"My Brother Was My Hero": Friends And Family Remember The US Service Members Killed In Kabul
“My brother was my hero, and I know he is watching over my family in our time of grief."
The Department of Defense released the names of the 13 US service members killed in an explosion outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday. Among them was a soon-to-be father, young men and women who loved serving in the military, and brothers who were viewed as heroes by their siblings.
Dozens of Afghan civilians were also killed in the suicide bombing that was believed to have been carried out by ISIS, US officials said. It was the most US service members killed by hostile forces in Afghanistan on a single day since 2011.
The Department of Defense on Saturday announced that the 13 service members who died while helping evacuation efforts at the airport included 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and a staff sergeant in the Army. Most of them were in their early 20s. Their remains are on the way back to the US, the Pentagon said Saturday.
Here's what we know of them so far:
Maxton Soviak, 22
Maxton “Max” Soviak was a Navy corpsman in his early 20s from Berlin Heights, Ohio.
His sister Marilyn described him as her “beautiful, intelligent, beat-to-the-sound of his own drum, annoying, charming baby brother,” in a post on Instagram, saying that he was in Kabul to help people.
“Now he is gone and my family will never be the same,” she wrote. “There is a large Maxton sized hole that will never be filled.”
His brother Griffin told BuzzFeed News he wanted people to know that Max was “a good man.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, his family said that he was a wonderful son and a beloved member of the community who was proud to serve in the Navy and excited about the opportunities it would offer him.
His family said that he was proud of being a state champion wrestler and member of a state playoff final four football team two years in a row, but that "he was most proud to be a Navy Corpsman and a 'devildoc' for the Marines."
Soviak leaves behind 12 brothers and sisters.
His family said that Soviak's final words to his mother on FaceTime after he told her goodbye were, "Don't worry mom, my guys got me. They won't let anything happen to me.'"
"Today she realized that they all just went together," his family said.
On his Instagram page, Max Soviak described himself as a patriot. His last post in June was a photo of him and two fellow service members, including Marine Hunter Lopez, who was also identified as among those killed in the attack, dressed in their uniforms and gear. In the caption, Soviak wrote, “It’s kill or be killed, definitely trynna be on the kill side.”
“My brother was my hero, and I know he is watching over my family in our time of grief,” Griffin Soviak said in an Instagram message. “I’m devastated to say the least.”
David Lee Espinoza, 20
David Lee Espinoza, 20, of Laredo, Texas, served with the US Marines since at least 2019.
On Facebook, his mom, Elizabeth Holguin, posted effusively about Espinoza joining the military, calling herself a “proud Marine mom.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he ordered flags to be lowered to honor service members killed in Kabul, identifying Espinoza as among those killed.
"These heroes should never be forgotten," Abbott tweeted.
Rylee McCollum, 20
Rylee McCollum, a 20-year-old Marine from Wyoming, was expecting a baby in three weeks with his wife, Jiennah Crayton. On Facebook, McCollum’s sister, Roice, wrote that Rylee “wanted to be a Marine his whole life” and was sent to Afghanistan when the evacuation began.
Rylee’s father, Jim McCollum, told the New York Times that Rylee was “guarding a checkpoint when the explosion tore through the main gate where thousands of civilians have been clamoring to escape the country’s new Taliban rulers.”
Chi McCollum, another one of Rylee’s sisters, wrote on Facebook that he was her hero.
Jill Miller Crayton, Rylee McCollum’s mother-in-law, wrote on Facebook that even though she never got to meet Rylee, she will meet her grandchild soon and she will “love and spoil that baby forever.”
Jared Schmitz, 20
"His life meant so much more,” Mark Schmitz told the outlet. “I'm so incredibly devastated that I won't be able to see the man that he was very quickly growing into becoming."
Hunter Lopez, 22
Hunter Lopez, a 22-year-old Marine from Southern California, joined the Marine Corps in 2017, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, where his parents, Capt. Herman Lopez and Deputy Alicia Lopez, work.
A former scout with the sheriff’s explorer program, Hunter Lopez planned to follow in his parents’ footsteps and join the sheriff’s department after returning from Afghanistan.
“Like his parents who serve our community, being a Marine to Hunter wasn't a job; it was a calling,” the Riverside Sheriff’s Association said in a statement. “He loved his family, and as we grieve for Hunter and his fellow Marines taken from us too soon, there are simply no words to express how deeply he will be missed — Semper Fi.”
Kareem Nikoui, 20
Kareem Nikoui, 20, of Norco, California, always wanted to be a Marine, his father, Steve Nikoui, told the Daily Beast. He was stationed near home at Camp Pendleton, making it easy for him to visit his family on the weekends. He’d often bring along friends from the base for a home-cooked meal.
“He really loved that [Marine Corps] family,” Steve Nikoui 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.”
His mother, Shana Chappell, shared the last photo Kareem sent of himself in Afghanistan in an Instagram post, saying she was “still in shock.”
“I felt my soul leave my body as i was screaming that it can’t be true! No mother, no parent should ever have to hear that their child is gone,” Chappell wrote. “This is my baby Kareem. He was so amazing in every way.”
According to the city of Norco, Nikoui served in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. The city said in a statement that his name would be added to Norco’s George A. Ingalls Veterans Memorial Plaza, which honors residents who died during their service.
Darin Taylor Hoover, 31
Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, a 31-year-old US Marine from Salt Lake, Utah, was remembered by his family and fellow Marines as a dedicated and courageous man who died a hero while helping to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans near Kabul's airport.
Utah Rep. John Curtis said in a statement that Hoover was a "hero who continued evacuating civilians despite knowing that an attack at the airport was a real possibility."
"He undoubtably saved many American and Afghan lives through his selfless commitment to public service and the United States." Curtis added.
In a Facebook tribute to his fellow Marine, Kane Murfin described Hoover as a man who dedicated his life to the Marine Corps, and that he was a mentor whose "patience and instruction" to junior Marines was "invaluable."
"I loved him because he took time to help develop me as a mentor, gave me books and tools to make me the best leader I could be," Murfin said.
"We are all angry because of the unbelievable odds you had to face in Afghanistan," he wrote. "I know you fought tooth and nail to the very end and if anyone could do it, it would be you. Thank you for everything you’ve taught me."
Hoover's father, Darin Hoover, told Fox13 that his son died doing what he loved and leading his men to the end.
"He gave his life defending and helping those that could not help themselves," Darin Hoover said.
"Taylor spent his entire adult life as a Marine, serving. Doing the hard things that most of us can’t do. He is a hero," his uncle, Jeremy Soto, wrote on Facebook.
Ryan Knauss, 23
Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, a 23-year-old from Corryton, Tennessee, knew he wanted to serve his country from a very young age.
In his second-grade yearbook, he drew a picture of himself in uniform and wrote that he wanted to be a Marine, his former classmate, Brianna Rittenhouse, told WBIR.
His grandfather, Wayne Knauss, described him as a "motivated young man who loved his country."
"He was a believer so we will see him again in God’s heaven," Wayne Knauss told WATE.
Knauss, a 2016 graduate of Gibbs High School, was a leading student in the JROTC program who joined the military right after graduation, his former high school principal, Jason Webster, told WBIR.
"I mean, I shook his hand," Webster said. "I handed him the diploma and to know that he was going to sacrifice for me is just unbelievable."
His stepmother told the news channel that Knauss loved to laugh, build things with his hands, and help his wife Alena in her garden. He had just finished his Psychological Operations training, she said.
“Ryan was the embodiment of an Army Special Operations Forces soldier, a testament to the professionalism of the non-commissioned officer corps, and a steadfast husband and teammate," Col. Jeremy Mushtare of the 8th Psychological Operations Group, said in a statement. "His loss is devastating to our formation and Army family."
In a tweet, Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett wrote that Knauss "gave his life... helping people he didn't know get to safety."
"This is what true heroism looks like," he added.
Nicole Gee, 23
On Aug. 20, the Department of Defense tweeted photos of U.S. military service members comforting infants at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. One of the photos showed Nicole Gee, a 23-year-old Marine, gently cradling a baby. Six days later, Gee was killed in the explosion outside the airport.
In one of her last posts on Instagram, Gee shared that same photo of herself with the caption, "I love my job🤘🏼."
The last photo she posted on Instagram showed her escorting evacuees into an aircraft six days before she died.
Gee, who was from Sacramento, California, had recently been promoted to sergeant. Her social media posts were filled with photos of her friends and family and her life as a Marine.
Her family was the most important priority in her life, and she took every chance she had to see them whenever she could take leave from her service, Gee's sister, Misty Fuoco, wrote in a GoFundMe campaign to help with funeral expenses.
Fuoco said that Gee and her husband, Jarod Gee, who is also a Marine, always dedicated their lives to serving the country.
Her sister, who she described as a "bright light to everyone she touched," loved the work she was doing in Afghanistan, Fuoco wrote.
"She gave the ultimate sacrifice," she said.
In an emotional Facebook tribute to her best friend and fellow sergeant, Mallory Harrison wrote that Gee's "last breath was taken doing what she loved—helping people—at HKIA in Afghanistan."
"Then there was an explosion. And just like that, she’s gone," she wrote.
She shared another photo of a smiling Gee holding a baby in Kabul.
"My best friend. 23 years old. Gone," Harrison wrote. "I find peace knowing that she left this world doing what she loved. She was a Marine’s Marine. She cared about people. She loved fiercely. She was a light in this dark world. She was my person."
Johanny Rosario, 25
Johanny Rosario's friends and fellow Marines remembered the 25-year-old as a supportive friend, sister, and mentor.
Rosario, who was from Lawrence, Massachusetts, was proud of her Dominican heritage, wishing her fellow Dominicans a "Happy Independence Day" in a 2019 Facebook post.
“We share in the pain of her family and friends, also the entire Dominican Community of Lawrence,” Sonia Guzmán, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the US, tweeted in a tribute to Rosario.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called Rosario a hero.
"A daughter of Lawrence, her courage saved thousands of lives and her selfless service represents the best of our country," Warren said in a tweet.
Rosario's friend, Natassia Hyatt, shared a touching video on Facebook that showed Hyatt throwing her friend a 2020 prom because Rosario had been unable to attend her high school prom.
The video showed Rosario, dressed in a black gown, overcome with emotion as she danced and celebrated the prom she had never had.
“This was one of the happiest days of your life and mine,” Hyatt wrote.
"All I can say is that I’m full of gratitude to have known such a beautiful person inside and out!" another friend, Britney Morrow, wrote on Facebook.
Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said in a statement that he was in touch with Rosario's family who had requested privacy and for her to "be recognized as the hero that she was."
"You were my only friend when I first got to the fleet and the person that trained me in everything that I knew," Ashia Britton, a friend and fellow Marine, said in a Facebook tribute to Rosario. "You were so good at your job and so good to your Jr Marines. Sgt Rosario … don’t forget that name. You’ll always be remembered."
Dylan Merola, 20
Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola had only been deployed to Afghanistan for a little over a week when he was killed in the explosion.
The 20-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, California, was supposed to come home in a couple of weeks, a family member told CBS News. He had planned to go to college and study engineering on his return.
In an interview with CBS News, his mother, Cheryl Merola described him as "one of the best kids ever."
"Kind. Loving. Giving to every single person. He would give anything for anyone," she said in tears.
She recalled the last words her son told her over the phone: "Mom, I won’t be able to talk to you for a little while, we’re being sent to a different location. I love you and I will talk to you as soon as I get home."
David Merola posted a photo of his "little brother" on Twitter, saying, "RIP and say hey to dad & grandma for me."
Merola, who graduated from Los Osos High School in 2019, was remembered as "one of the kindest students ever to call Los Osos home," Superintendent Mat Holton said in a statement. Merola spent four years in high school as a theater technician.
"He joined the Marines because he wanted to make a difference, and in the end stood side by side with his fellow soldiers in helping more than 100,000 people evacuate," Holton said.
In a statement to the media, Merola's uncle said, "He was the kind of person who would always be there for his friends and just enjoyed hanging out with family for family cook nights. They would hike, fish, kayak and spend time just being together."
A GoFundMe campaign for Merola described him as "a beloved son, brother, grandson, great grandson, nephew, a great friend, and a brave soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice."
Daegan William-Tyeler Page, 23
Daegan William-Tyeler Page, a 23-year-old corporal, loved the brotherhood of the Marines, but always looked forward to coming home to Omaha, Nebraska, his family said in a statement shared on social media.
Page joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Millard South High School.
"We lost a great patriot," the school said in a Facebook post.
Page was a longtime member of the Boy Scouts who loved hunting with his dad, being out on the water, and playing hockey, his family said. He was also an animal lover and a "diehard" Chicago Blackhawks fan.
"To his younger siblings, he was their favorite jungle gym and to his friends, he was a genuinely happy guy that you could always count on," the statement said.
After completing his enlistment, Page planned to return home and go to a local trade school to possibly become a lineman for a utility, his family said.
"Corporal Page is an American hero who gave the last full measure of devotion," Rep. Don Bacon, said in a statement. "He served his country honorably, and his service will never be in vain."
Page leaves behind his girlfriend, his parents, stepfamily, four siblings, and grandparents.
"Daegan will always be remembered for his tough outer shell and giant heart," his family said.
Humberto A. Sanchez, 22
Humberto Sanchez, a 22-year-old corporal in the Marines from Logansport, Indiana, was remembered as the kid who always made people laugh.
"Throughout school you were always making everyone in the room laugh & I will remember that side of you when I think about you always," Kennedy Rickerd, who went to school with Sanchez, said in a Facebook tribute.
"He was a light that was on 24/7,” Rickerd told the Washington Post. “Everybody loved him."
Sanchez's mother mourned the loss of her son, calling him "my beautiful boy" in a Facebook post.
She said he had left a "huge void" in their lives, but also "beautiful memories."
"We will always be proud of you," she said.
In a Facebook post addressed to her brother, Sanchez's sister wrote, "I used to always say you were my rock. As long as I had you I could get through anything as I’d be okay. How will I ever be okay without you..."
Sanchez graduated from Logansport High School in 2017, the Pharos Tribune reported.
"This young man had not yet even turned 30 and still had his entire life ahead of him," Logansport Mayor Chris Martin said in a statement. "Any plans he may have had for his post-military life were given in sacrifice due to the heart he exhibited in putting himself into harm’s way to safeguard the lives of others."
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb also paid tribute to Sanchez, asking Hoosiers to send prayers to his family.
"Few among us answer a call of duty so dangerous as Corporal Sanchez volunteered to do," Holcomb said. "In doing so, he made the ultimate sacrifice so others could live and find freedom."