A young husband with a child on the way who wanted to teach history one day and another man who always wanted to serve in the military were among the 13 U.S. troops killed in a horrific suicide bombing at Afghanistan’s Kabul airport, which also claimed the lives of more than 100 Afghans.
As military personnel were going through the grim task of notifying the troops’ next of kin, some of their names emerged Friday before the government formally announced them. Eleven Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier were among the dead, while 18 other U.S. service members were wounded in Thursday’s bombing, which was blamed on Afghanistan’s offshoot of the Islamic State group.
The U.S. said it was the most lethal day for American forces in Afghanistan since 2011. The White House said President Joe Biden will look for opportunities to honor the servicemembers who lost their lives.
Cpl. Hunter Lopez
Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, was a Riverside Sheriff’s Explorer Scout for three years at the Palm Desert Station in Southern California and planned to join his father on the force after returning from his current deployment, the Riverside Sheriff’s Association said.
“We are heartbroken to hear this sad news about Hunter, who chose to follow a life of service, selflessness, courage and sacrifice, like his parents,” the statement read.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Biacno identified Lopez’s parents as Sheriff’s Department Capt. Herman Lopez and Deputy Alicia Lopez. He called their son “their American Hero.”
Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui
Also among those slain was Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui, who graduated from Norco High School in Southern California in 2019 and served in Norco High School Air Force Junior ROTC. He is survived by his mother, father and siblings, the city said in a Facebook post.
“Today’s news of our former student has shocked and saddened us, and we ask the community to join us in honoring Kareem’s memory for he has given the ultimate sacrifice,” the Corona-Norco Unified School District said in a statement.
Nikoui’s father, Steve Nikoui, said in an interview with the Daily Beast that his son loved serving his country and had “always wanted to be Marine.” He was stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.
“He really loved that [Marine Corps] family,” the father said. “He was devoted — he was going to make a career out of this, and he wanted to go. No hesitation for him to be called to duty.”
Steve Nikoui also expressed anger at political decisions that have led to the turmoil in Afghanistan, saying, “Biden turned his back on him. That’s it.”
Cpl. Nikoui’s name will be enshrined on the Lest We Forget Wall at the George A. Ingalls Veterans Memorial Plaza, which honors people from Norco who have died while serving their country.
Rylee McCollum, a Marine from Wyoming whose wife is expecting a baby in three weeks, was among those killed, his sister, Cheyenne McCollum, told The Associated Press.
“He was a Marine before he knew he was allowed to be a Marine,” Cheyenne McCollum said Friday. “He’d carry around his toy rifle and wear his sister’s pink princess snow boots and he’d either be hunting or he was a Marine. Sometimes it would be with nothing on underneath, just a T-shirt.”
“Anybody who met him just loved him,” she added. “He was so excited to be a dad and he was going to be a great dad.” She said her brother wanted to be a history teacher and a wrestling coach once he completed his service.
“We want to make sure that people know that these are the kids that are sacrificing themselves, and he’s got a family who loves him and a wife who loves him and a baby that he’ll never get to meet,” she said. Another sister, Roice McColllum, told the Casper Star Tribune that her brother was on his first deployment when the evacuation in Afghanistan began.
Regi Stone, the father of one of Rylee McCollum’s friends, described McCollum as “a good kid,” who was resilient, smart and courageous.
Stone read a note that his wife, Kim, sent to their son Eli Stone, who is also in the military and deployed elsewhere: “I remember standing in our kitchen and telling y’all to run the other way if you had to go in first. And both of you saying, ‘If we die doing this, we die doing what we love.’ I never knew that would come true, so hold onto all the great memories. I know he would want all of his brothers to stay strong and fight hard.”
Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz
Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20, was one of the other Marines who died in the attack. His father, Mark Schmitz, told KMOX Radio that the Marines came to his home in Wentzville, Missouri, at 2:40 a.m. Friday to give him the grim news.
Schmitz said his son, who grew up in the St. Louis area, was among a group of Marines sent back to Afghanistan to assist with evacuation efforts.
“This was something he always wanted to do, and I never seen a young man train as hard as he did to be the best soldier he could be,” Schmitz said of his son. “His life meant so much more. I’m so incredibly devastated that I won’t be able to see the man that he was very quickly growing into becoming.”
Lance Cpl. David Lee Espinoza
Lance Cpl. David Lee Espinoza, a 20-year-old Marine from Laredo, Texas, was also killed, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said Friday.
The congressman’s press secretary, Dana Youngentob, said Pentagon representatives visited Cuellar’s Washington office to inform him of Espinoza’s death. Cuellar’s office also received an official death notice from the Pentagon.
In a statement, Cuellar said Espinoza “embodied the values of America: grit, dedication, service, and valor. When he joined the military after high school, he did so with the intention of protecting our nation and demonstrating his selfless acts of service.”
Cuellar concluded, “The brave never die. Mr. Espinoza is a hero.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at her briefing Friday that Biden would look for “any opportunity” to honor those who died in service to their country. She did not rule out a possible visit by Biden to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains of service members killed in action are returned.
Psaki said Biden would not reach out to any of the families until the Pentagon finishes notifying next of kin. She said it then is up to the families to decide whether they want to take the president’s call.
“It’s important to note that this may be the worst day of their lives,” she said.