A U.S. Marine – a Baby on 9/11 – Is Among the Dead in Kabul
Rylee McCollum, barely older than the war itself, had a wife and a baby on the way. He was one of the first publicly identified American victims of the suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport.
He was a baby on 9/11. Now he’s one of the last casualties of America’s longest war.
By Jack Healy
Aug. 27, 2021Updated 4:07 p.m. ET
Rylee McCollum, a 20-year-old Marine from Wyoming, got married shortly before his first overseas deployment, and his wife is due to deliver their first child next month, his father said. He was excited about becoming a father and seeing his family again.
But on Thursday, he was one of 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide attack at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that also killed more than 100 Afghans. It was the highest U.S. death toll in a single incident in Afghanistan in 10 years.
He is one of the first American victims to be identified publicly, his death confirmed by his father and by the governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon.
Rylee McCollum’s unit had deployed to Afghanistan to provide security and help with evacuations, his father, Jim McCollum, said in a phone interview on Friday. He had been 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.
“He was a beautiful soul,” Mr. McCollum said from his home in Wyoming.
Rylee McCollumCredit…via Regi Stone
In the days since his son landed in Afghanistan with his Marine unit, Mr. McCollum had been monitoring his phone for a little green dot. He had not been able to talk with Rylee, but was relieved to be able to see the dot next to Rylee’s name on a messaging app. It meant that he was online. That he was still OK.
After the attack, Mr. McCollum checked again. He messaged his son: “Hey man, you good?” But the green dot was gone. Rylee never answered.
“In my heart yesterday afternoon, I knew,” Mr. McCollum said.
His fears were confirmed when two Marines knocked on the door of the family’s home at 3:30 a.m. to deliver the news that Rylee McCollum, who had dreamed of becoming a Marine since he was 3 years old, had been killed.
The victims’ names began to trickle out on Friday, through social media posts from family and friends and somber announcements from the high schools where they had played football or wrestled just a few years earlier. Some of them, like Rylee, who was born in February 2001, were still babies when the United States invaded Afghanistan. Now, they are among the last casualties of America’s longest war.
Rylee McCollum loved the mountains where he grew up but could not wait to join the Marines, his father said. Since he was a boy, he could not stand injustice and would stand up for bullied classmates. So on his 18th birthday, he called his father from his school in Jackson Hole to ask him to come sign his enlistment papers.
“He wanted to get in there as quickly as he could,” Mr. McCollum said. “In his heart of hearts, he wanted to help people.”
Mr. McCollum said his son had been deeply patriotic and had, from a young age, loved going to July 4 and Memorial Day parades and learning about the ceremonies surrounding the American flag. He was a successful wrestler who graduated from Jackson Hole High School in 2019, school officials said.
“He’s the most patriotic kid you could find,” Mr. McCollum said. “Loved America, loved the military. Tough as nails with a heart of gold.”
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.
Regi Stone, a pastor whose son was one of Rylee McCollum’s best friends, described him as fiercely devoted. The two young men always had each other’s backs, whether it was at bonfire parties in the Wyoming woods or in their decision to enlist in the Marines at about the same time.
“He wouldn’t back down from anything,” Mr. Stone said.
Mr. McCollum said it was wrenching to watch the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan after so many years of American military occupation and so many deaths.
“It kills me and pains me that we spent 20 years there, and all the lives that were lost there, including my son’s. And we’re back to square one,” he said.
He said he found some comfort in the fact that his son had died helping people — “doing good things,” as Rylee would tell him.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Mr. McCollum said. “He’s a hero.”