Parents Remember Their Kids Killed In Afghanistan Withdrawal

The last time Paula Knauss Selph saw her son was in a fleeting Snapchat message.

“All good here mom, I love you,” the message said, overlaid on a photo of Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Knauss, who was in Kabul, Afghanistan, assisting with the United States’ withdrawal in August 2021.

“That was the last message I got from Ryan before he died,” Knauss Selph told TODAY Parents. “They had just changed shifts (that day). When Ryan came on shift, it was probably less than an hour before the bomb exploded.”

Paula Knauss Selph told TODAY Parents her son, Ryan, is a "true patriot."
Paula Knauss Selph told TODAY Parents her son, Ryan, is a “true patriot.”Courtesy Paula Knauss Selph

Thirteen U.S. service members were killed during an attack executed by the Islamic State terror group at Abbey Gate outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where Americans, in addition to allies, were being evacuated from Afghanistan, on August 26, 2021.

“I so grieve the loss of someone that had so much to live for,” Knauss Selph said, calling her son a true patriot and military hero. “Ryan wasn’t out to be a hero. In my opinion, heroes are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things and we can learn a lot from people who choose to live out their life doing what they feel is ordinary, where we see it in our eyes as extraordinary.”

Ryan Knauss and his mom, Paula, at a family wedding in early 2021.
Ryan Knauss and his mom, Paula, at a family wedding in early 2021.Courtesy Paula Knauss Selph

When Mark Schmitz heard news of that attack at his home in Missouri, he was not initially worried about his son, 20-year-old Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jared Schmitz.

“The last time I spoke to him, he had told me that when he goes back out on post, he was going to be moved to the airstrip,” Schmitz told TODAY Parents. “He had been at Abbey Gate the entire time. So when the initial bomb news broke…my heart sunk for those souls and those families of those souls, but in the back of my mind, I had a little bit of relief knowing that Jared was going to be on the airstrip.”

The last time Jared Schmitz, 20, spoke to his dad, he was confident he would be moved from patrolling Abbey Gate.
The last time Jared Schmitz, 20, spoke to his dad, he was confident he would be moved from patrolling Abbey Gate.Courtesy Mark Schmitz

As the day wore on, the death count grew, and Schmitz grew increasingly more concerned.

“I called a good buddy of mine who works for me. He’s a Marine from the 90s. And I said, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard from Jared,’ and he starts laughing at me,” Schmitz recounted to TODAY. “He said, ‘Oh, man, he’ll call you, don’t worry about it. He’s a little bit busy right now.'”

That night, two Marines showed up at Schmitz’s home at 2:40 a.m.

“I think deep down I knew immediately what that was about, but I kind of tried to will it to be that they were there to give me an injury report,” Schmitz said. “Looking back obviously, that’s ridiculous. They don’t do that. But I guess I was just in shock and denial and just wanted to hear that he was injured and that ‘Here’s what’s happening’ and we’ll get to see him again. But no — that wasn’t the case.”

Mark Schmitz told TODAY Parents he was hopeful his son, Jared, would call him. That call never came.
Mark Schmitz told TODAY Parents he was hopeful his son, Jared, would call him. That call never came.Courtesy Mark Schmitz

On August 25, Marines Corps Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, 20, sent his mom, Shana Chappell, a video of him with a child he had befriended and was keeping safe behind Abbey Gate.

Shana Chappell told TODAY Parents her son, Kareem Nikoui, knew he wanted to be a Marine "from the time he was three or four." Here, Nikoui is shown with a young child he befriended in Afghanistan.
Shana Chappell told TODAY Parents her son, Kareem Nikoui, knew he wanted to be a Marine “from the time he was three or four.” Here, Nikoui is shown with a young child he befriended in Afghanistan.Courtesy Shana Chappell

“I assumed everything was going well,” Chappell told TODAY. “He was going to be home soon, but he also sent a text message that said, ‘I hate it here.’ I knew for him to say something like that…he was seeing things that weren’t sitting well with him. And as his mom, he didn’t want me to worry, so he didn’t tell me what those things were.”

Chappell’s last conversation with her son was a text message about movies Nikoui hoped to watch with his family when he got home.

“He sent text messages to us letting us know he had bought two movies on Amazon Prime that he wanted us to watch as a family when he got home while we had a steak dinner,” Chappell said. “Those movies were ‘Moana’ for his niece and nephew, and then ‘Spirit’ for all of us to watch together, because ‘Spirit’ was Kareem’s favorite movie as a child, which is a movie about a wild stallion. And that was our last conversation.”

Kareem Nikoui and his mom, Shana.
Kareem Nikoui and his mom, Shana.Courtesy Shana Chappell

Chappell said she woke up on August 26 feeling “very uneasy” for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint and she initially saw the news of a suicide bombing in Kabul on Instagram in the morning. By that night, she learned her son was among the killed.

“Kareem absolutely loved life. He loved helping other people and expected nothing in return,” Chappell said. “He was just amazing in every single way — always nice to everybody, always had something good to say about everybody, avoided drama. He was actually a really good person, not just because he’s my son, but because he’s actually really good.”

Fellow Marines kneel over the coffin of Kareem Nikoui en route to Dover Air Force Base.
Fellow Marines kneel over the coffin of Kareem Nikoui en route to Dover Air Force Base.Courtesy Shana Chappell

While navigating the loss of children that were as old as the war was long, all three parents actively work to keep their memories alive.

“The bed of my truck is wrapped like the American flag and then on my tailgate, there’s several pictures of Kareem,” Chappell said. “On the side of my truck, there’s a big picture of Kareem in his dress blues and then all 13 of them are at the top part of the bed of my truck on both sides.”

Schmitz has started a nonprofit, The Freedom 13, to honor his son and “every fallen hero that made the ultimate sacrifice by supporting the veterans still with us.”

“Nothing that he could ever do would make me more proud than I am right now. He did so much in such a short amount of time to make an impact in this world,” Schmitz said of his son, Jared.

Knauss Selph sits at the grave of her son, Ryan, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Knauss Selph sits at the grave of her son, Ryan, at Arlington National Cemetery.Courtesy Paula Knauss Selph

Knauss Selph is establishing a foundation for Ryan and honoring those in the military.

“It will be a three prong force of honoring those who are going in, honoring those who are in and their families, and all those veterans who have served that are needing any assistance from the community,” Knauss Selph said.

Chappell hopes that the advocacy of the Gold Star families of those killed in the Afghanistan withdrawal ensures no one is ever forgotten.

“Remember what they died for,” she said. “Remember how they died. Talk about them…say their names.”

Remembering the loss of 13 American heroes killed in Afghanistan on August 26, 2021:

Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, from Salt Lake City, Utah

Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, from Lawrence, Massachusetts

Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, from Sacramento, California

Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, from Indio, California

Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, from Omaha, Nebraska

Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, from Logansport, Indiana

Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, from Rio Bravo, Texas

Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, from St. Charles, Missouri

Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, from Jackson, Wyoming

Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, from Rancho Cucamonga, California

Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, from Norco, California

Navy Petty Officer Third Class Maxton W. Soviak, 22, from Berlin Heights, Ohio

Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, from Corryton, Tennessee

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https://www.today.com/parents/family/parents-veterans-afghanistan-withdrawal-rcna51739