Remembrances to honor 13 American service members killed in last year’s Kabul airport bombing were held in two Orange County cities on Friday’s anniversary, Aug. 26.
Three of the Marines who died grew up in Southern California and Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion/1st Marine Regiment was hit especially hard, with nine of the fallen coming from that unit.
The Marines were part of a special crisis response force that had already been deployed to the Middle East when they were sent to the Afghanistan airport to assist State Department officials with the withdrawal, helping fleeing American civilians and Afghan allies onto planes as the Taliban gained control of the country.
Community members, military veterans and active-duty Marines gathered at noon on Friday in front of the Marine Monument in San Clement’s Park Semper Fi to remember those who died. The event was organized by Wayne Eggleston, a former San Clemente mayor who spearheaded the park’s creation, and by the South Coast Detachment of the Marine Corps League. The league has adopted the battalion and supports its Marines in various ways throughout the year.
In a somber ceremony, Cpl. John Young, a member of the 2/1, lowered the American flag to half-staff. Then a second Marine from the battalion, Cpl. Marshall Karl, who was at the airport at the time of the attack, read each of the 13 names.
“One year later, this many people here still care about what me and my boys did,” he said before beginning to call the names. Each one was punctuated by a bell toll.
Veterans in attendance saluted each of the dead as some in the crowd wiped away tears.
Marines with the 2/1 who were killed in the blast were: Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas; Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Roseville, north of Sacramento; Staff Sgt. Darin “Taylor” Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City, Utah, who was living in Aliso Viejo; Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio; Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyoming; Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga; Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco; Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha, Nebraska; Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Massachusetts; Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Indiana; and Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Missouri.
Also killed were Navy Corpsman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio, and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tennessee.
Eggleston said he and the Marine Corps League organized the event so what happened in Kabul would not be forgotten. On Memorial Day, a bronze plaque with the faces of the 13 killed was installed at the park, which includes a life-size statue of a Marine in his dress blues that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
“I want to do this every year,” Eggleston said. “It’s important to remember the 2/1 for their sacrifice and the others from the Navy and Army. I remember two weeks after it happened, 1,500 people marched down (Avenida) Del Mar. It was incredible to see that.
“The Marines and especially the 2/1, they’re our neighbors right down the road,” he said. “San Clemente is a Marine Corps town.”
Residents John and Debra Persich were among those paying their respects. John Persich served in the battalion during Vietnam.
“You belong to the unit; it’s a brotherhood,” he said.
Retired Marine Col. Ken Brown, who served from 1968 to 1995, and is part of the Marine Corps League, said he was proud to participate in the event.
“Any time we can honor Marines and other service members for their sacrifice for America, it’s a very poignant event,” he said. “It’s important to show how much we appreciate them. We can not do it enough.”
Also on Friday, a dozen veterans and community members gathered in Irvine at the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial.
The ceremony was organized by Marine veteran Bill Sandlin. He was honored as Patriot of the Year in March at the Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade and served with the 3rd Marine Division based in Okinawa in the 1960s.
The Irvine veteran, who for decades after his service has been on a mission to support veterans and those who are still in the fight, said he was inspired to organize the event after reading a recent story about the fallen Marines in the paper. He got the word out to other veterans and interest grew, he said.
His plan was a simple ceremony, he said, and at first he thought it might just be a handful who would attend. He was happy when it turned out to be a dozen.
“I read each name and said something about them and then said a prayer,” he said. “Being a veteran, we need to honor all of them, but it’s also even more important not to forget them. I felt like they should never have died. It weighs hard on me.”
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