The U.S. toll from Thursday’s terrorist attack in Afghanistan has come into sharper focus with the Defense Department confirming Saturday the identities of all 13 U.S. service members who were killed.
On Saturday, a Pentagon spokesperson said the remains of the service members were en route to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the first transit place for U.S. service members killed overseas.
Many of the slain service members were in their infancy in 2001, the year the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks triggered the U.S. war in Afghanistan, bookending their lives as the American effort comes to a close.
20, of Rio Bravo, Tex. — On Wednesday, Elizabeth Holguin received a call from her son, who was stationed in Kabul. Before hanging up, he said, “I love you,” she told The Washington Post. That was the last time they ever spoke.
Inspired by the prospect of helping others, Espinoza had always dreamed of being a Marine, his mother said. He enlisted after graduating from high school.
“It was his calling and he died a hero,” Holguin said.
Holguin remembered him as a quiet, soft-spoken young man who enjoyed spending time with family and friends. Now, her heart has “a David-sized hole nobody can fill,” she said.
Espinoza graduated in 2019 from Lyndon B. Johnson High School in Laredo, Tex. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) said he “embodied the values, the grit and the dedication” of the country’s service members.
Espinoza hailed from Rio Bravo, a small, predominantly Hispanic enclave some 10 miles away from Laredo, where his mother, stepfather and three younger siblings still live. The news of Espinoza’s death, the congressman said, was unexpected and “hit close to home.”
“When people talk about the border, they have a tendency of forgetting the good, patriotic people that believe in our country,” he said. “David is certainly one of those examples of what we have here at the border: a young man that went across the world trying to get Americans and allies of the U.S. to safety.”
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff to honor the killed U.S. service members, including Espinoza.
“These heroes should never be forgotten,” Abbott wrote on Twitter.
— María Luisa Paúl
23, of Roseville, Calif. — On the evening of Aug. 20, the Defense Department posted several photos to Twitter of U.S. service members taking care of infants amid the chaotic evacuation from Kabul.
One of the photos featured a young Marine in uniform as she held a baby carefully in her arms. Her long hair was pulled back in a bun and rifles sat on either side of her. But her face was gentle as she looked down at the young child. The service member was Sgt. Nicole Gee, who less than one week later would die in the terrorist attack outside the airport.
Gee’s social media accounts showed a dedicated Marine and a loving friend. In February, she posted a tribute to her husband on his promotion to sergeant, big smiles showing through their masks “before being stuck in predeployment quarantine.”
In June came a photo of her riding a camel in Saudi Arabia while in uniform. She smiled ear to ear. Then on Aug. 2, she posted a photo from Kuwait marking her promotion to sergeant. Gee’s last post on Instagram before her death was a photo of her helping evacuees load onto an airplane at Hamid Karzai International Airport. In her second-to-last post, also in uniform, she reposted the DOD photo from Twitter. The caption: “I love my job.”
Gee’s father, Richard Herrera, remembered her as “a very determined kid,” someone who excelled in school and was remarkably self-guided. She always had straight A’s, he recalled, “except for maybe one time in her life when she got a B.”
Gee joined the Marines in 2017 and had originally set out to become an air traffic controller, Herrera said, but a heartbeat irregularity had prevented her from following that path. Instead she became a maintenance technician. She was promoted to sergeant last month, and seemed to love her work, Herrera said, recalling photos she sent him from all over the world.
A few days before she died, she texted him from Afghanistan. She had just been in Kuwait and he was unsure why she was helping women and children seeking to evacuate the country since she was a technician. He had “never expected her to be on the front lines in Afghanistan,” he said. “She said she was having the experience of her life. And I told her I was proud of her.”
“She was a perfect child. She never got in trouble. She always went down the right road. She never got distracted,” he said, struggling to catch his breath. “I’m sorry. It’s hard. ”
News of her death prompted an outpouring of love and grief from friends and family. “My best friend. 23 years old. Gone. 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,” wrote one friend, Mallory Harrison, in a tribute posted on Facebook on Friday evening, and a fundraiser has been set up to fund travel to her funeral.
— Jose A. Del Real
31, of Midvale, Utah — Rep. Blake D. Moore (R-Utah) on Twitter identified Hoover as one of the service members killed. Hoover’s family confirmed the news in a brief phone call.
“We’ll be forever grateful for his sacrifice & legacy. He spent his last moments serving our state and nation, and we’ll never forget his unwavering devotion,” Moore tweeted.
A GoFundMe page is raising money for Hoover’s mother, siblings and fiancee.
The Marine graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2008. His family will remember him, said his father, Darin Hoover.
“He’s a true hero. And did what he loved doing, serving the United States,” he said.
— Dalvin Brown
23, Corryton, Tenn. — When Knauss was in second grade, he scribbled in his yearbook, “I want to be a Marine,” and drew himself in uniform one of his former classmates told WBIR.
In high school, Knauss joined a JROTC program. After graduating in 2016, he ended up enlisting in the Army, rather than the Marine Corps, Knauss’s grandfather, Wayne Knauss, told WATE.
“A motivated young man who loved his country,” Wayne Knauss told the outlet.
Knauss had deployed to Afghanistan once before, serving there in 2017 with the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantryman, Army officials said on Saturday. But when the rapid need to evacuate civilians and diplomatic personnel from Kabul emerged, he deployed again.
Knauss was married and a member of the 9th Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group, after shifting to a specialized field that often involves interviewing people.
“We share in the tremendous grief over the loss of Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, and we stand in support of his wife and entire family during this tragic time,” said Col. Jeremy Mushtare, his group commander, in a statement. “Ryan was the embodiment of an Army Special Operations Forces soldier, a testament to the professionalism of the noncommissioned officer corps, and a steadfast husband and teammate. His loss is devastating to our formation and Army family.”
Local officials also posted tributes to his service. “As heart-wrenching as those events were, it is even more difficult when it hits home like this,” Glenn Jacobs, the mayor of Knox County, Tenn., wrote on Twitter. “Ryan and his fellow service members represent the best of America — patriots willing to give up their lives in defense of our great nation”
— María Luisa Paúl and Dan Lamothe
22, of Riverside County, Calif. — Lopez, a corporal in the Marine Corps, was part of a family with strong roots in law enforcement in Southern California. His mother is a deputy sheriff and his father is a sheriff’s captain in Riverside County, according to a statement issued by the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association confirming his death.
Lopez had plans to join them as a sheriff’s deputy after his deployment.
“Hunter was the victim of vicious evil and was killed because he wore a United States Marine uniform with love and pride,” the association said. “Our entire community feels the anguish, and we mourn the death of Hunter, who answered the call to serve, defend and protect our nation.”
“Like his parents who serve our community, being a Marine to Hunter wasn’t a job; it was a calling,” the association said.
— Shawn Boburg
20, of Jackson, Wyo. — The Marine got married in February, on Valentine’s Day, before being sent overseas on his first deployment in April. The newlyweds were expecting their first child.
Then, two weeks ago, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum was transferred to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation mission, McCollum’s sister, Roice McCollum, said in an interview.
Roice McCollum said that her family and McCollum’s wife, Jiennah, who lives in San Diego, are devastated, but that “we knew he was where he wanted to be: serving his country. And that brings a little bit of peace and comfort.”
Rylee McCollum, just a baby on 9/11, grew up in Jackson, Wyo., and wanted to join the armed forces since he was as young as 2, his sister said.
“He signed up the day he turned 18,” Roice McCollum said. “That was his plan his whole life.”
He attended Jackson Hole High School and Summit Innovations School in Jackson, and before joining the Marines he was a decorated wrestler.
His longtime coach Ben Arlotta described him as “cast-iron tough,” an athlete who once managed to drop 30 pounds in five months before a state wrestling tournament — unparalleled willpower McCollum showed his whole life.
“He was always much bigger in character and in spirit than he was physically,” Arlotta said. “He was always much, much bigger. I mean, quite frankly, I think he was much bigger than all of us.”
McCollum met his wife after moving to San Diego for boot camp after high school. With just weeks left in his first tour of duty, his family expected that he would be home just in time to meet his new son or daughter — the newlyweds wanted the baby’s gender to be a surprise.
— Meagan Flynn
20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. — Whether he was undergoing a grueling Marines boot camp or spending time with his family, Dylan Merola did everything with his signature smile, his older brother, David Merola, told The Post.
“He has always been a helpful kid, never meeting a stranger,” he said.
Merola was on his first overseas tour as a Marine and was just a few weeks shy of returning home when he was killed in Kabul. At the time of the explosion, Merola was aiding efforts to evacuate children.
“He was a hero,” his brother said.
Merola graduated in 2019 from Los Osos High School, where he enjoyed working on the school’s theater productions.
“I knew Dylan for my most impactful year of high school in theater tech,” his friend Benjamin Gruchy posted on a GoFundMe campaign for Merola’s funeral expenses. “He always showed up with a smile and brought energy to everyone he was with.”
While he dreamed of becoming an engineer and had a passion for technology, Merola enlisted in the service because of his family’s military ties, his grandmother, Clarinda Matsuoka, told the Wall Street Journal.
His two great-grandfathers fought in the Korean War. “So, it’s kind of in his blood,’’ she told the outlet. “He wanted to serve his country. It’s all he talked about in high school.’’
When the news of his death surfaced, his sense of duty and sunny disposition were highlighted across the outpouring of tributes and grief.
“My son went to boot camp with him, and said that Dylan always had the biggest smile,” Nancy Alvarado, a military mother, posted on Twitter. “He kept people’s spirits up in the tough moments with that smile.”
— María Luisa Paúl
20, of Norco, Calif. — Steve Nikoui first saw the Marines nearing his home on his cellphone screen linked to his doorbell camera, and he knew what their arrival meant, he told the Daily Beast. His son Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui had been in Kabul, and he closely monitored the news and any visitors who came to his home in Norco, Calif., he told the outlet, mindful that military protocol is to send notification officers to deliver grim news.
The Marines arrived Thursday night, choked up and emotional, he said. He wanted to absorb the news before anyone else in the family — so he could bear the responsibility of telling them himself.
“I’m still in shock. I haven’t been able to grasp everything that’s going on,” he told the outlet. “He was born the same year it started, and ended his life with the end of this war.”
Paul Arreola, a close friend of the Nikouis, said in a brief interview with The Post that Nikoui’s death devastated the family, but faith has helped them persevere. “He was an incredible individual with a great heart,” Arreola said, adding that the family was about to depart for Dover.
News of Nikoui’s death rippled through the community east of Los Angeles. It’s not far from Camp Pendleton, where Nikoui was stationed, his father said. Nikoui would bring a squad’s worth of Marines home with him on occasion, where they would sit down for a home-cooked meal, his father told the Daily Beast.
Nikoui’s father lashed out at military officials and President Biden over the disastrous attack. The Pentagon has produced few answers about how the attack occurred, saying there are clear failures. But officials have also said the job of searching Afghan evacuees exposed them to tremendous risk.
“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,” Steve Nikoui told Reuters.
— Alex Horton
23, of Omaha — A “die-hard” Chicago Blackhawks fan and animal lover, Page was looking forward to returning home after his time serving in the Marine Corps, based out of Pendleton, Calif., his family said in a statement.
“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,” they said. “After finishing his enlistment, Daegan planned to come home and go to a local trade school, possibly to become a lineman.”
Page was raised in Omaha, where he was a member of the Boy Scouts. He joined the Marine Corps in 2019 after he graduated from Millard South High School, according to the statement.
“Daegan will always be remembered for his tough outer shell and giant heart,” his family said.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said he was “heartbroken” to learn of Page’s death.
“Corporal Page is an American hero who gave the last full measure of devotion,” said Bacon in a statement. “He served his country honorably, and his service will never be in vain.”
— María Luisa Paúl
25, of Lawrence, Mass. — Johanny Rosario wasn’t able to attend her high school prom. So, years later, Nastassia Hyatt, her friend and former Marine, held a surprise dance last year. A video of the event shows Rosario beaming in a dress as she walked down stairs decorated with 2020-shaped balloons.
“This was one of the happiest days of your life and mine,” Hyatt wrote as she paid tribute to her friend. “The smile on your face.”
Hailing from Lawrence, Mass., a city with a large Dominican population, Rosario was proud of her own roots in the Caribbean nation.
“Happy Independence Day to my dear Dominicans,” she posted in Spanish on Facebook in 2019. “Today we drink #ProudToBeDominican.”
On Friday night, Sonia Guzmán, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted in honor of Rosario. “We share in the pain of her family and friends, also the entire Dominican Community of Lawrence,” she captioned a photo of Rosario standing in front of an American flag. “Peace to your soul!”
“We are heartbroken by the death of the servicemen and women due to the bombing in Kabul this week,” said Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said in a statement.
Vasquez added he had been in touch with Rosario’s family. Her relatives, the statement said, asked for privacy and requested that “their loved one be recognized as the hero that she was.”
— María Luisa Paúl
22, of Logansport, Ind. — Before Sanchez joined the Marines, he was known in his hometown for making people laugh.
“He was a light that was on 24/7,” Kennedy Rickerd, who attended school with Sanchez from elementary through high school, told The Post. “Everybody loved him.”
Logansport Mayor Chris Martin said Friday afternoon that he was heartbroken to learn that a native of his city of 18,000 in northern Indiana had been killed in the attack.
“This young man had not yet even turned 30 and still had his entire life ahead of him,” Martin wrote on Facebook. “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.”
Rickerd said one memory stands out from more than a decade of attending school with Sanchez. In fifth grade, Sanchez and some of his friends entered a singing competition to perform Beyoncé’s “All the Single Ladies,” complete with signature dance moves. They won, and no one else came close, she remembered.
“That’s the kind of person Humberto was, always,” Rickerd said. “He was constantly joking, constantly laughing, constantly trying to make people smile.”
— Rebecca Tan
20, of Wentzville, Mo. — Mark Schmitz, Jared’s father, confirmed his death in a brief phone call with The Post. He said his son had been a Marine since 2019.
Earlier Friday he told St. Louis radio station KMOX that his son, who was on his first deployment, had always wanted to serve his country in the military.
“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,” Schmitz told the radio station.
Mark Schmitz told the station that he was informed of his son’s death after a middle-of-the-night knock on the door.
“The Marines came by last night at two-forty in the morning to give us the horrific news,” Schmitz told KMOX.
Schmitz said his son was tireless in his preparation as a Marine.
“This was something he always wanted to do, and I’ve never seen a young man train as hard as he did to be the best soldier he could be,” said Mark Schmitz.
— Shawn Boburg and Ellen McCarthy
22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio — A native of northern Ohio, Soviak planned to make a career in the Navy, his family said in a statement.
“Max was a wonderful son who loved his family, his community, and was proud to serve in the U.S. Navy. He was excited about the opportunities the Navy would offer him,” they said. “We are incredibly proud of his service to our country.”
He was a 2017 graduate of Edison High School, which released a statement mourning his loss.
“Max was a good student who was active in sports and other activities throughout his school career. He was well respected and liked by everyone who knew him. Max was full of life in everything he did,” the statement said.
Those athletic endeavors included a state-champion wrestling team, his parents told The Post, and consecutive semifinal trips with the football team.
His last words to his mother over video chat, Kip and Rachel Soviak told The Post in a statement, were of comfort.
“ ‘Don’t worry, mom, my guys got me; they won’t let anything happen to me,’ ” his parents recounted. “ … Today she realized that they all just went together.”
“My beautiful, intelligent, beat-to-the-sound of his own drum, annoying, charming baby brother was killed yesterday helping to save lives,” she wrote. “My heart is in pieces and I don’t think they’ll ever fit back right again.”
He is survived by Kip and Rachel Soviak and 12 of their other children; a fundraiser is collecting money for them. His parents offered comfort to the other families directly affected by Thursday’s attack.
“We would like to offer our condolences to the families that also lost a loved one yesterday,” the Soviaks told The Post on Friday, “and wish a speedy recovery to those that were injured.”
— Ellen McCarthy
Alice Crites, Jennifer Jenkins and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.