There was no medal ceremony for them. Often no national welcome home. If they were lucky, their bodies were found and brought back after difficult delays.
The foreign volunteers who died battling ISIS are remembered by their families and friends, but as the US prepares to withdraw from eastern Syria their legacy is now in doubt as Turkey threatens a major military operation in eastern Syria. Memorials erected to them in the mostly Kurdish region, called Rojava, may be destroyed and their deeds obscured beneath a new round of fighting.
In 2014 and 2015, hundreds of volunteers, many from Western countries, went to help the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fight ISIS. Dozens were killed. They came from all walks of life and for different ideological reasons. Most of them were shocked at the images of ISIS genocide of the Yazidi minority and stories of women being sold into slavery.
Like the international brigades of young men who went to fight in Spain in the 1930s to stop fascism, many thought it was their duty to help the vulnerable by journeying to Iraq and Syria. For a while, these volunteers received a spotlight in Western media.
"Outlaw biker gangs fight ISIS in Iraq," The New York Post said in October 2014. In 2017 Rolling Stone wrote about the American anarchists who went to join the YPG.
The actual story was more complex than sensational headlines made it out to be. The men who joined sometimes came with no military training, while others were former soldiers. When they died in battle against ISIS, there were sometimes lingering questions back home about what happened. For instance, Nazzareno Tassone, a 24-year-old from Canada, and Ryan Lock from the UK, were killed in fighting in December 2016. According to CBC in Canada, Tassone's body wasn't recovered until May 2017 and returned to Canada in June of 2017. Mourners left flowers and a photo of him at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.
Lock's body was eventually brought back to the UK's Heathrow, where Kurdish supporters came to mourn. A compatriot wrote a letter saying he had died as he lived, "true to himself and true to the very highest standards of soldiering." When he was killed, he was the third UK citizen to die fighting against ISIS. Up to 850 UK citizens had went to join ISIS, while only a handful joined as foreign volunteers with mostly Kurdish groups fighting against ISIS.
John Gallagher, a 32-year-old Canadian, told his mother there were more important things than living a quiet life.
"I'm prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling toward as a civilization," he wrote before his death. In June 2016, a year after Australian Reece Harding was killing in Syria, a solemn even in his memory recalled "we must remember those still dying for our humanity, and Reece was one of them."
Some of the families of those killed in Syria, along with foreign volunteers who served and returned safely, have been posting on social media against the US decision to withdraw. For instance, a petition called "Don't let Rojava become another Yemen," circulated and received 4,000 signatures in four days.
"The US can prevent a bloodbath and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, if it demands Erdogan stand down," the petition said. "It can press Turkey to reopen peace negotiations with its own Kurdish population, stopping the endless cycle of violence. We urge President Trump and the Congress to act to defend Rojava before it is too late."
Many of those who helped fight ISIS are also dismayed to see US Secretary of State James Mattis leaving. He was key to the support the US provided in the battle against ISIS, which was led by the anti-ISIS coalition the US had gathered together in the fall of 2014.
"Thank you for your service sir," a Facebook group dedicated to a YPG sniper team posted.
A solidarity network in Ireland also sought to mobilize a protest to "prevent the Turkish invasion of Rojava." Another posted an image of foreign volunteers who had fallen in eastern Syria. "All had different stories. They came, became our comrades, confronted and did their part in breaking the back of ISIS." The graphic said that now the people of eastern Syria face a genocide if a new round of fighting begins.
Chris Scurfield, whose son Konstandinos Erik Scurfield was killed near the Syrian town of Tell Hamis in 2015, said that the volunteers applauded the work the US did in shortening the war against ISIS. "All the volunteers, after experiencing Rojava, know that the people are in total solidarity." He said that he saw the legacy of liberating areas from ISIS control, and "people returning to war-ravaged areas, the phenomenon of the rebuilding work particularly in Kobane."
Kobane was under siege by ISIS in 2014 and was a key battle that helped turn the tide against the extremists. "Where my son fell, 25 Arab families have returned and houses and the single bridge [have been] rebuilt. This is their legacy, which doesn't make headline news."
He says that the media has failed to explain the real successes on the ground of the war against ISIS and those who stood up to defeat the terrorist organization.
Now the US decision has left families of the fallen in shock. Nevertheless, "the legacy of international solidarity that they inspired is coming into place," Scurfield said. "The US Senate knows the Kurds. The case for betrayal is clear cut, but so is the case for other coalition members to come to the fore." He hopes the other members of the 74-nation coalition will step up in the vacuum the US is poised to leave.
The US decision has deeply impacted many of those who served or had friends and family in the battle against ISIS. Many see it as abandoning people who were seeking a stable democracy, as well as allowing for a new round of fighting – likely led by Turkey – that they say will lead to occupation. They see their friends left alone in Syria to fight a new enemy.
Macer Gifford, a human rights activist, was also dismayed by the US decision. "I've spent some of the best years of my life in the YPG," he said. "The Kurdish people have given me a lot. It's rare to get a chance to do the right thing and fight for a worthy cause. I won't let what I fought for be attacked."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.