Three Marines from Riverside County have been identified among the 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed.
The deaths of Marine Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui, a lance corporal from Norco, and Cpl. Hunter Lopez, the son of Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Alicia Lopez and sheriff’s Capt. Herman Lopez, were officially confirmed by the DOD on a list published Saturday of those who died supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel non-combative evacuations on Aug. 26 in Afghanistan.
“California joins the nation in mourning the tragic loss of 13 U.S. service members, including those from California, and many other innocent victims in this heinous attack,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said. “Our heroic troops gave their lives to protect others amid harrowing and dangerous conditions, and we will never forget their bravery and selfless sacrifice in service to our nation.”
Newsom ordered flags at all state buildings to be flown at half-staff in honor of the fallen heroes.
Merola was a graduate of Los Osos High School. On Friday, students there honored him during the school’s first football game of the season by wearing red, white and blue.
“Dylan was a beloved son, brother, grandson, great grandson, nephew, a great friend and a brave soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice at the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation,” friend Joseph Matsuoka wrote as part of a GoFundMe page for the family.
Merola’s mother, Cheryl, told CBS2 that her son had only been in Kabul for less than two weeks and was planning to go to college and study engineering. She also recalled his final text message to her before the Thursday bombing that also killed at least 150 Afghans.
“He wrote: `I won’t be able to talk to you for a little while, we’re being sent to a different location,”’ his mother told CBS2. “`I love you and I’ll talk to you soon.’ He was one of the best kids ever. Kind. Loving. Giving to every single person. He would give anything for anybody.”
The city of Norco also mourned 20-year-old Nikoui.
“The U.S. Marine, who graduated from Norco High School in 2019 and served in JROTC, was committed to serving his country and is survived by his mother, father and siblings,” city officials said. “Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui’s name will be enshrined on the `Lest We Forget Wall’ at the George A. Ingalls Veterans Memorial Plaza, which honors Norconians who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our nation.”
Norco Mayor Kevin Bash said Nikoui died helping to save children and families of Afghans who had aided the U.S. government.
“My understanding is that he rescued – per a sergeant that wrote the family – he rescued three families,” Bash told ABC7. “And he was in the process of saving children, translators that had worked for the U.S. government. He passed off a child and went back into the crowd and that’s when the bomb went off.”
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, praised Nikoui for his service, saying “words are incapable of expressing our grief and mourning for the loss of Lance Cpl. Nikoui and the other U.S. service members who were killed.”
“As a proud Marine, Lance Cpl. Nikoui and his unit put themselves in harm’s way in order to provide safety to others. That’s the definition of courage,” the congressman said. “That’s the embodiment of the Marine Corps motto, `Semper Fidelis.’ I have spoken to the Nikoui family and expressed my condolences. The burden they bear is unimaginable.”
Norco High School Principal Robert Ibbetson told CBS2 his son was in the ROTC at the same time as Nikoui.
“Just a good kid. Really had a strong energy about him and knew what he wanted to do,” Ibbetson said. “It was neat to see that kind of direction and drive and goal-setting.”
Meanwhile, the Riverside Sheriff’s Association and surrounding community remembered Lopez, 22, of Indio.
“We mourn the death of Hunter, who answered the call to serve, defend and protect our nation,” the association said in a statement. “Like his parents who serve our community, being a Marine to Hunter wasn’t a job; it was a calling.
“We are heartbroken to hear this sad news about Hunter, who chose to follow a life of service, selflessness, courage and sacrifice, like his parents.”
Association officials said Hunter Lopez was a Riverside County sheriff’s Explorer Scout with the Palm Desert Station from September 2014 to August 2017.
“Hunter … planned on becoming a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy after returning from his current deployment. Today the entire law enforcement community stands with the Lopez family, friends, fellow Marines and all who loved him, praying for comfort, peace.”
Desert Sands Unified School District issued a statement, saying Lopez was “a beloved student of our schools.”
KESQ reported that Lopez attended La Quinta High School.
The city of La Quinta issued a statement on its Facebook page, saying, “We are all so humbled by the service and ultimate sacrifice that Hunter gave to protect our country. He was a brave and selfless soldier who answered the call to be a United States Marine. Like his parents, Hunter wanted to help serve others and protect his community. Our City Council and staff ask the community to join us in prayer and support for the Lopez family, as they navigate through this difficult time.”
The Nikoui family has announced plans to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive his remains.
The Lopez family has requested that donations in Hunter’s memory be made to the Riverside County Deputy Sheriff Relief Foundation in the name of the Lopez family. Donations can be sent to 21810 Cactus Ave., Riverside, CA 92518.
The GoFundMe page for Merola’s family is at t.co/E6eb9XoAhn?amp=1and as of early Saturday, had already raised more than $13,000 toward a $15,000 goal to help with funeral expenses.
All three men were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton.