10 Camp Pendleton service members among 13 killed in Kabul airport attack

Ericka Beck comforts her daughter Cara Steffens outside Camp Pendleton’s main gate near Oceanside on Saturday. Nine Marines and a sailor based at Pendleton were among the 13 U.S. service members killed Thursday in a suicide bomb attack at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Nine Marines and a sailor based at Camp Pendleton were among the 13 U.S. service members killed Thursday in a suicide bomb attack at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Saturday.

The Thursday bombing killed 11 Marines, one soldier and one Navy corpsman — the deadliest single attack against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 10 years.

For the record:

11:31 a.m. Aug. 28, 2021A previous version of this story included incorrect service branches of troops killed. It has been updated with the correct numbers.

It was the largest mass-casualty incident of the war involving the sprawling base near Oceanside, home to the 1st Marine Division, the oldest and largest in the Corps. Four of those killed were California residents.

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Maj. Gen. Roger Turner Jr., the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, said those who died did so while performing a heroic mission.

“I extend my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the 1st Marine Division servicemen who lost their lives while heroically safeguarding the evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens and faithful allies from Hamid Karzai International Airport,” Turner said in a statement. “Nine Marines and one Sailor paid the ultimate price to defend our nation and extend the reach of freedom beyond our shores.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also issued a statement offering his condolences to the families of those killed.

“California joins the nation in mourning the tragic loss of 13 U.S. service members, including those from California, and many other innocent victims in this heinous attack,” Newsom said. “Our heroic troops gave their lives to protect others amid harrowing and dangerous conditions, and we will never forget their bravery and selfless sacrifice in service to our nation.”

At least 170 other people, including children, were killed in the explosion. It was triggered by a suicide bomber at an airport gate where U.S. troops were searching evacuees hoping to the leave the country. At least 18 other service members were injured.

The Camp Pendleton-based Marines and sailor were part of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. They are:

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  • Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City. Rep. Blake D. Moore (R-Utah) said on Twitter about the 2008 high school graduate: He “spent his last moments serving our state and nation, and we’ll never forget his unwavering devotion.”
  • Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif.
  • Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha. He joined the Marines in 2019 after graduating from Millard South High School, according to a statement from his family, and was with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He liked hunting and the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. “Daegan will always be remembered for his tough outer shell and giant heart,” his family said.
  • Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.
  • Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo. A Marine since 2019, he was on his first deployment, his father, Mark, told radio station KMOX in St. Louis. “I’m so incredibly devastated that I won’t be able to see the man that he was very quickly growing into becoming,” he said.
  • Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas. He graduated in 2019 from Lyndon B. Johnson High School in Laredo and enlisted because he wanted to help other people, his mother, Elizabeth Holquin, told the Washington Post. “It was his calling and he died a hero,” she said.
  • Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo. McCollum’s father, Jim, told the New York Times, “He was a beautiful soul.” He said his son signed enlistment papers on his 18th birthday. “He’s the most patriotic kid you could find. Loved America, loved the military. Tough as nails with a heart of gold.”
  • Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
  • Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif.
  • Hospitalman Maxton Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio. He was a 2017 graduate of Edison High School, which released a statement about his death. On Instagram, his sister, Marilyn Soviak, wrote, “My beautiful, intelligent, beat-to-the-sound of his own drum, annoying, charming baby brother was killed yesterday helping to save lives ... My heart is in pieces and I don’t think they’ll ever fit back right again.”

Two additional Marines and a soldier were also killed. They are:

  • Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.
  • Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23, of Sacramento.
  • Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.

Rosario Pichardo was assigned to the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Bahrain. Gee was attached to Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Knauss was assigned to the 9th PSYOP Battalion, 8th PSYOP Group at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, standing with an Afghan baby, was killed Thursday in the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.
(Sgt. Isaiah Campbell / U.S. Marine Corps)
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Family members began sharing their grief in media interviews and on social media after being notified this week.

Among those killed were two Marines from Riverside County, Lopez and Nikoui.

Cpl. Hunter Lopez, left, and Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui were killed in a bombing while stationed at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
(Lopez photograph: Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco; Nikoui photograph: U.S. Marine Corps
)
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Lopez joined the Marines in 2017 after graduating from La Quinta High School, according to a statement Friday by the Riverside Sheriff’s Assn. His mother, Alicia Lopez, is a sheriff’s deputy and his father, Herman Lopez, is a captain in the department.

Hunter Lopez planned to go into law enforcement, too, after his time in the Marines, the statement said. It identified his unit as the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which is based at Pendleton.

Nikoui “always wanted to be a Marine,” his father, Steve, told Reuters. He would occasionally bring a dozen Marines from Pendleton home with him for meals.

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“I’m still in shock,” his father said. “He was born the same year [the war] started, and ended his life with the end of this war.”

In the interview, Steve Nikoui criticized the Biden administration and the military for not doing more to protect his son.

“I’m really disappointed in the way that the president has handled this, even more so the way the military has handled it,” he said. “The commanders on the ground should have recognized this threat and addressed it.”

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The bombing was the deadliest single attack against U.S. forces in Afghanistan since Aug. 6, 2011, when militants shot down a Chinook helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. It killed 30 Americans, including 17 Navy SEALs, and eight Afghans.

There have been other mass-casualty incidents involving Camp Pendleton Marines during the war, including a collision of two helicopters over southern Afghanistan on Oct. 26, 2009. Four Marines were among the 11 Americans killed then.

On June 6, 2010, three Pendleton Marines died when their Humvee flipped in a canal in Helmand province. One month later, on July 22, two Pendleton Marines were killed when their helicopter was shot down, also in Helmand.

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The 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, known as the Professionals, is part of the 1st Marine Division, the oldest and largest in the Corps, with more than 22,000 men and women.

The battalion dates to the 1920s, when it participated in the occupation of the Dominican Republic. It has seen combat in almost every war since, including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the battalion helped run a temporary shelter at Camp Pendleton that assisted thousands of refugees fleeing the collapse of Saigon.

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Union-Tribune research manager Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report, as did the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Updates

9:12 a.m. Aug. 29, 2021: Further details about those who were killed have been added.

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