The emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital was packed with flu patients when Caleb Stevens hobbled through the doors on crutches one evening in January, his leg pulsing with pain from a week-old gunshot wound.
The clerk at the intake desk was unfazed when Stevens said he had been wounded in Syria. She took his passport and told him to join the rest of the people in the waiting room.
So he sat with his mom for 20 minutes, his right leg wrapped in a cast, a splint and bloody bandages. He was still wearing a red-and-white Christmas sock someone pulled over his foot when he was rushed to a Baghdad hospital for surgery.
As he looked around the ER, Stevens, 23, said he thought some of the other patients “seemed more at risk than I was.”
A week before and 6,200 miles away, Stevens was on the roof of a house in the small town of Abu Hamam near the Euphrates River, he said, battling Islamic State as a volunteer fighter with a Kurdish militia group. The Tribune confirmed much of Stevens’ unusual account through travel documents, medical records, emails and interviews with others who said they fought with him. The militia did not respond to inquiries.
On the day he was shot, Stevens was running to retrieve a rifle, he said. A sniper’s bullet tore into his calf. “There was blood spurting out. I definitely knew I had been shot but a part of me refused to believe that.”
He underwent several surgeries at military hospitals in Syria and Iraq before arriving at O’Hare International Airport, records show. As doctors at Northwestern examined the jagged wound, word made its way to Chicago police that Stevens was somehow connected to Islamic State. The next morning, three officers walked into his room, he recalled. Four more waited in the hall.
“They kind of barged in the hospital room,” Stevens said during a recent interview with his mother in their Michigan home. “One of them began aggressively and suspiciously asking questions. They asked me the same questions over and over and over.
“That was kind of my welcome back to the U.S.,” he said. “‘We think you’re a terrorist.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I was fighting the terrorists.’’’
According to a Chicago police report, Stevens told the officers he was shot “in an exchange of gunfire with unknown offenders” while conducting a “military style offensive with YPG militia.” The report says the FBI was notified, but the federal agency did not respond to Tribune inquiries about the incident.
A handful of Americans have joined People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG, and other Syrian militia groups allied with the United States in recent years, according to experts and the federal government. Most of those who sign up are young adults, idealists and those with a military background who sympathize, and perhaps romanticize, the groups’ stated fight against Islamic State and oppression in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Stevens had spent two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he started getting restless to join the conflict. “I didn’t want to do two more years of college and job hunting to do something to improve the world,” he said. “This felt like something intense and meaningful and something I could jump right into.”
A seed is planted
When Stevens was in grade school, a guest speaker for a group called World Vision spoke to the students about philanthropy and helping needy children overseas. That night, Stevens said, he couldn’t sleep and decided to use his allowance to support Renaldo, a little boy in Mexico.
His passion for “the cause of justice” grew as he got older, Stevens said.
Stevens was a top scholar and athlete at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., and graduated in June 2012. He dreamed of becoming a soldier. He was interested in what was going on in the Middle East and was looking for more from his college experience than frat parties and dorm life.
Stevens considered joining the U.S. Army, but the war in Afghanistan seemed to be winding down and he had misgivings about how meaningful the Army would be for him. He applied to West Point and headed to New York in 2012.
By that time, Syria was in the midst of civil war. In the United States, the conflict was seen as a battle between the pro-government forces of President Bashar Assad and resistance rebels. But Syria had become many battlefronts involving an array of militias with different objectives. The YPG, a Kurdish militia, was dedicated to protecting Rojava in northern Syria, which is near the Iraq and Turkish borders and has become a home region for Kurds.
Stevens became aware of the YPG in 2014 from news reports of a mass killing in the region. He left West Point that August, according to the academy.
“YPG was the only military force that went into Mount Sinjar and fought off Islamic State. That really got me thinking. Maybe this is something that I could do,’’ Stevens said. “I wish more people would put more on the line for the cause of human dignity … Not just having something to live for but having something you’re willing to die for.”
He was eager to do something, but it would be three years before he set foot in Syria.
After leaving West Point, Stevens worked at a horse ranch in Indiana, a ranch in Australia and taught English and computer science in Mali in Africa, he said. Then he enrolled in Deep Springs College, a tiny school on the California-Nevada border that focuses on service and working the land. It was there he studied agricultural policy and infectious diseases. He also learned Kurdish.
Meanwhile, Syria sunk deeper into war. Russia threw its support to the forces of the Assad regime, while the United States backed rebel groups. Elements from each side clashed with Islamic State in the east. Militias battled for territory. Millions fled the country seeking refuge.
It wasn’t until February 2017 that Stevens learned through a Rolling Stone article about YPG accepting foreign volunteers. “I started thinking about it and talking about it with people. Running it by my friends and mentors and my mom,” he said. “And enough people were saying, ‘Yeah, this makes sense for you. I could see you doing this,’ that I thought, OK, I’m not crazy. This is something I could actually do.’’
But Stevens’ mother had reservations.
“We discussed it, kind of, in theory,’’ Deborah Stevens said recently as she sat near her son, his wounded leg propped up. “I expressed my concerns. But as it became clear that this was your aspiration, I got on board with it.’’
His mother began learning about the warring factions in Syria and the ideals of the Kurdish cause. Over time, she offered her support.
“Caleb has a really big heart and I could see this as a way for him to utilize that aspect of his character together with his skills and really make a difference in the world,’’ she said.
Finding out how to join the YPG in its fight in Rojava was surprisingly easy, Stevens said.
The Kurdish fighting forces in Syria have a robust online presence and use Facebook and social media threads to recruit foreigners, including Americans, through provocative postings and photos detailing their efforts. On the Lions of Rojava page on Facebook, several Americans have posted inquiries and expressed interest in joining the cause.
Stevens did a quick Google search and sent a Facebook message to the group, then followed up with an email. In early April 2017, he sent a message that began, “Hello, I’m a leftist from the United States interested in fighting for the cause in Rojava.’’
The group sent him a lengthy application, including an exhaustive personality questionnaire, an essay portion and general information about volunteering. The Tribune reviewed the email exchanges between Stevens and the YPG. Messages left with the YPG via email and social media were not returned.
“Rojava is not a place for exotic holiday trips or for adventures,” the application read. “Supporting the YPG is not a game and no fun activity for bored people. … You are not going to join a football club or get a new job in a company: you are going to take part in a revolution.”
A questionnaire began with basic inquiries about education and family and ended with 70 very specific yes-or-no psychological questions. “Do you have difficulty trusting people? Do you tend to avoid social relationships? Do you believe you have special extra sensory abilities (ability to “sense” a person’s presence)? Do you occasionally or often dress or act provocatively to gain attention?”
Stevens filled out the application, clicked send and waited.
He received a short, curt reply: “We have received your ticket and your photo. Please email us again 3 days before your arrival. You will then be given final instructions and a contact number,” according to YPG emails reviewed by the Tribune.
Stevens bought a one-way ticket and in July 2017 boarded a plane to fight with rebel forces.
The draw of a foreign war
YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has been fighting Islamic State in the east of Syria and, more recently, Turkish forces in the north.
Rojava is viewed as an oasis for certain groups of people in the region fleeing persecution, according to Melinda McClimans, assistant director of the Middle East Studies Center at Ohio State University.
Many of the militia’s soldiers are women, she said. Some of them have fled Islamic State and taken up arms against it.
“I think part of the reason why Americans might be attracted to it is that idealistic concept of people being free,” McClimans said. “There’s definitely romanticism around it.”
Because YPG is aligned with U.S.-backed forces trying to defeat Islamic State, there do not appear to be legal ramifications for Stevens and others upon returning from overseas. No charges have been filed against Stevens.
The State Department referred questions about whether Americans are legally allowed to fight for YPG to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to inquiries.
Americans who join or support groups and forces designated as terror groups by the U.S. government, on the other hand, chance arrest on federal charges. Officials estimate there may be a few dozen Americans who have joined Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
McClimans said there hasn’t been much academic research on the various fighting forces because the area is difficult to access.
But one thing is clear: The fighting has torn the region apart. More than 400,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict since 2011, according to the World Bank, with 5 million seeking refuge abroad and more than 6 million displaced internally, according to U.N. agencies.
The State Department said it strongly warns against traveling to Syria to join the conflict. The State Department has no consular presence in Syria, and a department official said its ability to provide consular assistance to individuals who are injured or kidnapped, or to the families of people killed in the conflict, is extremely limited. “A small number” of Americans have died after traveling to Syria to take part in the fighting, according to the State Department.
“U.S. citizens who undertake such activity face extreme personal risks, including kidnapping, injury, or death,” the State Department said. “The U.S. government does not support this activity.”
Taking up arms
With minimal military experience and few instructions, Stevens arrived in Iraq alone and unsure of what was ahead of him, he said.
“They leave you in the dark. I put together a bag of stuff I thought would be useful. A bunch of socks and underwear. A bunch of semi-military equipment, mostly outdoor stuff.’’
A copy of his airline ticket shows he set down at Sulaimaniyah International Airport in Iraq on July 23. He was told someone would pick him up, but the man never showed up and Stevens said his luggage was lost somewhere between Jordan and Iraq. He finally made contact after finding a hotel with an Internet connection and checking in.
“My first day was kind of stressful,’’ he said.
Stevens was soon joined by a classmate from Deep Springs College, Grayson Scott. “It was a pretty wild experience,’’ said Scott, who left the YPG months before Stevens was wounded.
“Caleb is an incredible person,” he said in a phone interview. “There isn’t anybody I’d rather fight fascism with.”
Scott and Stevens trained on old Soviet weapons: AK-47s, a PK machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a Dragunov sniper rifle.
It was about 90 degrees during the day but cooler at night. Stevens said he was paid a small monthly stipend. They lived on the rooftops of abandoned buildings. They drank a hot sugary tea constantly, even on the front lines.
Women and men had separate living quarters but fought together. Their operations took place mostly in the countryside, helping take villages and buildings where Islamic State may have been camped out.
One of Stevens’ closest friends during this time was a French recruit in his 30s who said he has been with the YPG for more than two years. Reached by phone in Syria, he said he wanted to be identified only by his Kurdish name, Hogir.
“We have a similar way of thinking,’’ Hogir said. “Many of the people who come to fight with the YPG do not adapt well to the environment. Maybe they complain many times for small things. (Stevens) was very disciplined. He was very eager to fight. He knew why he was here and, since he was one of the commanders of the unit, we had to meet every day to discuss a lot of the organization of the unit.”
It was five months, Stevens said, before his unit saw serious fighting. In early December, the unit moved to the city of Abu Hamam. News reports describe fighting in the area around that time.
“It was surprisingly Western,” Stevens said of the town. “Rich and well-developed. It was kind of a weird mix of really nice, tall homes, almost mansions, and then farmland and smaller houses.”
Stevens said he began to engage in serious battles. The YPG changed its operations from nighttime assaults to “sniper work’’ during the day, covering for other groups that were pushing at the front line.
“There were times when I was afraid for my life and there were times when it felt like it was just a matter of time before I died or got wounded,” Stevens said. “But I think being with people that you care about and having a mission that you care about, that does a lot to make you feel like even if you’re afraid, you have a reason to get over it.”
For eight days, Stevens’ unit moved from building to building, close to the front line, as other units moved forward and took new positions. He said he was on sniper duty on a roof Jan. 6 when his unit came under fire.
“We heard something,” Hogir said. “You don’t hear the shots, you hear like something breaking. Then you see there’s a hole in the wall and they are shooting at you. You hear the bullets going through the wall. You hear the wall breaking and the pieces of stone going to the floor. You don’t hear the shots.”
Everyone ran to a small shelter, but Stevens said he went back for his rifle and was shot. “I fell and I was on my back, so I scooted or crab-walked back into the shelter about 15 or 20 meters away. I was in instant survival mode. There was muscle hanging out and a lot of blood spurting out.”
After a tourniquet and bandages were applied, Stevens said he leaned on Hogir and other soldiers as he hopped down a flight of stairs and was laid on a stretcher. “My friends grunted and sweated for a kilometer until I could get to safety.”
Hogir said he and three others carrying the stretcher faced sniper fire on their way to an armed vehicle. The last time he saw Stevens was near a Syrian field hospital.
“He was lying in an armed vehicle with Americans around him,’’ Hogir said. “I just said OK, keep in touch, we will see each other very soon.’’
Stevens then began a medical journey that he said included stops at hospitals in Syria and Baghdad, treatment by U.S. doctors and five surgeries, four of them in eight days.
Medical records provided by Stevens show he was admitted to the 47th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad on Jan. 7 for a gunshot wound to his lower right leg that fractured a bone, damaged nerves and tore his Achilles tendon.
He was initially admitted under the name “Marauder” until officials could confirm his identity, according to the records. Stevens’ name, Social Security number and date of birth were later added.
Stevens underwent surgeries that he was told saved his leg. “The DOD (Department of Defense) and the U.S. Army started taking care of me. It was nice of them.’’
Neither the Army nor federal officials would respond to questions about Stevens’ whereabouts, care or treatment or the involvement of American troops, doctors or equipment.
The return home
After Stevens was discharged from the combat hospital, he was flown to Amman, Jordan, where he was scheduled for a flight to O’Hare. He said he lost his passport after being shot and was given a provisional one that was issued for just one year, according to a copy he provided.
At the airport in Amman, security officers searched his backpack and found the bullet that doctors had pulled from his leg, Stevens said. They thought this “very suspicious’’ and Stevens said he had to check the backpack with his pain medication inside. That meant a 14-hour flight to Chicago with no relief from the pain.
At O’Hare, “a bunch of Border Patrol police took one look at me and my passport and said, ‘You’re going to have to come with us,’” Stevens said. After two hours, they let him grab the bag so he could take something for the pain, he said. Then they let him go.
Sitting in a wheelchair, reunited with his mom, Stevens said the return to a big American city was jarring. Everything looked “lit up and expensive.”
“I felt totally out of place,” he said. “Not just with the people but with the environment — how everybody’s lives seemed disconnected from what is going on in Syria. It was jarring, kind of. A feeling of not exactly belonging.”
After his stay at Northwestern, Stevens said he has been at a hospital closer to his home for continued treatment for his leg. “I can put weight on it now. Even though the fibula is broken, I’ve started my first baby steps on the road to recovery. But it’s kind of a wait-and-see kind of thing.’’
In the month since Stevens came home, alliances in Syria continue to shift. Incursions by Turkey could force the YPG to unite with Syrian government forces to fight a common enemy.
Last weekend, Stevens posted on his Facebook page a picture of a former comrade who he said was recently killed while fighting the Turkish army in Syria.
“There were times when I couldn’t stand him, and times when I couldn’t stand to see anyone but him,” Stevens posted. “And one unexpected homecoming when he made me feel as much at home as I’ve ever felt. And his death mixes all those together into a tangle that won’t come undone … Martyrs never die. We remember them when we remember the ideals they died for.”
As his leg heals, Stevens considers finishing college, maybe at the University of Michigan or Yale. Once he can walk again, he plans to travel with his mom. They want to go to Scandinavia.
He might even go back to Syria.
Chicago Tribune’s Madeline Buckley contributed.
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