Americans killed in Syria were no strangers to war

An image taken from a video showing American troops at the scene of a suicide attack in the Syrian town of Manbij on Wednesday.

The four Americans who were killed by a suicide bomber in Syria on Wednesday were no strangers to America’s war zones overseas.

One was a top military linguist who worked closely with the National Security Agency and was on her eighth deployment. One was a hard-pounding rebounder on his high school basketball team who joined the Army Special Forces and served a half-dozen times in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. And one was a former member of the Navy SEALs who later supervised the collection of intelligence for a Pentagon agency.

A fourth American killed was an Arabic interpreter who spent much of her childhood living in Syria and worked for a private defense contractor.

Before Wednesday, there had been only two American combat deaths in Syria since 2015.

The suicide bombing in a restaurant in Manbij in northern Syria came shortly after President Trump called for a pullout of American troops from the country, asserting that the Islamic State — which claimed credit for the attack — had been “largely defeated.” But administration officials have struggled to articulate a coherent policy or plan for withdrawal.

Senior military officials said on Friday that they had started to withdraw some nonessential equipment and were still preparing to pull out about 2,000 troops over the next four to six months. But it was not clear whether conditions on the ground would dictate the pace of withdrawal, as John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, said this month.

The attack came as eight Americans were meeting local leaders. Three of those Americans were wounded in the blast, which prompted American forces throughout northern Syria to increase operational security measures.

On Friday, as some relatives of the victims made the sorrowing trek to Dover, Del., to recover the remains of their loved ones, old friends remembered them.

One of the Military’s Top Linguists

Shannon M. Kent had a position that in the bureaucratic lingo of the military might sound like a ho-hum desk job: Navy chief cryptologic technician (interpretive).

In reality, Ms. Kent had been deployed eight times into hard-fought war zones like Syria, serving in places where bombings and snipers were a common risk. She worked closely with the nation’s most secretive intelligence agency interpreting and assessing foreign communications and other intercepts, and her work was used in the highest reaches of the military.

Ms. Kent, 35, grew up in upstate New York and graduated in 2001 from Stissing Mountain Junior/Senior High School in Pine Plains, N.Y., Tara Grieb, the school’s principal, told The Daily Freeman of Kingston, N.Y.

Ms. Grieb said Ms. Kent was an honor student and performed in school plays, and graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh before enlisting in the Navy in 2003, where she rose to become a chief petty officer. Her father is a colonel and field commander with the New York State Police.

Last year, she joined the unit she was with in Syria — the Navy’s Cryptologic Warfare Activity 66, which is based at Fort Meade, Md. Her commanding officer, Cmdr. Joseph Harrison, called her a “rock star.”

From the Basketball Court to Army Special Forces

Jonathan R. Farmer enrolled in a private college preparatory school after moving to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., during his junior year of high school. He was an immediate presence.

He was a 6-foot-4 teenager “with a grin as big as his shoulders,” recalled Ron Ream, a longtime athletic director and football coach at the Benjamin School. “He was one of those kids everyone gravitated toward.”

One of those who quickly gravitated was Mr. Ream himself. Watching Mr. Farmer’s tough rebounding on the basketball court, he thought Mr. Farmer would be a standout on the football team, and tried to persuade him to play. But Mr. Farmer was focused on hoops.

“It broke my heart,” Mr. Ream recalled. “You could see tight end written all over him.”

On the basketball court, Mr. Farmer grabbed almost nine rebounds a game (and scored 15 points per game) his senior year and was named to The Palm Beach Post’s All-Area small schools team. Former coaches said he was one of the players who helped turn the program around.
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Clifton Perry, who was a teacher and coach at the school, said that while Mr. Farmer was always willing to help anyone who asked, on the court he was a “down-and-dirty rebounder, and the kind of guy who liked taking a charge.”

“He was a really tough, gritty kind of kid,” said Mr. Perry, now the head equipment manager for Princeton University athletics.

Though Mr. Perry had not known that Mr. Farmer joined the military — where he rose to the rank of chief warrant officer 2 — he said he was not surprised he wound up in a selective unit like Special Forces.

“He was one of those kids who respected authority, but didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Farmer’s father, Duncan, told The Palm Beach Post in a brief video interview that he could not count how many times his son had traveled overseas with his unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group, which was based in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Asked the best way to describe his son, who was 37 and married with four children, he said: “Good man, good son, good father, good husband, good friend.”

A neighbor in Palm Beach Gardens, Carol Ann Sternlieb, said she had been crying since 2 in the morning after learning Mr. Farmer had died.

She said she spent the day frustrated because she had asked an official from her neighborhood association to lower the flag at the entrance to their development, but was told that could not happen until Mr. Trump ordered it.

“This guy gave his life for his country,” Ms. Sternlieb said. “The least we can do is fly the flag at half-staff for him. He is a father of four, and his life is gone.”

A SEAL Who Returned to the Mideast as a Civilian

Scott A. Wirtz, or “Scotty” to friends, grew up in Missouri. When he joined the military, he sought out one of its most selective and difficult programs, graduating from the Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in 1998 and serving as part of the Navy SEALs until 2005.

He deployed three times to the Middle East as a civilian with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence-gathering operation. For the last two years, he had supervised the collection of intelligence in the same sort of restive regions to which he deployed with the SEALs.

His death, said the Defense Intelligence Agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., was “a stark reminder of the dangerous missions we conduct for the nation and of the threats we work hard to mitigate.”

Mr. Wirtz, 42, was also known for his jocular side, friends said.

“He had that rare quality of being a laid-back, fun-loving dude, but would be all business when needed to be,” said Dean Kahu, who worked with him in the Middle East.

In a sense, Mr. Kahu said, Mr. Wirtz’s deployments after he left the Navy continued to fill a desire that many high-level military operators have after they leave the service.

The deployments provided, he said, “the same adrenaline rush as the military.”

“Most of us need that in our lives once we have served in that tempo and at the highest level in our militaries,” Mr. Kahu said. “It never goes away.”

An Interpreter With Roots in Syria

Ghadir Taher, 27, was an Arabic interpreter from East Point, Ga., who was working in Syria for Valiant Integrated Services, a defense contractor. Ms. Taher was born in Syria and became a naturalized American citizen after immigrating in 2001, her younger brother Ali Taher said in a phone interview.

She left the United States in May to translate for the military, Mr. Taher said. She not only wanted to assist American troops in coordinating with Syrians on the ground, but also to help them understand and grow to love the country’s culture, said Mary Trachian-Bradley, a friend.

“Because of her background, she knew she could be a great resource to help,” Ms. Trachian-Bradley said in a phone interview. “She went there because she loved Syria. She believed in the future of Syria.”

Ms. Taher studied at Georgia State University and worked in health care before she left for Syria.

In a statement on Friday, Valiant Integrated Services called her “a talented and highly respected colleague loved by many who will be dearly missed.”

To her loved ones in Georgia, Ms. Taher was a lively extrovert who loved dancing — sometimes coaxing her shy friends onto the floor with her, Ms. Trachian-Bradley said.

In Syria, she treated the troops she worked with like family, Mr. Taher said. Although it was not part of her job description, she would often bring local ingredients to cook Syrian food for the troops.

“The Syria we grew up in isn’t the Syria that it is now,” Mr. Taher said. “She knew the difference, but she still made it home.”


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