Family: Levi Shirley, American fighting ISIS in Syria, killed in combat

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A young American who joined Syria's Kurdish fighters on the front lines battling ISIS was killed during combat operations, his mother told NBC News.

Susan Shirley said Thursday that she first received an email from a Kurdish captain Tuesday relaying that her son, Levi Shirley, had been killed. Kurdish forces later announced on Facebook that he died on July 14.

"It's about as bad as you might think," Susan Shirley said. "It's every parent's worst nightmare."

Levi Shirley, who would have turned 25 next month, was fighting in Manbij in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed coalition forces have been trying to recapture the city from ISIS.

The State Department said it was aware of reports that an American was killed in Syria, but it could not provide more information.

Susan Shirley said her son wanted to join the military just like his father, who had served in Vietnam. But he was prevented from becoming a Marine, she said, because of "bad eyes."

That's when Levi Shirley found another way. Kurds looking for Western fighters to fill their ranks were recruiting via social media.

Her son was "soft-hearted" and wanted to "fight injustice" — and giving up his comforts in America for the perils overseas seemed like the right move, his mother added.

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A member of the peshmerga forces inspects a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. Picture taken December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Iraqi soldiers look a tunnel build by Islamic State fighters in a building destroyed by an airstrike in a village of Mahana some 60 km south of Mosul, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters in a village of Har Bardun, Iraq, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle as he look a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization look at a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization stand near a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Fighters from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization walk past a tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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And with the Kurdish fighters, Levi Shirley found kinship. They nicknamed him Heval Agir — Heval meaning "friend" in Kurdish. The officials said he first joined them in February 2015, fighting near the Turkish border.

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He stayed there for about four months before returning to his family's home in suburban Denver for a respite.

But when he came back, he found it difficult to re-adapt, Susan Shirley said.

"When people are in combat, it's really hard to rejoin 20-something society," she said.

Syria was still calling. Without fully explaining to his family, Levi Shirley packed up and left for the war-torn country again in January to take arms along the Kurds. He was sent to Manbij, where the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters have been engaged in heavy street combat with ISIS.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) wrote on Facebook that Levi Shirley made a lasting impression for his "discipline and sense of responsibility."

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"His style and personality were a source of strength, motivation, and morale for his friends," they said.

And his dedication to the cause has given him another honor — one that his family believes he would have accepted proudly.

"The sacrifice of our comrade Agir has enriched the democratic revolution being fought ... " the YPG added. "His name has been written in the history of our brotherhood."

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