Santa Barbara Elks Lodge program salutes men and women who died Aug. 26 in Afghanistan
Sgt. Nicole L. Gee of the U.S. Marine Corps posted a photo of herself on Instagram, holding a baby in Afghanistan.
The caption read, “I love my job.”
“One of Sgt. Gee’s photos, one of her last, shows her near a cargo plane as a line of people waited to board from the back,” speaker Drew Wakefield told a large crowd Saturday in the Santa Barbara Elks Lodge parking lot.
Sgt. Gee and others in the U.S. military helped Americans and Afghans during evacuation efforts in Kabul. And she and 12 other young U.S. troops remained dedicated to those efforts right up to the last moment of their lives, cut short by the explosion of an ISIS bomb on Aug. 26.
Photos of all 13 troops stood on a long table facing the crowd and a row of American flags as Mr. Wakefield spoke of the troops’ heroism and courage on a sunny but windy day. Every so often, the wind would blow down one of the photos, but someone sitting in the front row of the audience would immediately get up and put the picture back up.
As he looked out on an audience that included veterans in uniform, Mr. Wakefield praised the fallen troops for their heroism and courage. His keynote address was part of the “13 Fallen: A Warriors’ Tribute” program.
Mr. Wakefield started his talk by defining heroism and courage. Then he quoted John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Mr. Wakefield noted the 13 fallen troops went a step further.
“These great, brave, heroic warriors — these American soldiers — laid down their lives for people they did not even know in a country that probably a few years ago, they could not point out on a map,” he said.
“Dedication, respect, heroism, bravery — add that all up, and it says, ‘American serviceman or service woman,’ ” Mr. Wakefield said.
In addition to Sgt. Gee, the fallen troops consisted of 10 Marines — Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, Cpl. Hunter Lopez, Cpl. Daegan W. Page, Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui — and Navy Corpsman Maxton W. Soviak (assigned to a Marine regiment at Camp Pendleton) and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss.
All 13 were brave heroes, Mr. Wakefield said, later discussing each of them in detail.
In addition to his speech, “13 Fallen: A Warriors Tribute” featured Pipe Major Tom Strelich and the Santa Barbara Bagpipers performing “Amazing Grace” and third-grader Sage Henson leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
Buglers Howard Hudson and Bob Burtness played “Taps.”
Various organizations were involved in the presentation of wreaths. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1649 were involved with the honor guard and flag folding. And a rifle salute was conducted in honor of the 13 fallen troops.
Civil Air Patrol Squadron No. 131 performed the retirement of colors during a day that emphasized patriotism.
Elizabeth Rose Bryson sang “Proud to Be an American,” and without any prompting, the audience joined her for the chorus.
“I was honored to be a part of this,” Mrs. Bryson, whose grandfather served in the military, told the News-Press later. She added she felt humbled by the courage shown by the fallen troops.
During her invocation and benediction, Elks Lodge Chaplain Lisa Mathiasen prayed for military personnel and first responders.
And during his address, Mr. Wakefield asked the audience if they would remember the fallen troops and their families in their thoughts and prayers. He stressed the importance of that with a series of questions.
Each time, the audience answered with an enthusiastic “We will!”
Mr. Wakefield also discussed what went wrong during the U.S. withdrawal.
“The airport was supposed to be secure. The evacuation that was planned was supposed to be smooth. But we all know that was far from what had happened,” he said.
“But that did not matter to these fine, wonderful, incredible young soldiers,” Mr. Wakefield said. “When everybody was running around and there was confusion, left and right, and pandemonium had beseeched us, the United States of America’s soldiers, our brave men and women, did just the opposite of what the crowd was doing.
“When everyone else is running, they stand firm, they stand fast,” Mr. Wakefield said. “Why? Because of patriotism, heroism, dedication to service.”
Mr. Wakefield described each of the fallen troops, such as Staff Sgt. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City. “He was a former high school football player from Utah. …His fellow Marines said he was a heck of a leader.”
All the rest were in their early to mid-20s.
Mr. Wakefield recalled what a mother said about her son, Lance Cpl. Merola of Rancho Cucamonga. “He’s one of the best kids ever — kind and loving to every single person.”
On the day Lance Cpl. Nikoui of Norco died, “he sent his father a video of him talking about the Afghan children and giving them candy in a Kabul airport, just to ease their pain,” Mr. Wakefield said.
The speaker quoted the mayor of Lawrence, Mass., who said “the entire city was heartbroken” over the death of the Marine who came from there, Sgt. Pichardo.
And Mr. Wakefield spoke of Lance Cpl. Schmitz of St. Charles, Mo. Family members recalled he always had a smile on his face.