Hero’s homecoming for Canadian killed fighting ISIS alongside Kurds
SI NEWS – TORONTO
‘A martyr of humanity’: Family, friends hold memorial service for Canadian killed fighting ISIL in Syria
“John Robert Gallagher is a martyr of Kurdistan. He’s a martyr of humanity, he’s a freedom fighter,” said Hadi Elis, speaking for the Toronto Kurdish Community Centre. “John created a bond between Kurds and Canadians.”
During the memorial, the flags of Kurdish paramilitaries framed a stage decorated with wreaths and a mural signed by the York University Kurdish Students Association. “John you fought darkness to save humanity, rest in dignity,” read one message.
Gallagher, 32, was the first Canadian volunteer to die while fighting alongside Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria. He died of a single gunshot wound while retaking a village from ISIL on Nov. 4.
Hundreds of Canadians holding flags and Thank You signs lined overpasses along Highway 401 last Friday as a motorcade accompanied his casket to Blenheim, Ont., where tartaned pipers and drummers marched him to a funeral home.
“I simply cannot tell you how much that meant to my family and I,” his mother, Valerie Carder said at Tuesday’s service.
She thanked Kurds as well as the Foreign Affairs department for helping repatriate his body. “They were very, very kind and I really appreciate everything they did.”
Carder said that as a boy in Shelburne, Ont., Gallagher was interested in the history of the First World War. Through the local legion, he met a veteran who told him he had walked more than 100 kilometres to Toronto to enlist. “I think that made a lasting impression,” she said.
Feeling restless and wanting to make a difference, he left for Iraq in April and fought with the Kurdish peshmerga before crossing into Syria to join the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. He wrote in an essay the believed everyone had a duty to oppose the tyranny of theocratic movements like ISIL.
The mother of former Canadian soldier John Robert Gallagher confirmed on Facebook her 32-year-old son was killed in an ISIS suicide bomb attack in Syria.
“[John] thought this was such an important fight and he has always been a man of principle, who believed very strongly in human rights and justice. I am very, very proud of him and his sisters and I love him very much,” his mother, Valerie Carder of Wheatley, Ont., wrote.
Gallagher’s mother said he was “passionate about doing what he thought was right.
“There’s so many things that people don’t know and I really appreciate that people are proud of him and are admiring that he had the courage to not just talk a good talk but actually act on his principles because he really, really tried to do the right thing,” she said.
Gallagher, who once served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, left Canada at the end of April to fight alongside Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. He then travelled over the border into Syria in July, to take up arms with the Kurdish militia known as the YPG.
His mother encouraged his friends and followers to read a lengthy note posted on his Facebook page in May, in which Gallagher explained he was “prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling towards as a civilization.”
“Only by destroying ISIS without mercy can we discredit the idea, and force the would-be jihadis and fellow-travelers to give up their insane dreams of a new Mecca and join the modern world.”
But, according to the post, he was driven not just by a desire to rid the world of ISIS but also the sovereignty of Kurdistan; Kurdish-controlled or inhabited areas cover parts of northern Iraq, northern Syria, Turkey and Iran.
“The cause of a free and independent Kurdistan is important enough to be worth fighting for all on its own. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnicity in the world without a country of their own, and have suffered enormously under the boot-heel of regional powers.”
What happened to John Gallagher?
The U.K.-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was the first to report Wednesday the details of Gallagher’s death in suicide attack in the countryside of al-Hool area in Al-Hasakah province.
Al-Hasakah province, which borders northern Iraq and Turkey, is home to a large Kurdish population. Just a day before details of Gallagher’s death emerged, Kurdish militias reported making gains against ISIS near al-Houl.
The YPG issued a statement Thursday, saying Gallagher was a “martyr.”
What did Gallagher say about his time in Iraq and Syria
His Facebook page contains a series of candid photos and posts from his time in Iraq and Syria, describing a bout with salmonella poisoning and encephalitis, enduring the desert heat, and his aged assault weapon.
Maclean’s interviewed Gallagher in July. He wasn’t fazed by the sounds of gunfire in the distance when speaking to a reporter.
“These guys aren’t going to quit until their dead, which makes it pretty easy to justify fighting against them with everything we’ve got in our arsenal as far as I’m concerned.”
Why is he not in the Canadian Forces?
In that same interview, he described why he left the Canadian Forces in 2005.
Gallagher, who had served a tour in Bosnia, said his decision to not sign another three-year contract was driven by the fact he’d be staying in Canada and training.
“That made my decision easy. I got out of the military.”
That wasn’t the case in the end and a year later his battalion was on the ground in Afghanistan. Some of them never came home.
“Psychologically, I guess that makes it pretty easy to explain why a lot of us are here. We feel like there’s more that we could be doing. We feel like we haven’t done enough.”
Even in his Facebook post, he described wanting to be in action.
Proud of being in battle
Gallagher showed a great deal of pride in what he was able to do on the front lines with the YPG, describing it as a “privilege.”
His most recent update from Syria, to his family, friends and supporters at home, was posted Oct. 30.
The mother of a Canadian soldier who died fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish forces in Syria said she was overwhelmed by the show of support for her son on Friday, as his body was repatriated to southwestern Ontario.
Valerie Carder said she was surprised by how many people had shown up to honour her son John Gallagher as a convoy brought his body from a funeral home in Toronto to Blenheim, Ont., not far from where he grew up.
“We’re very, very touched and we want to thank everyone very much,” Carder said.
“It’s such an honour for my son, and I hope that it can do some good in terms of bringing awareness to the situation that he went to try and help.”
Gallagher was killed Nov. 5, either by a suicide bomber or at close range.
Among those who had gathered to pay their respects were many Kurdish-Canadians.
Sinam Mohamad, a diplomatic representative of the Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, also flew to Canada to show her support.
“It’s our honour now to be here and to share with his family and his mother,” she said.
“I would like to offer my condolences on behalf of our autonomous region to all the Canadian people and to his family and the Canadian government,” Mohamad added.
“We are facing the same enemy,” she said.
Gallagher had served in Bosnia under the Canadian Armed Forces, but left the military in 2005. He joined the People’s Defence Units YPG earlier this year, despite the known dangers.
In an essay entitled ‘Why the War in Kurdistan Matters,’Gallagher wrote that ISIS has “got the numbers and the weapons to win this war, so to go stand on the other side of the battlefield is objectively insane.”
However, he added, “the Kurdish people … are under threat from a genocidal foe.”
Gallagher’s casket was transported with a Toronto Police escort along a stretch of Highway 401 known as the “Highway of Heroes,” and it arrived shortly before 5 p.m.
Hundreds of people gathered on overpasses as waiting for the convoy to go under, while waving Canadian flags and holding up signs in honour of Gallagher.