Levi Shirley wanted nothing more than to be a Marine. In high school, he taught an informal class on Marine Corps history at the recruiting office a few miles from his house and worked out with the men posted there.
His mother Susan was less excited. Her ex-husband did three combat tours in Vietnam that still haunted him. She didn’t want that for Levi.
At 23, he certainly looked like a Marine: 6 foot 5, rangy with thick brown hair. The problem was his eyesight. Susan put $4,500 on a credit card — many weeks pay at the glass factory where she worked — for Lasik surgery.
His eyesight improved, but not enough, and the Marines still rejected him.
Levi had always been a good kid, a decent student and an inveterate wiseguy. He looked out for special-needs children in school. He adored his little sister Katy. When his mother was sick, he’d place a warm cloth on her forehead.
Now he seemed adrift, uninterested in college and unsure what to do with his life. Susan hated seeing him so disappointed.
One evening as Susan was making dinner, Levi wandered into the kitchen. He had been reading Facebook posts about Islamic State and the Kurdish rebels who had been battling the group in northern Syria.
He had a plan now. “I’m joining a militia to fight ISIS,” he announced.
The outfit he wanted to sign up with was called the YPG, which in Kurdish stood for People’s Protection Units. It was loosely allied with the Kurdish fighters supported by the U.S. in the region, and its commanders eagerly welcomed foreign fighters. A number of young American and Europeans had been joining their ranks, boarding planes for remote battlefields in the Middle East.
“Are you crazy?” Susan asked him.
“Have you really thought this through? Do you get training? Who are these people?”
Levi wasn’t big on explanations. He usually brushed aside such probing with a joke or clammed up entirely.
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Susan had questions she was afraid to ask. Was Levi trying to live up to his father’s record in Vietnam? Was it the breakup of her marriage when he was 13? Rebellion against the monotony of the Denver suburbs?
In February 2015, a friend of Levi’s told Susan that in two weeks her son was leaving for Syria. She fired off a Facebook message: “Were you planning to tell me? Or was this going to be a surprise?”
Levi replied that it was his chance “to do something noble for once.”
Susan began educating herself about the rebels. She learned they were socially progressive, at least by Middle East standards. They didn’t advocate global jihad. They didn’t kidnap or kill Westerners. Women fought alongside men.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad, she told herself.
When the day came, Susan drove Levi to Denver International Airport. He had saved up from a fast-food job to buy the ticket: Seattle to Iceland to Sweden and finally to Turkey. From there, the rebels would drive him to Iraq and then Syria. It was his first time abroad.
They lingered together at security, mother and son. She said she loved him. He smiled his crooked smile, hoisted his backpack and duffel bag onto his broad shoulders and marched down the concourse until he disappeared.
“Didn’t you at least try to stop him?” her ex-husband, Russ, wanted to know when she called him in South Dakota with the news.
“No, I told him I was proud of him,” she said.
The phone went silent for a moment. Russ didn’t argue. He sent Susan a letter to forward to Levi saying he too was proud but also sorry, that the family had already paid its dues in war. Susan agreed to send it on.
Levi was gone only a week when she received a Facebook message: “I am fine mom and I am making this statement of my own free will. I am having a ‘blast’ — an airstrike took out the neighboring compound.”
He said he was joking, then asked her to put a few dollars into his checking account to keep it open.
More messages followed along with pictures of his Kurdish and Western comrades — British, Canadian and Norwegian as well as American. Susan joined a closed Facebook group of parents whose children fought with the YPG.
In all, about 100 Americans were fighting with various groups against Islamic State. It was comforting to know that she wasn’t alone.
Photos showed Levi cradling an assault rifle, peering through a shattered building and crouching in a trench. Susan learned that he had helped repel an attack that ended with nearly a dozen dead Islamic State militants.
The posts referred to him as “Heval Agir.” It was the Kurdish name the rebels had given him. “Heval” for friend, and “agir” for fire. Susan liked it.
To her, Levi's life appeared simple. He and the other volunteers slept where they could, usually in abandoned houses or bombed-out buildings. They ate rice and potatoes. The photographs showed a strangely beautiful war zone, with rolling green hills and golden wheat fields.
Levi seemed at home.
In all of her 57 years, Susan had never felt so helpless.
Finally, good news. Levi was coming back.
It was June 9, 2015. Susan met him at the airport and found a changed man. He was thinner, more serious. He said he’d never leave the U.S. again. The devastation had been too much.
He told his mother about a church that enemy fighters had blown up with people still inside.
“You know, Mom, I can never go inside a church again,” he said.
After Vietnam, Susan came to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder in her husband. Now she saw it in her son. He couldn’t sleep, complained of nightmares. If a driver didn’t signal before turning, Levi would erupt.
He seemed fixated on the news of terrorist attacks in Tennessee and San Bernardino that had been inspired by Islamic State. But he also seemed to recognize how much his absence had worried his mother.
He told her he had a new plan: This time he was moving to Weatherford, Texas, to become an emergency medical technician. A fellow volunteer in Syria had mentioned a training program there.
Levi took a job washing dishes at a local Red Robin restaurant to save money for the move. In January, he told his mother he was off to Texas.
“Tell me where you are going so I can send cookies in a care package,” Susan said.
“I like chocolate chip,” he replied without giving her an address.
Susan thought her son was trying to grow up and decided to give him some space. But as months passed without hearing from him, she began to worry.
Around 10 a.m. on July 19, Susan was writing Facebook posts when the phone rang. An American diplomat was on the line from Turkey.
How tall was Levi? Did he have any tattoos? What color was his hair?
“What’s up?” she asked.
“We have reason to believe your son has been killed.”
“I thought he was in Weatherford, Texas.”
But Levi had never gone to Texas.
With the help of rebel fighters and a documentary filmmaker who had spent months with her son, Susan began piecing together the details of his death in Syria.
He’d left for the war zone the same day she’d thought he was going to Texas.
In early June, Levi and the rebels attacked Manbij, a city of 100,000 occupied by Islamic State. The offensive was quickly dubbed the Manbij Meat Grinder because of the brutal urban fighting.
The morning of July 14 was especially rough. Levi spent much of it providing cover fire for medics evacuating the wounded. Around 11:30, he entered a high-rise apartment building the rebels had captured.
The building was a trap, with mines planted in the walls and floors. Islamic State flags, paperwork and pistols were left as bait. And Levi may have taken it.
Two explosions left massive holes in the walls at waist level. A fellow American fighter reached Levi in less than 90 seconds. But he was already dead.
A letter from the rebel leaders called him a “daring and courageous companion.”
They released a YouTube video of Levi in which he called Islamic State “my definition of pure evil” and declared, “I don’t believe good people in a society can stick someone in a cage and set them on fire, so I came here to stop that.”
Susan figured that Levi had misled her about going to Syria because he didn’t want her to worry. She wasn’t the only one with whom he had been less than truthful. Fellow fighters told her he had claimed to have been a Marine. Susan brushed it off as a young man trying to fit in.
She is reminded of her son’s dream each month when she makes a credit card payment toward his eye surgery.
Levi was the second American volunteer to die in Syria. The first was 36-year-old Keith Broomfield of Massachusetts in June 2015.
Two more died after Levi in the Manbij Meat Grinder: 22-year-old Jordan MacTaggart of Colorado and 27-year-old William Savage of Maryland.
The Kurds moved the bodies to Sulaymaniya, Iraq, on Aug. 29 in a caravan of three ambulances. From there, it was a matter of working with the U.S. government to find a way to bring Levi home.
On a recent morning, the day Levi would have turned 25, two men who knew him in Syria came to visit Susan.
Sebastiano Piccolomini was making a documentary about the foreign fighters in Syria. Jayson Pihajlic, a former Marine from Detroit, had fought alongside Levi.
Susan, her daughter and Pihajlic sat on a couch in front of a laptop.
“I can’t tell you how it felt when I got your email saying you had video of Levi,” Susan told Piccolomini. “It’s better than a steamer trunk full of diamonds.”
He flicked on the computer.
“He’s right there,” she said, transfixed as she watched video of her son.
Walking through a battered village, he wore fatigues and toted an assault rifle. He burned an Islamic State flag. He was still a joker, lamenting the absence of anything but salt to spice up the local fare. Later he suggested that 20% of Syria was composed of spent shell casings.
The world he had held so close was finally coming into focus for Susan.
In one segment, Levi performed a comedy routine in the shell of a bombed-out church. He wondered aloud if Canadian fortune cookies contained hockey scores or if Islamic State ones held bomb-making tips.
This was the son Susan knew, the guy with rapid-fire wit who could recite entire scenes from “Full Metal Jacket” and do a pitch-perfect imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In another scene, she saw another side of her son, one that had been so inaccessible to her.
“Have you seen a lot of fighting?” the filmmaker asked.
“I wouldn't say a lot ... less than 20 firefights total but the ones that I did see were pretty intense,” Levi replied.
“Your parents don't know you're here, right?”
“Yeah, not this time,” he said, looking away. “... They kept telling me that it was someone else’s turn. But that's just it, no one else is going to go.”
He paused. “Eventually, I’m going to die,” he continued. “People die every day of heroin overdoses or because they got drunk and decided to drive on the highway or because they saw some stunt on ‘Jackass’ they tried to replicate. At least I'm doing something I’m proud of.”
The camera kept rolling as Levi fell silent. Susan stared at her son as the hint of a smile crossed her face.
Kelly is a special correspondent.
Credits: Produced by Sean Greene