- - Thursday, May 26, 2022

My wife, Tonette, and I, along with friends from Wisconsin, were honored to be guests during the Evening Parade at Marine Barracks Washington last August. It is an impressive ceremony. This particular program featured a special tribute to the 11 Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier killed in the terrorist attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021.

This Memorial Day, we remember these brave heroes. And we remember all of the others who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom throughout the history of our beloved country. 

Days after visiting the barracks, we paid a visit to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. The sidewalks around it were filled with tributes to the recently fallen heroes. Each of them has a remarkable story to tell.

Lance Cpl. David Lee Espinoza was just 20. He was from Rio Bravo, Texas. He was the oldest of four children and he always wanted to be a Marine. He signed up after graduating from LBJ High School in 2019. 

Sgt. Nicole Gee of Roseville, California, was 23. She graduated from Oakmont High School in 2016, where she was on the honor roll with a 4.1 GPA. Just days before her death, Sgt. Gee posted a photo of herself in uniform holding a baby in Kabul with the caption, “I love my job.”

Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a graduate of Hillcrest High School and joined the Marine Corps when he was 20. Staff Sgt. Hoover served three tours of duty. 

Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, of Knoxville, Tennessee. He was a 2016 graduate of Gibbs High School. He then joined the United States Army and served as a Scout in the 82nd Airborne Division, and also served as a psychological operations NCO in the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion.

Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20, a Marine from Bondurant, Wyoming. He graduated from Summit Innovations School where he was on the wrestling team in school. In addition to being a son and brother, he was a husband with a baby due three weeks before his death.  

Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, California. He graduated from La Quinta High School in 2017. He was the oldest of three children and both of his parents work in law enforcement. 

Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, from Rancho Cucamonga, California. He graduated from Los Osos High School. His mother said that he wanted nothing more than to become a Marine. He was planning to go to college and study engineering. 

Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, 20, of Norco, California. He graduated from Norco High School in 2019. He was a Junior ROTC student. His pastor said he had pulled three families to safety at the Kabul airport and was going back for a small child when the bomb went off.

Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She joined the Marines in 2015. Her commanding officer said that before the bomb detonated, she had been trying to help two Afghan women who were getting crushed by in a pack of people at the gates of the Kabul airport. Her final words were, “They need me, sir.”

Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Indiana. He graduated from Logansport High School in 2017. He then joined the Marine Corps. He had been assigned to serve as an embassy guard in Jordan before being sent to Kabul to assist with the evacuation.

Cpl. Daegan William-Tyeler Page, 23, from Omaha, Nebraska. He graduated from Millard South High School in 2016. He was a member of the State Champion Westside Warrior hockey team and was a lifelong Chicago Blackhawks fan. 

Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20. He was a 2019 graduate of Fort Zumwalt High School in Wentzville, Missouri. He knew he wanted to be a Marine by third grade. 

Seaman Maxton “Max” Soviak, 22, of Ohio. He graduated from Edison High School in 2017, where he was on the honor roll and played football. He enlisted in September 2017 and attended Hospital Corpsman School.

We live in the home of the free because of the brave. I pray that going forward, our elected leaders will make decisions that seek to protect the lives of the men and women in uniform, instead of giving priority to their own political agendas. Prior to the deaths, we had not lost an American service member in Afghanistan in a year and a half. 

These 13 heroes did not have to perish. As governor, I traveled to Afghanistan to visit the troops. I’ve been to Bagram Airfield and to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. There is no objective military reason why we had to leave Afghanistan the way we did under President Biden. We must hold him accountable for his actions. And we must never forget those who died so that we never make that mistake again.

• Scott Walker is the president of Young America’s Foundation and served as the 45th governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019. 

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