RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) – Mourners in California said their prayers and final farewells on Saturday to three Marines killed in last month’s bombings in Afghanistan.
The family and friends of Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui filled a church in Riverside to celebrate the life of Marine, 20, of Norco.
He was one of 13 US soldiers killed in a horrific suicide bombing attack at the Afghan airport in Kabul, which also claimed the lives of more than 160 Afghans on August 26.
Nikoui sent videos to his family hours before his death, showing himself interacting with children in Afghanistan.
Phil Wozniak, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Norco, said Nikoui had put three families to safety and returned to the airport to save a child when the bomb went off.
“It didn’t surprise me that these were his last moments,” said sister Shyler Chappell.
She said her brother had wanted to be a Marine “for as long as I can remember” and then joined the Junior ROTC at her high school.
At a memorial service in Palm Springs for Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, mourners noted his latest heroic act – saving children from a mob of rioters before the explosion took his life.
“He died a hero saving the lives of those he didn’t know,” said Riverside County Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Brause.
Lopez was part of a special crisis response team sent to provide security and help U.S. State Department officials evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban as the War of 20 years was drawing to a close, the Riverside Press Enterprise reported.
He planned to follow in his parents’ footsteps and embark on a career in law enforcement after his military deployment. As a teenager, he had participated in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s Explorer program, where his mother was a deputy and his father was a captain.
“Our family is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and condolences we have received following Hunter’s sudden passing,” the parents said in a statement. “Please know that Hunter wore the uniform of the United States Marines with love and pride, and it is very evident that the community will never forget his sacrifice and our family.”
In Northern California, the aunt of Sgt. Nicole Gee commented on the iconic photo of her niece cradling an Afghan baby in her arms. Cheryl Juels told mourners gathered at a church in Roseville that the image was taken near the end of a long sleep-deprived shift, when someone handed a baby over to Gee to comfort him.
To calm the baby in the midst of the chaos at the airport, Gee breathed softly on the baby girl’s face and smiled at her.
“She loved making a difference, and honestly, she would have given her life for that one baby,” Juels said.