A woman who cradled a baby in her arms at the airport and posted on social media that she loved her job. A young husband with a child on the way. Another man who always wanted to be in the military. A man who planned to become a sheriff’s deputy when his deployment ended. Heart-wrenching details have emerged about some of the 13 U.S. troops killed in a horrific suicide bombing at Afghanistan’s Kabul airport, which also claimed the lives of more than 160 Afghans.
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 service members who lost their lives, many of whom were men in their early 20s.
Here are the stories of some of the victims and the people who are mourning them:
NICOLE GEE, 23
A week before she was killed, Sgt. Nicole Gee cradled a baby in her arms at the Kabul airport. She posted the photo on Instagram and wrote, “I love my job.”
Gee, 23, of Sacramento, California, was a maintenance technician with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Sgt. Mallory Harrison, who lived with Gee for three years and called her a “sister forever” and best friend, wrote about the magnitude of her loss.
“I can’t quite describe the feeling I get when I force myself to come back to reality & think about how I’m never going to see her again,” Harrison wrote on Facebook. “How her last breath was taken doing what she loved — helping people. … Then there was an explosion. And just like that, she’s gone.”
Gee’s Instagram page shows another photo of her in fatigues, holding a rifle next to a line of people walking into the belly of a large transport plane. She wrote: “escorting evacuees onto the bird.”
The social media account that includes many selfies after working out at the gym lists her location as California, North Carolina and “somewhere overseas.”
Photos show her on a camel in Saudi Arabia, in a bikini on a Greek isle and holding a beer in Spain. One from this month in Kuwait shows her beaming with her meritorious promotion to sergeant.
Harrison said her generation of Marines hears war stories from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but they seem distant amid boring deployments until “the peaceful float you were on turns into … your friends never coming home.”
Gee’s car was still parked in a lot at Camp Lejeune and Harrison mused about all the Marines who walked past it while she was overseas.
“Some of them knew her. Some of them didn’t.” she said. “They all walked past it. The war stories, the losses, the flag-draped coffins, the KIA bracelets & the heartbreak. It’s not so distant anymore.”
RYLEE McCOLLUM, 20
Rylee McCollum, a Marine and native of Bondurant, Wyoming, was married and his wife is expecting a baby in three weeks, his sister, Cheyenne McCollum, said.
“He was so excited to be a dad, and he was going to be a great dad,” McCollum said. She said her brother “was a Marine before he knew he was allowed to be a Marine. … 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.”
McCollum said her brother wanted to be a history teacher and a wrestling coach once he completed his service. Another sister, Roice McCollum, told the Casper Star Tribune that her brother was on his first deployment when the evacuation in Afghanistan began.
“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,” Cheyenne McCollum said.
Regi Stone, the father of one of Rylee McCollum’s friends, described McCollum as “a good kid,” who was resilient, smart and courageous. Stone shared a note that his wife, Kim, sent to their son Eli Stone, who is also in the military and deployed elsewhere. In the note, Kim wrote that she remembered telling the friends to run the other way if they had to go in first and that both of them said, “If we die doing this, we die doing what we love.”
KAREEM MAE’LEE GRANT NIKOUI, 20
Lance Corporal Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui, of Norco, California, sent videos to his family hours before he died, showing himself interacting with children in Afghanistan. In one clip, he asked a young boy to say hello.
“Want to take a video together buddy?” Nikoui said, leaning in to take a video of himself with the boy. “All right, we’re heroes now, man.”
Family friend Paul Arreola said the videos show “the heart of this young man, the love he has.”
“The family is just heartbroken,” he said. Arreola described Nikoui as an “amazing young man” full of promise who always wanted to be a Marine and set out to achieve his goal. He is survived by his parents and three siblings.
“He loved this country and everything we stand for. It’s just so hard to know that we’ve lost him,” he said, crying.
Nikoui was also in the JROTC, and the Norco High School Air Force JROTC posted on Facebook that he was “one of our best Air Force JROTC cadets” and that “Kareem was set on being a Marine & always wanted to serve his country.”
JARED SCHMITZ, 20
Marine Lance Corporal Jared Schmitz grew up in the St. Louis area and was among a group of Marines sent back to Afghanistan to assist with evacuation efforts, his father, Mark Schmitz, told KMOX Radio.
“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,” Mark 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.”
TAYLOR HOOVER, 31
Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, of Utah, had been in the Marines for 11 years and was remembered as a hero who died serving others, his father, Darin Hoover, said.
“He is a hero. He gave his life protecting those that can’t protect themselves, doing what he loved serving his country,” said Darin Hoover, who lives in a Salt Lake City suburb.
He said he had heard from Marines who said they were grateful they had his son as their sergeant.
“They look back on him and say that they’ve learned so much from him,” Hoover said. “One heck of a leader.”
Hoover said his son was also a best friend to his two sisters and loved all his extended family. He had a girlfriend in California and was the kind of guy who “lit up a room” when he came in, his father said.
Nate Thompson of Murray, Utah, first met Hoover when they were 10 years old in Little League football. They stayed friends through high school, where Hoover played lineman. He was undersized for the position, but his heart and hard work more than made up for what he lacked in statute, Thompson said. As a friend, he was selfless and kind.
“If we had trouble with grades, trouble with family or trouble on the field, we always called Taylor. He’s always level-headed, even if he’s struggling himself,” he said.
DEAGAN WILLIAM-TYELER PAGE, 23
Corporal Daegan William-Tyeler Page served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton, California, and planned to go to trade school and possibly become a lineman after his enlistment ended, his family said in a statement.
Page was raised in Red Oak, Iowa, and in the Omaha area and joined the Marines after graduating from Millard South High School. He is mourned by his girlfriend, parents, stepmom and stepdad, four siblings and grandparents, the family statement said.
“Daegan will always be remembered for his tough outer shell and giant heart,” the statement said. “Our hearts are broken, but we are thankful for the friends and family who are surrounding us during this time. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the other Marine and Navy families whose loved ones died alongside Daegan.”
RYAN KNAUSS, 23
Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss was remembered as a motivated man who loved his country and was looking forward to coming back to the U.S. and eventually moving to Washington, D.C., family members told WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knauss’ grandfather, Wayne Knauss, told the television station that his grandson attended Gibbs High School and grew up in a Christian home.
“A motivated young man who loved his country,” Wayne Knauss said. “He was a believer, so we will see him again in God’s heaven.”
Stepmother Linnae Knauss said Ryan planned to move to Washington after he returned to the U.S.
“He was a super-smart hilarious young man,” she said.
HUNTER LOPEZ, 22
Hunter Lopez, whose parents work at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in Southern California, was a sheriff’s Explorer for three years before joining the Marine Corps in September 2017, Sheriff Chad Bianco said.
Bianco said Lopez planned to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy after his deployment.
DAVID LEE ESPINOZA, 20
Lance Corporal David Lee Espinoza, a Marine from Laredo, Texas, joined the military after high school, and was being remembered as a hero by his mother.
“He was just brave enough to go do what he wanted and to help out people. That’s who he was, he was just perfect,” his mother, Elizabeth Holguin. told the Laredo Morning Times.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Henry 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.”