Slain Marine who cradled baby at Kabul airport loved her job

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In this Aug. 20, 2021, image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), including Sgt. Nicole Gee calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Officials said Aug. 28, that Gee of Sacramento, Calif., was one of the Marines killed in Thursday’s bombing at the airport. (Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

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.

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, 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.”

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 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

Lance Cpl. 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. 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 Cpl. 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.”

MAXTON SOVIAK, 22

The flag in front of the Ohio home where Navy Hospital Corpsman Maxton Soviak’s parents live was at half-staff and a steady stream of visitors stopped by to pay their respects.

Soviak, of Berlin Heights, was remembered as a friendly guy who amused others.

“Max always was smiling,” said Vince Ragnoni, his electrical technology teacher. “Max was good for pulling shenanigans and liked to get other people to laugh.”

Soviak graduated from Edison High School in 2017, where he also wrestled and played football. At Friday night’s football game, fans honored him with a moment of silence.

He enlisted in September 2017 and attended Hospital Corpsman School in San Antonio, Texas, before postings in Guam and at Camp Pendleton.

“He had just joined the Navy and he started telling me about what he’d be doing,” Ragnoni said. “I told him I knew he would do great things. He was happy and excited about that.”

HUMBERTO SANCHEZ, 22

Marine Cpl. Humberto Sanchez was among 17 members of his Indiana high school class who joined the military after graduation.

Sanchez played on Logansport High School’s varsity soccer team and was in the homecoming court his senior year, Principal Matt Jones said. Jones called Sanchez a dedicated artist who took many art classes along with honors and dual credit college courses.

“Humberto was a bright, athletic young man who was popular, well-liked by his soccer teammates, classmates, coaches and teachers,” Jones said. “He was honored to be putting on the Marine uniform and serving his country.”

JARED SCHMITZ, 20

Marine Lance Cpl. 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, his father, Darin Hoover, said.

“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 stature, 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 levelheaded, even if he’s struggling himself,” he said.

DEAGAN WILLIAM-TYELER PAGE, 23

Cpl. 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.”

JOHANNY ROSARIO PICHARDO, 25

Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo was being mourned in the Massachusetts mill town of Lawrence she called home, the state’s capital and her birthplace in the Dominican Republic.

“We will not allow her to be forgotten,” said Jaime Melendez, director of veterans services in Lawrence, where Rosario attended high school.

Rosario served with the Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which praised her work as supply chief this spring.

Sonia Guzmán, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted that the Caribbean nation shares in the loss.

“Peace to your soul!” she tweeted in Spanish.

RYAN KNAUSS, 23

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss was remembered as a funny man who loved his country and was looking forward to coming home and moving to Washington, D.C., relatives told WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“He was a super-smart hilarious young man,” said stepmother Linnae Knauss.

Knauss had been stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and he was part of the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group, the Defense Department said.

“A motivated young man who loved his country,” his grandfather, Wayne Knauss, told the TV station. “He was a believer, so we will see him again in God’s heaven.”

HUNTER LOPEZ, 22

Cpl. 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 Cpl. 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.”

___

Melley reported from Los Angeles and Hanson reported from Helena, Montana. Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco, Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, Terry Wallace in Dallas, Lindsay Whitehurst and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, and Darlene Superville in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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