WACO, Tx. (KWKT) — Thirteen Whataburgers sit on three trays on the table of a booth. A folded U.S. flag is placed next to it.
It is a simple tribute to the 13 service members killed during a suicide bombing outside the Kabul Airport, but one that speaks volumes to those visiting the restaurant in Texas.
The crew of the Whataburger also placed a ‘Reserved’ notice in a picture frame. It reads, “The table is reserved in remembrance of the 13 brave heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families.”
Many restaurants have done similar tributes to the men and women killed in the attack.
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.
Brig. Gen. Forrest C. Poole III, commanding general of 2nd Marine Logistics Group, said his unit mourned “the immense loss of Sgt. Gee,” and the others.
Sgt. Mallory Harrison, who lived with Gee for three years, wrote about how hard the death hit her.
“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 “Max” Soviak’s parents live was at half-staff as a steady stream of friends, coaches, teachers and family stopped by to offer condolences.
Soviak, of Berlin Heights, was remembered as a friendly, well-liked guy who amused others and had been a member of the state champion wrestling team and made the final four football playoffs two years in a row. He had 12 brothers and sisters.
“Max was a wonderful son who loved his family, his community, and was proud to serve in the U.S. Navy,” where he planned to spend his career, his family said in a statement. “Words cannot express how heartbroken we are with this news and we will miss Max tremendously.”
Soviak graduated from Edison High School in 2017. At Friday night’s football game, fans honored him with a moment of silence.
“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.”
He enlisted in September 2017 and attended Hospital Corpsman School in San Antonio, Texas, before postings in Guam and at Camp Pendleton.
In his final words to his mother over FaceTime, he reassured her he would be safe, they said.
“Don’t worry mom, my guys got me,” he said. “They won’t let anything happen to me.”
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.”
DYLAN MEROLA, 20
In his last message home, Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola told his mother he wouldn’t be able to speak to her for a while because he was being moved to a new location in Afghanistan.
“I love you and I’ll talk to you as soon as I get home,” were his final words, Cheryl Merola told KCAL-TV.
Merola, from Rancho Cucamonga, California, had only been in the country less than two weeks when he was killed, family members said.
He planned to study engineering in college after his military service.
Before the football game Friday at his alma mater, Los Osos High School, fans were told the school had received “devastating news” and a moment of silence was observed in his honor.
A GoFundMe account for his funeral had far exceeded its goal of $15,000 by Saturday afternoon.
“Dylan was a beloved son, brother, grandson, great grandson, nephew, a great friend, and a brave soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice at the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation,” the announcement said.
His tearful mother said he was “one of the best kids ever.”
“Kind loving, giving to every single person,” she said. “He would give anything for anybody.”
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 (have) 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.
DAEGAN 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,” stepmother Linnae Knauss said.
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 had planned to follow in the footsteps of his parents and embark on a career in law enforcement after his military deployment.
As a teen he had been in the Explorer program at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in Southern California, where his mother and father serve, and planned to join the force there himself, Sheriff Chad Bianco said.
“We are heartbroken to hear this sad news about Hunter, who chose to follow a life of service, selflessness, courage and sacrifice, like his parents,” Bianco said in a statement.
Lopez’s mother is a sheriff’s deputy, and his father is a captain.
The union representing Riverside sheriff’s officers said there were no words for how deeply Lopez would be missed.
“Hunter was the victim of vicious evil and was killed because he wore a United States Marine uniform with love and pride,” the Riverside Sheriff’s 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.”
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.”