Several months ago, Keith Broomfield informed startled relatives that he had decided to join the fight against Islamic State.
The 36-year-old Massachusetts native, who worked at the family manufacturing business, didn’t know anyone in Syria or Iraq and had no battlefield experience. But he was horrified by the atrocities he saw the Islamist militants inflicting on fellow Christians and other religious minorities.
This week, his parents and siblings received news that he had been killed during clashes near the war-ravaged Syrian city of Kobani.
Broomfield was believed to be the first American killed fighting for ethnic Kurdish militias against Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS. Although thousands of foreign recruits have joined the ranks of the extremists, Broomfield was one of a relatively small but apparently growing number of Westerners volunteering to help defeat them.
About 400 fighters from North America, Europe and Australia are believed to have joined the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish faction commonly known as the YPG, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group.
Photographs of some of the recruits are posted on the “Lions of Rojava” Facebook page, which calls for volunteers to help “send ISIS terrorists to hell and save humanity.” Rojava refers to the northeastern corner of Syria, where Kurds are in the majority.
Among those who have answered the call are U.S. military veterans driven by the frustration of seeing the militants seize territory that American troops had fought and died for after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some are also inspired by a sense of loyalty to the Kurdish fighters who once battled alongside them in Iraq.
Others, like Broomfield, are motivated to fight by news coverage of the brutality of Islamic State against those who do not espouse the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam.
“He believed in opposing evil,” Broomfield’s older brother, Andy, said at a tearful news conference Thursday outside the family’s machinery manufacturing firm in Bolton, Mass., about 30 miles west of Boston.
He said he had been shocked to learn of Broomfield’s decision. But over the course of a few weeks, his brother convinced him “that it was what God had directed him to do.”
Broomfield got into some trouble while growing up, according to his father, Thomas. Court records show that he pleaded guilty to drug and gun charges while in his 20s, including possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamines, the Associated Press reported. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and five years probation, which he completed in 2011.
Broomfield’s father said his son’s life changed when he developed a faith in God. He attended services at the Twin City Baptist Church in Lunenburg three times a week, according to Pastor Gary Moritz. And he oversaw production at Broomfield Laboratories. But he was troubled by the reports he saw coming from Iraq and Syria.
“I can’t just stay and work,” Thomas Broomfield recalled his son saying. “I have to do something about this.”
In February, Keith Broomfield bought a plane ticket to Turkey and enlisted with the YPG under the Kurdish nom de guerre Gelhat Rumet. The group released a video Thursday in which he explained the decision.
“I’m here to do what I can to help Kurdistan,” he said, sitting on a bench and smiling shyly for the camera. “With everything that’s been going on, it seems like the right thing to do.”
A Kurdish commander, who said he was with Broomfield the day before he was killed, described him as friendly and respectful person, brimming with initiative and popular with his Kurdish comrades.
“He learned Kurdish well and learned our habits and traditions in an extraordinary fashion,” said Hava Haqi, reached by phone in Kobani. “He told us one time how he would hear the news of the YPG and YPJ [a women’s militia], and how they sacrificed themselves in defense of their land and people. All this pushed him to come here and fight against terrorism.”
He said Broomfield received ideological and military training before being assigned to a sniper unit.
“In the case of Keith and other foreign fighters — and there are many of them among us — we make sure they don’t take part in fighting near the front lines, because people like this sacrificed themselves to defend us and stand against the terrorism that is Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The presence of foreign volunteers, the commander said, was a major morale booster for outgunned Kurdish forces whose fierce resistance, backed by U.S. bombing, this year helped thwart an attempt by Islamic State to seize Kobani. Fighting continues in hamlets near the border city.
In a statement Thursday, the YPG said Broomfield was taking part in an operation in the village of Qentere when he was killed June 3.
“He was martyred when he was shot by a Daesh sniper,” Haqi said. “I won’t forget him.”
The State Department on Wednesday confirmed Broomfield’s death but provided no details. The U.S. has not barred citizens from fighting with Kurdish militias against Islamic State, although it has long designated one such faction, the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist group.
Hundreds of Kurds lined the streets of Kobani on Thursday when Broomfield’s body was driven through in a white van, en route to the Turkish border to be sent back to the U.S. Photographs shared on social media showed the crowd waving Kurdish flags and flashing victory signs in tribute to an American who gave his life for their cause.
Broomfield’s family said they hoped to receive his remains Saturday.
“Just knowing that we will never all be together again is difficult,” said Broomfield’s sister, Corinne Maleski.
His father said he took comfort from the fact that his son had “found a faith in the Lord and it changed his life.”
“I have a real peace about what has happened,” Thomas Broomfield said.
Special correspondent Sadoun reported from Irbil and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed from Aleppo, Syria.
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