Two Americans fighting alongside Kurdish forces in northern Syria were killed last week as the battle to retake the Islamic State’s de-facto capital there continues well into its second month.
Nicholas Warden, 29, and Robert Grodt, 28, died last week on the outskirts of Raqqa, according to U.S. officials and a statement released by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG. Warden served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and spent another stint in the the French Foreign Legion, a fellow YPG fighter said. Grodt did not appear to have any prior military service. Another westerner, a British man named Luke Rutter, was also killed in the fighting, the statement said.
In a video posted by the YPG, Warden said he was from Buffalo and traveled to join the YPG in February to fight the Islamic State because of the attacks inspired by the terrorist group in places such as San Bernardino and Orlando. His father, Mark Warden, said that he had “extensive military experience,” including two deployments to Afghanistan and five years in the French Foreign Legion with more than 100 airborne jumps. He added that his son had also fought the terrorist group Boko Haram in Chad.
Grodt, a onetime volunteer medic from the Occupy Wall Street movement, had also traveled to join the YPG around the same time, according to Ron Kuby, a family friend and lawyer. Grodt was originally from California. Grodt’s mother, Tammy, confirmed that she had received notification of his death but has heard little else about how he died.
“It’s pretty hard to put into words right now,” she said.
Kuby, speaking on behalf of the family, said the State Department had called the family from the American consulate in Irbil, Iraq, and informed them of Grodt’s death.
“There were email follow-ups but no real information as to who has Rob’s body, when it will be returned, how he died,” Kuby said. “They were very short on information.”
“Tammy wants to know who has her son’s body,” he added.
Grodt leaves behind a five-year-old daughter and his partner, Kaylee Dedrick. Grodt met Dedrick during an Occupy Wall Street protest in September 2011 after she was pepper-sprayed, a moment that was infamously captured on video. Grodt told the New York Daily News that he rushed to her aid before treating her in a utility closet.
“Nothing strengthens a relationship like a chemical agent,” he jokingly told the paper. Grodt proposed to Dedrick in Zuccotti Park, the hub of Manhattan’s Occupy movement, on New Year’s Eve 2011.
Warden and Grodt’s deaths bring the total number of Americans killed fighting alongside the YPG to roughly a dozen. Three Americans, Jordan MacTaggart, William Savage and Levi Jonathan Shirley were killed last year fighting in the city of Manbij, a once-strategic locale of Islamic State foreign fighters.
It is unknown how many Americans are fighting alongside militia groups in Syria. In recent years, dozens of U.S. citizens, including military veterans, have flocked to battlegrounds overseas, including those in Iraq and Ukraine, to fight in wars fueled by an array of ideologies and backed by various state actors.
The YPG specifically appears to have a strange draw for Americans looking for the chance to pick up a rifle and fight abroad. A 2016 article in New York City’s Village Voice, called “A Hello to Arms: A New Generation of Steely-Gazed Anarcho-Communists Head Off to Syria,” appears to have encapsulated the appeal of YPG’s pseudo-Marxist cause.
The YPG is one component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Arabic, Kurdish and Turkmen militants fighting under one U.S.-backed umbrella. The group has wrested large swaths of Syria from the Islamic State in the past two years and is leading the fight into Raqqa. With Americans providing weapons and airstrikes to the SDF, the Turkish government has likened the U.S. support to backing terrorism. Ankara sees the YPG as a direct offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group that has waged an insurgency within Turkish borders off and on for decades.
This article has been updated with more information about Nicholas Warden.