DENVER, COLORADO - U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter presented flags Friday to the families of two men who never joined the U.S. military - but died fighting the Islamic State group in Syria - after their bodies returned to Colorado on Friday.
The caskets of Levi Shirley, 24, Jordan MacTaggart, 22, along with that of William Savage, 27, arrived Wednesday at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after a complicated journey back to the U.S. without ceremony.
From there, Shirley and MacTaggart arrived by train in Denver, while Savage was being transported to North Carolina, where his father lives.
In Denver, the bodies were delivered to their sobbing loved ones in plain, gray caskets. A team of pallbearers unloaded the caskets from an Amtrak train and lifted them into hearses as sleepy passengers watched curiously.
"Though they did not fight as members of our armed forces, they are Americans and as Americans we have a responsibility to bring these young men home and to give the families relief and closure,'' Perlmutter said in a statement.
The men died separately in combat after joining the People's Protection Units, the main Kurdish guerrilla group battling the Islamic State in Syria.
Turkey's tense relationship with the Kurds and the U.S. since July's failed coup stalled efforts to bring the men home.
The remains of Keith Broomfield of Massachusetts, believed to be the first American to die alongside Kurds fighting Islamic State, were returned to the U.S. through Turkey last year.
But Kurdish groups determined it would be too dangerous to repatriate the bodies of Shirley, MacTaggart and Savage through Turkey and instead shipped them hundreds of miles east to Iraq. The bodies were then flown to Amman, Jordan, and on to Chicago.
Susan Shirley said she worked with the State Department to bring her son's body home, and her friends contacted Perlmutter to help navigate the frustrating terrain. He enlisted aid from people at the White House.
"It took extraordinary measures by many people to get these men from Syria to the U.S., especially given the ever-changing and dangerous geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East,'' Perlmutter said. "It seems we are in the final stages of this long and sad situation.''
Susan Shirley said her son was in Syria "as an American to protect Americans.''
But unlike fallen members of the armed forces, the young men had no military escorts to accompany their caskets and no 21-gun salute.
Still, Susan Shirley said she appreciated the homecoming for her son and extended her condolences to families that have lost military members in action.
"You can do all the pomp and circumstance you want, but those families aren't getting their sons back, either,'' Shirley said.
Veterans groups said they had no problems with the honors planned for the three men.
"They went to fight for the right side,'' said Joe Davis, spokesman for the national Veterans of Foreign Wars. "You can't fault a state for honoring their own.''
Shirley, of Arvada, Colorado, was killed by a land mine July 14. MacTaggart, of Castle Rock, Colorado, died Aug. 3 while fighting in a squad that included two Americans and a Swede in Manbij, Syria.
Savage, of St. Mary's County, Maryland, also died in Manbij on Aug. 10.