When Levi J. Shirley was growing up, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the U.S. military, his mother said. His father, Russell, had served three tours with the Army in Vietnam, and Levi became “obsessed” with joining the Marine Corps.
The younger Shirley had bad eyesight, however. He trained with other potential recruits, but was disqualified even after having surgery, said his mother, Susan.
Instead, Shirley last year joined with other Westerners in traveling to the Middle East to fight Islamic State militants in Syria with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He returned to the United States months later and vowed never to go back, but vanished with little notice again in January and resurfaced in Syria, his mother said.
On Thursday, the YPG announced that Shirley, just short of his 25th birthday, was killed July 14 in a battle with the Islamic State. His mother confirmed his death, but said she knew little beyond what the YPG announced.
“He’s not usually what you would first think of as a fighter,” Susan Shirley said. “He’s not someone who would strike out an offensive on someone. But he also has a strong sense of justice and sticking up for the underdog, and the Kurds are about as underdog as you can get right now.”
What motivated Shirley remains something of a mystery. A Brit who uses the pseudonym Macer Gifford said he befriended Shirley in the YPG last year and was struck by his love for the Marine Corps and knowledge of American military history. Shirley, he said, often talked about how he had served two years in the Marines before he was hit by a car and discharged.
But that wasn’t the case. In addition to his mother’s account, Marine officials said they have no record of him serving.
Informed of that, Gifford called it “quite touching.” Shirley, he said, “was a good man” who appears to have “wanted it to be true so much,” Gifford said.
“Still soaking this up,” Gifford said in a private Twitter message. “That truth has added level of depth to him. The blunt Marine was so much more.”
Shirley traveling to Syria twice to join the YPG raises questions about how easy it remains for Americans to get to Syria, where foreign fighters continue to join the Islamic State. The State Department, asked to comment on his case, said they were aware of it but “do not have any additional information to share.”
In a video released Thursday by the YPG, Shirley is shown standing on a hill in olive-green fatigues. He introduces himself as Jack, and says he traveled to Syria to do his part to stop the Islamic State, he said.
“They’re my definition of pure evil,” he said. “I don’t think good people in a society can stick other people inside of a cage and set them on fire, so — yeah, I came here to stop that.”
The YPG said in a statement posted on Facebook that Shirley fought under the pseudonym Hevale Agir. Westerners often take nom de guerres while fighting alongside the YPG, with most names beginning with “heval,” or friend. Shirley said in the video released Thursday that “Agir” means fire.
“Hevale Agir was known for his discipline and sense of responsibility,” the YPG statement said. “His style and personality were a source of strength, motivation, and morale for his friends. In the fight, Hevale Agir was known and respected as a brave and altruistic person.”
Shirley’s last fight was the battle to take back Manbij, the YPG said. The city in northern Syria is known as a hub for foreign fighters looking to join the Islamic State, and a primary focus for the U.S.-led military coalition, which provides air support and intelligence to local ground forces.
Earlier this year, Shirley fought to defend the Syrian cities of Kobane and Cizire from militants, and took part last year in the fight to take back Al-Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, the YPG said.
In a statement released through the YPG, Gifford recalled meeting Shirley in the Syrian town of Tel Tamar. The American had been in the country only a few weeks, and had just stood his ground in a firefight with the Islamic State.
“His unit had come under a brutal and sustained night attack by ISIS fighters,” Gifford recalled. “Agir and his comrades had the higher ground so after a long night 12 ISIS lay dead and only one Kurdish fighter was slightly wounded. It was a brutal introduction to the International Volunteers in Syria but it was exactly what Agir wanted. He came to fight and participate in the destruction of one of the most vicious ideologies of hate this world has ever seen.”
Shirley liked to compare his participation in the fight against the Islamic State to that of the Eagle Squadrons, groups of American pilots who made their way to Britain before the United States joined World War II to join the Royal Air Force, Gifford said.
“The American Eagles weren’t content to sit out the war and watch the Facists roll over Europe,” Gifford said. “In the same spirit, Agir couldn’t stay at home and watch while ISIS raped and murdered their way across Syria.”
Images of Americans taken in Tel Tamar last year by photographer Uygar Onder Simsek include Shirley, who is identified by his Kurdish nom de guerre. The photographer identified him as a former Marine.
Shirley’s mother said that her son was born in Nevada, and graduated from high school 2010 in Arvada, Colo., a suburb of Denver. Growing up, he was prone to becoming intensely interested in a single hobby or subject, but “only for a time” before discarding it for another, she said.
When Shirley returned from Syria last year, he told family members he “had enough fighting for two lifetimes,” his mother said. He began talking about becoming an emergency medical technician and moved to Texas, but disappeared for months and reached out to his sister, Caitlin, 23, from Syria a few months ago.
“He was pretty evasive when he left, so I kind of thought something was up,” his mother said of his move to Texas. “I wasn’t surprised when something was up. I think he thought he could get down there and back without worrying anyone.”
At least one other American, Keith Broomfield, has been killed while fighting against the Islamic State with local ground forces. A Canadian, John Gallagher, also was killed last summer fighting against the militants, prompting people to line the “Highway of Heroes” in tribute as his remains were repatriated.
The Shirley family hopes to bring their loved one’s remains, perhaps through Turkey, but the plan was not clear Thursday.
“We’re kind of taking it one day at a time, really,” his mother said.
Army Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Friday that the United States has some capabilities that could assist in bringing Shirley’s remains home, but it is unclear yet if it will be able to do so.
Missy Ryan and Julie Tate contributed to this report.