'Staring Death In The Face': Michigan Man Reflects On Getting Shot In Syria

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(Courtesy Caleb Stevens)
(Courtesy Caleb Stevens)

A 23-year-old American man stumbled into a Chicago emergency room in January with a gunshot wound from Syria. Caleb Stevens had been fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish militants. The Chicago Tribune confirmed his story and now he is home recovering in Michigan.

As he was working his way through the United States Military Academy, Stevens was "watching the world fall apart for people in Syria."

"It registered as something I saw as a tragedy and something that I would be interested in working on," Stevens tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "But it was years later that I actually saw, 'Hey, I could do something about this.' "

Chicago Tribune reporters Rosemary Sobol (@RosemarySobol1) and Patrick M. O'Connell (@pmocwriter) — who first heard about Stevens on a police scanner — also explain how they were able to corroborate his story of fighting with a Kurdish militia group.

Interview Highlights

On his condition

Caleb Stevens: "I'm doing well. Yeah, I can't complain. I'm just waiting for a skin graft surgery, but I feel really fortunate to be back in the U.S. and fortunate to be alive. A lot of my friends haven't been as fortunate."

On when the Chicago Tribune initially learned of Stevens on the police scanner

Rosemary Sobol: "It was a call of a walk-in gunshot victim, and the scanner just basically said, 'An ISIS member was shot overseas and he had walked into Northwestern emergency room.' "

On the misunderstanding that he was fighting alongside ISIS

RS: "He was sitting there in his hospital bed and about seven or eight police officers came in and were talking to him kind of aggressively and asking him what was going on. But that got worked out pretty quickly and they found out he was fighting ISIS."

"The story is so out there that it does lead to you to believe, 'Is this real?' "

Patrick M. O’Connell

On whether Stevens' actions were legal

Patrick M. O'Connell: "So the short answer is it appears yes. Stevens is in no criminal danger for what he has done. We checked into this with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Justice. State Department said there are a number of people who go over to the Middle East for various causes to fight with militia there, both for YPG ... and for ISIS. Now we know from criminal trials in the United States that if you are looking to help ISIS or join ISIS, you're in criminal trouble with the federal government. But, because YPG is aligned with U.S.-backed forces, Stevens is fine."

On how Stevens got to this point, and when this started

CS: "You know, those are questions I ask myself also, but the way I've thought about it, I was searching for a way to address the world's problems in a way that felt real and meaningful and important to me."

Caleb Stevens (right) in Raqqa with Mehmed, a Kurdish friend who was also fighting there. The picture was taken just after the ISIS forces in the city surrendered. (Courtesy Caleb Stevens)
Caleb Stevens (right) in Raqqa with Mehmed, a Kurdish friend who was also fighting there. The picture was taken just after the ISIS forces in the city surrendered. (Courtesy Caleb Stevens)

On a formative experience in grade school, when Stevens learned about the group World Vision and philanthropy for children overseas

CS: "I think it was a moment of feeling called to do something. That I've enjoyed enough comfort and safety and privilege, that I feel like it's important to kind of give back."

On getting in touch with the YPG, a mainly-Kurdish militia part of the Syrian Democratic Forces

CS: "They ask a lot about your mental state. They're basically trying to make sure that people aren't coming to Rojava to escape something at home. They've had a lot of violent people coming just to fight."

On everyday life in the YPG

CS: "I was in a unit of other Westerners. We had a Western commander, and then, eventually during my time there, I was leading half of the unit. Sometimes our days were training, studying Kurdish, talking. There were a lot of militant anarchists. There were some people who were there specifically because of their feminist beliefs. So, yeah, sort of people coming from all angles."

(Courtesy Caleb Stevens)
(Courtesy Caleb Stevens)

On the Kurdish people

CS: "I had the feeling that, here's a group of people who have been kind of struggling under the the most adverse set of circumstances, and yet hold themselves to an extremely high standard. And they're working to create something more beautiful and more just than other areas in the region. I had the sense that I had a lot to learn from people in the YPG."

On how many Westerners are going to the Middle East

PO: "So political scientists we talked to said that there's a handful of Americans who have joined the People's Protection Units, also known as YPG or Syrian Democratic Forces, and the State Department said, 'a small number of Americans have died after traveling to Syria to take part in the fighting.' The State Department was sort of reluctant to get into this too much. And so that small number, I think might refer to both sides, going over to join ISIS-aligned groups, or ISIS itself, or some of these other militias, including the YPG like Stevens did."

On corroborating Stevens' story

PO: "We did an extensive background check on him, both domestically and, as much as we good, during his time abroad. We checked out his whereabouts in the States, leading up to him wanting to go overseas. We called the courts in the places where he had lived and gone to school, both in the California/Nevada area and in Michigan. We looked at his medical records, which he gave to us, willingly, and on there backtracked who he had been treated by, and contacted them, overseas, to see if they a) remembered him and b) if they could say anything on the record. And we got the 'a' — 'Yes, I remember him.'

"That's what we wanted to know, right? I mean, the story is so out there that it does lead to you to believe, 'Is this real? Is he making this up, or is he making portions of this up, or is he sensationalizing this?' And so we wanted to make sure, within the reporting, that we did that to the best of our ability by checking out everything he said along the way including his plane tickets, his passport, where he was, reaching out to YPG to say, 'Can you comment about this individual and whether he was involved in that?' "

On being engaged in combat

CS: "I don't know, it's kind of hard to describe it. I don't know exactly what to say except that I think there's absolutely nothing special about combat. I think our culture romanticizes it and has this idea that somehow if you go to war, you're going to turn into an adult. I think it's messed up and I think it's factually not true. I think fighting is scary and potentially traumatic. People can have a lot of fun doing it, also, but I think we need to get over our obsession with violence.

"I think it's complicated, and I'm not sure exactly where I land. I don't think violence is ever the first answer. I went to Rojava because I wanted to participate in this revolution, and the capacity that they were asking for foreigners to participate was as soldiers. So my foremost motivation wasn't to go to war, but seeing kind of what ISIS was doing and seeing what the YPG was trying to do, I had the sense that, 'Hey, here's a cause that's worth fighting for. It's worth descending into the darkness that is violence.'

"Even when you believe in the cause, a lot of what you end up seeing is senseless and disturbing. I really think like this world doesn't need more trigger-happy soldiers. It needs more reluctant soldiers who want war to happen as carefully as possible."

"I think it was a moment of feeling called to do something. That I've enjoyed enough comfort and safety and privilege."

Caleb Stevens

On leaving the U.S. Army and the idea of being a mercenary

CS: "Part of why I decided to leave the U.S. Army was I was not confident that I could get behind every conflict that the U.S. military engages in. You know, to me, the mercenary life is kind of the antithesis of the life that I want to lead. I will get behind a cause. But I think fighting for money is not something I'm interested in."

On the moment of Stevens' injury

CS: "I was running and then I suddenly found myself on the ground. The bullet shattered a bone, bounced around, came out. There's blood spurting out of my leg. And we're still getting shot at, and I kind of — very unglamorously — crab walked to safety on one leg and two arms."

Caleb Stevens (fourth from left) in Raqqa with other politically motivated members of his unit. (Courtesy Caleb Stevens)
Caleb Stevens (fourth from left) in Raqqa with other politically motivated members of his unit. (Courtesy Caleb Stevens)

Reflecting on the experience

CS: "I'm absolutely glad that I went. The experiences I had there, they have helped me learn a lot about other people, learn a lot about myself. Staring death in the face, I think it shows you what you want to live for."

This article was originally published on March 12, 2018.

This segment aired on March 12, 2018.



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