are strongly discouraged from traveling to Syria to take part in the conflict,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

In practice, however, it does little to stop such volunteers, say family members of those who died fighting. When asked about the matter, tThe State Department declined to comment.

Mr. Shirley had wanted to be a U.S. Marine. Less than a week after he was told his eyesight disqualified him, he started researching how to get to Kurdistan, his mother said. He got his first combat experience in his first trip to Syria, his mother said, and when got back to the U.S. he wanted only to return.

“This time he would have had no illusions about war as romance,” Ms. Shirley said. “He made it very clear that he was there for the atrocities that had been done there and to the United States.”

Mr. Savage lied to his recruiters, telling them he had combat experience to ensure he was accepted, his father said. “Just like Americans used to say they were 18 back in WWII, it was the same thing,” his father said. “When he got there, one of the guys that trained him said William was the greenest recruit they’d ever had.”

Mr. MacTaggart was eager to join the cause too, after a dangerous brush with drugs, his parents said.

“When he recovered from that he had an epiphany,” his mother said. “He was high-minded,” she added, going off to Syria knowing that he had to do something to put his ideals into practice. Before his second trip, his parents said, an FBI agent dropped off a business card. “He asked Jordan to come and talk, that was it,” said his mother, Melissa MacTaggart. “We never met him.”

The FBI declined to comment on the matter.

Americans don’t need a visa to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, but their passports are stamped there before they are driven into Syria through YPG-controlled border checkpoints. The volunteers don’t get Syrian government visas.

When fighters die in Syria, getting them home is a far more complex affair, and an expensive one. Representatives of the Rojava government paid $43,600 dollars for the cost to return the remains of all three men this time, according to Lucy Usoyan, a Washington-based representative of a Kurdish group that helped organize the return.

Complications delayed the departure of the remains from Iraqi Kurdistan. In the end, there was a wait of more than a week as a final document was obtained authorizing their final flights out. Fearing even more delays from Turkish objections to the men’s links to Kurdish militias, Mr. Hassou said, the remains were put on flights with no layovers in Istanbul.

Content originally published by The Wall Street Journal on September 14th, 2016.
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