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SUNDAY, February 05, 2023
Most of the Americans killed in the Kabul bombing were 9/11 babies who never knew a nation at peace

Most of the Americans killed in the Kabul bombing were 9/11 babies who never knew a nation at peace

SUNDAY, August 29, 2021

They had signed up to do their part, to heal a country - their own - that had not known a moment of peace in their entire lives. Rylee McCollum wanted to become a history teacher, but only after doing what he could as a Marine to serve his country. Hunter Lopez knew this was what he wanted since he was 11 years old. Ryan Knauss knew it in second grade.

The 13 American service members killed in Kabul on Thursday died in gruesome violence, victims of a terrorist bombing. They were, with one exception, 9/11 babies, born within a few years of the terrorist attacks that led the United States into a military conflict that stretched across four presidencies and throughout the lives of these 11 men and two women.

They never knew a United States that was not at war, never lived in the world before the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, a country without ID checks in office buildings, metal detectors at schools, shoes X-rayed at the airport.

Instead, they grew up keenly conscious of security concerns, in a culture now sometimes fixated on safety, always aware of a war on terrorism that men and women in uniform were fighting thousands of miles from home.

They were in Afghanistan this month not to fight, but to help finally end a war that has lasted two decades. In the pictures they posted, the videos they sent home, they held Afghan babies and guided fleeing families and stood guard in a hectic, precarious place. The stories of battles and bombs they heard in their training had seemed to some like tales of another time, the kind of lore their superiors liked to pass along to the next generation.

On Saturday, as the Pentagon released the names and biographies of those who were killed, their families groped to make some sense of the ultimate loss. Parents and other relatives spoke of these deaths as searing reminders that these young people had lived in the shadow of wars that took place an ocean away, conflicts strangely detached from most Americans' daily existence.

"Our generation of Marines has been listening to the Iraq/Afghan vets tell their war stories for years," wrote Mallory Harrison, Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee's friend and roommate first in the barracks and later at their shared house in North Carolina. "It's easy for that war & those stories to sound like something so distant - something that you feel like you're never going to experience since you joined the Marine Corps during peacetime.

"You know it can happen," Harrison wrote on Facebook. "You raise your hand for all of the deployments, you put in the work. But it's hard to truly relate to those stories when most of the deployments nowadays involve a trip to [Okinawa] or a boring 6 months on ship. Then bad people do bad things."

Gee's car, Harrison wrote, is still "parked in our lot. It's so mundane. Simple. But it's there. My very best friend, my person, my sister forever. My other half . . ."

The bombing killed Gee six days after Pentagon officials had tweeted a picture of her cradling an Afghan infant in her arms in Kabul. Gee had reposted that photo on Instagram, adding a caption: "I love my job."

Gee's father, Richard Herrera, told The Washington Post that she had texted him from Afghanistan a few days before she died. She had just been in Kuwait and now was helping women and children who sought to flee from the Taliban.

Gee, who was from Roseville, Calif., had set out to become an air traffic controller, but an irregular heartbeat steered her into a position as a maintenance technician. Her father said he had "never expected her to be on the front lines in Afghanistan," but she told him that "she was having the experience of her life," he recalled. "And I told her I was proud of her."

Gee, who was promoted to sergeant last month, was 23 when she died.

So was Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss of Corryton, Tenn. "I want to be a Marine," he wrote in his second-grade yearbook, drawing himself in uniform.

Knauss recently completed psychological operations training and hoped to serve next in Washington, his relatives said. He was "a motivated young man who loved his country," his grandfather, Wayne Knauss, told WATE-TV in Knoxville. "He was a believer, so we will see him again in God's heaven."

Five of the 13 were 20 years old, as old as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

One 20-year-old, Marine Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, had called his mother from Kabul on Wednesday.

"I love you," he told Elizabeth Holguin before they hung up. Becoming a Marine had always been Espinoza's dream, his mother told The Post, and he enlisted right after finishing high school in Rio Bravo, Texas, a small, mostly Hispanic town near Laredo.

"It was his calling, and he died a hero," Holguin said. She said her heart has "a David-sized hole nobody can fill."

Another of the 20-year-olds, Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, was a baby on 9/11 and had wanted to join the armed forces since he was 2 years old, according to his sister, Roice. Another sister recalled Rylee as a toddler, carrying around a toy rifle and wearing his sister's pink princess snow boots.

"He signed up the day he turned 18," she said. "That was his plan his whole life."

Rylee, who grew up in Jackson, Wyo., and was a decorated wrestler in high school, had just gotten married on Valentine's Day before departing on his first overseas assignment in April. He'd been transferred to Afghanistan two weeks ago.

His wife, Jiennah Crayton, who lives in San Diego, was counting the days until McCollum's return from his tour of duty. She is pregnant, and the couple had hoped Rylee might be home just in time for the arrival of their baby in three weeks, the sister said.

"He would've been the best dad," Crayton wrote on Facebook. "I wish he could see how much of an impact he made on this world."

The oldest service member killed in Thursday's attack, Marine Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, who went by Taylor, was 31. He had decided on a military career after seeing New York's twin towers collapse in the 2001 attack, when he was 11. He enlisted when he was 19.

"Why he did this was because he loves his country," his father, Darin Hoover, told KUTV in Salt Lake City. "He loves people."

On Thursday, Taylor, who played football at Hillcrest High School in Midvale, Utah, "led his men into that, and they followed him, but I know, I know in my heart of hearts he was out front," his father said. "And they would have followed him through the gates of hell if that's what it took, and ultimately that's pretty much what he did."

Ever since two Marines arrived at his doorstep outside Salt Lake City to deliver news of Taylor's death, his father has heard from other Marines who'd served with his son in Afghanistan and elsewhere and wanted his family to know that they'd been honored to have him as their sergeant.

"They look back on him and say that they've learned so much from him," Darin Hoover told KUTV. "One heck of a leader."

Darin Hoover said he did not want his son's legacy to be tarnished by the politics of how the war in Afghanistan ended. The father wanted the eldest of his three children to be remembered instead simply as "a great young man" who decided 20 years ago that a historic attack on his country would shape the course of his life.

The father recalled: "He decided, 'That's what I want to do.' "

For some other families of the fallen, the circumstances of these deaths are colored by politics. Some sounded like President Biden when they spoke of the American involvement in Afghanistan, as they wondered why U.S. military forces remained on the ground for so many years, the mission never entirely clear to many of the troops, the endgame never quite certain.

On the first day after two Marine bereavement officers showed up at his front door, Steve Nikoui struggled to assess what had happened to his boy, Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, who was 20 years old.

"I haven't been able to grasp everything that's going on," Steve Nikoui told the Daily Beast. "He was born the same year it started, and ended his life with the end of this war."

Although the father felt a duty to "respect the office" of the presidency, "Biden turned his back on him," Steve Nikoui said. "That's it."

He told Reuters that "I'm really disappointed in the way that the president has handled this, even more so the way the military has handled it. The commanders on the ground should have recognized this threat and addressed it."

The father, a carpenter in Norco, Calif., said he'd been pleased to see his son join the Marines while Donald Trump was president because "I really believed this guy didn't want to send people into harm's way. They sent my son over there as a paper pusher."

The way the war is ending has divided the bereaved families just as it has split the nation.

Twenty-three hundred miles from Nikoui's home, in Berlin Heights, Ohio, the same knock at the door came from two Navy notification officers, and now Navy Corpsman Maxton W. Soviak's sister Marilyn finds herself one of 12 surviving siblings in a family that will never be the same.

"I've never been one for politics and I'm not going to start now," Marilyn Soviak wrote on Instagram. "What I will say is that my beautiful, intelligent, beat-to-the-sound of his own drum, annoying, charming baby brother was killed yesterday helping to save lives. He was a ... medic. There to help people . . . He was just a kid. We are sending kids over there to die. Kids with families that now have holes just like ours."

Max Soviak, who was 22, was the only sailor killed in the bombing. His last words to his mother came recently over video chat. He assured her that he'd be okay.

"Don't worry, Mom. My guys got me," he said. "They won't let anything happen to me."

On Friday, after the knock on the door, his mother "realized that they all" - Max and his guys - "just went together," according to a statement his parents, Kip and Rachel, gave to The Post.

Their son, who had played on the football, wrestling, tennis and track teams in high school, had wanted to make the Navy his career.

Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez had formed a solid plan, too. His father is a captain and his mother a deputy in the sheriff's department in Riverside County, Calif., and Hunter, who was 22, intended to follow his parents into the same office, according to a statement from the Riverside Sheriffs' Association.

"Like his parents who serve our community, being a Marine to Hunter wasn't a job; it was a calling," the statement said.

"This kid knew since he was 11 what he wanted to do," Hunter's uncle, JC Lopez, said on Facebook. "Every free moment was spent training and perfecting his craft. Hunter, you did your job. Rest now."