What we know about the five California service members killed in Kabul airport blast
Five Californians were among the U.S. service members killed in the Kabul airport blast last week in Afghanistan.
And at least five had roots in California.
Here is what we know about the local service members:
Hunter Lopez |
Lopez, 22, of Coachella Valley is the son of two Riverside County sheriff’s deputies, Capt. Herman Lopez and Deputy Alicia Lopez, according to a statement by Sheriff Chad Bianco.
Lopez’s father commands the Sheriff’s Department’s La Quinta station in Thermal, according to a statement by city officials.
“Our La Quinta family is in mourning today with the tragic loss of Hunter Lopez,” the statement said. “We are all so humbled by the service and ultimate sacrifice that Hunter gave to protect our country. He was a brave and selfless soldier who answered the call to be a United States Marine. Like his parents, Hunter wanted to help serve others and protect his community.”
Lopez graduated from La Quinta High School in 2017 and served with the Sheriff’s Department’s explorer program from September 2014 to August 2017, Bianco said.
Lopez joined the Marine Corps on Sept. 5, 2017, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, the sheriff said.
He planned on following in his parents’ footsteps and becoming a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy after returning home from his deployment, Bianco said.
The Lopez family requested that donations in Hunter’s memory be made to the Riverside County Deputy Sheriff Relief Foundation in the name of the Lopez family. Donations can be sent to 21810 Cactus Ave., Riverside, CA 92518.
Kareem Nikoui |
Nikoui, 20, graduated from Norco High School in 2019 and served in the Junior ROTC, according to a statement by the city. He is survived by his parents and siblings.
Hours before he died, he sent videos to his family showing himself interacting with children in Afghanistan.
In one of the clips, 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.”
Paul Arreola, a close family friend, told the Associated Press 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 loved this country and everything we stand for. It’s just so hard to know that we’ve lost him,” he said, crying.
Norco city officials said Friday they planned to enshrine Nikoui’s name on the “Lest We Forget Wall” at George A. Ingalls Veterans Memorial Plaza.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) praised Nikoui for his service, saying that “words are incapable of expressing our grief and mourning for the loss of Lance Cpl. Nikoui and the other U.S. service members who were killed.”
“As a proud Marine, Lance Cpl. Nikoui and his unit put themselves in harm’s way in order to provide safety to others. That’s the definition of courage,” Calvert said. “That’s the embodiment of the Marine Corps motto, ‘Semper fidelis.’ I have spoken to the Nikoui family and expressed my condolences. The burden they bear is unimaginable.”
Dylan R. Merola |
Merola, 20, planned to go to college and study engineering when he returned to the U.S., according to KCBS-TV.
“One of the best kids ever,” his mother told the station. “Kind, loving … he would give anything for anybody.”
Cheryl Merola also described the last text she received from her son. It read: “I won’t be able to talk for a little while, we’re being sent to a different location. I love you and I’ll talk to you soon.”
His death brought an outpouring of support.
“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,” according to a GoFundMe page seeking donations for his funeral.
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Nicole Gee |
Family members said Gee was deeply devoted to her work in Afghanistan and documented it on social media.
Gee grew up in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville and went to Oakmont High School. The city of Roseville described her as a “hometown hero.” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) said Gee “chose a path of valor and service to others — making the ultimate sacrifice. As a nation, we owe her and her family a debt of gratitude.”
Gee’s sister offered a tribute on a GoFundMe Page:
Myself and my family are extremely devastated with the news of my sister passing. I can confidently speak for everyone who knew and loved my sister, Nicole Gee, that she was such a bright light to everyone she touched. Always focusing on positivity and motivating others to do their best. She was and always will be my greatest inspiration and motivation to be the best version on myself that I can be. I’ve always said she is the absolute light of my life and I would do anything for her, she was my first best friend, my partner in this crazy life, my absolute hero. There are no words that will express how much she will be missed.
The Associated Press provided an account of her time overseas:
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, 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.”
Darin Taylor Hoover |
Hoover grew up in Utah but had been living in Orange County with his girlfriend.
“His life revolved around his family, the Marine Corps, and the men he served,” his girlfriend, Nicole Weiss, said in a statement. “It has been my honor and privilege to have stood by his side and to have had the opportunity to love him and live a beautiful life together. I know in my heart that Taylor would want us all to be celebrating his life and coming together — not in mourning.”
Hoover had been in the Marines for 11 years and was remembered as a hero who died serving others, his father Darin Hoover told the Associated Press.
“He is a hero. He gave his life protecting those that can’t protect themselves, doing what he loved serving his country,” he said.
Darin Hoover said he’d heard from many fellow Marines who considered his son a mentor.
“They look back on him and say that they’ve learned so much from him,” Darin Hoover said. “One heck of a leader.”
The Associated Press, City News Service, Merrie Monteagudo and Shelby Grad contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.