Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee in Kabul just days before the attack.Credit...
One of the last photos that Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee shared with her family shows her in dusty body armor with a rifle, her long blond hair pulled back, her hands in tactical gloves. Amid the chaos of Kabul, those hands are carefully cradling a baby.
It was a moment captured on the frontlines of the airport, where Marines worked feverishly to shepherd tens of thousands of evacuees through chaotic and dangerous razor wire gates. It showed how even in the tumult, many took time to comfort the families who made it through.
In a short message posted with the photo, the sergeant said, “I love my job🤘🏼”
Sergeant Gee never made it out.
She was one of the 13 troops killed when a suicide bomb ripped through the crowds at the gate this week, killing nearly 200 people. The Defense Department on Saturday officially identified the service members who were killed, and family and friends paid tribute to their lives and their sacrifice.
“She believed in what she was doing, she loved being a Marine,” her brother-in-law, Gabriel Fuoco, said. “She wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”
Sergeant Gee, 23, of Roseville, Calif., was one of two women in uniform killed at the gate. The other was Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass. Sergeant Rosario was commended by her unit in May for excellence in a supply chief job usually given to someone of higher rank.
“Her service was not only crucial to evacuating thousands of women and children, but epitomizes what it means to be a Marine: putting herself in danger for the protection of American values so that others might enjoy them,” Marine First Lt. John Coppola said about Sergeant Rosario in a statement.
The two female sergeants volunteered for a job that in culturally conservative Afghanistan could have been carried out only by women: searching other women and children as they passed through the gates. But the two sergeants were also standout Marines in a force that is slowly changing, putting more women in combat roles and positions of leadership.
For most of military history, women were not allowed in combat. The few admitted to the Marines largely did clerical work. In 2001, at the start of the war in Afghanistan, women Marines were not allowed to be assigned to gate duty, said Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
But decades of insurgency wars fought in conservative Muslim countries forced the military to evolve. A conflict with no frontlines often put women in combat, whether it was in their job description or not, and local cultures meant female engagement teams often had to accompany infantry troops on missions.
The Marine Corps slowly, often grudgingly, opened all combat jobs to women. They now make up about 9 percent of the force. “Every year, more women are out front, bearing the burden more equally with men,” Ms. Germano said.
Sergeant Gee grew up playing softball, never thinking she might one day join the military. But when her high school sweetheart, Jarod Gee, enlisted in the Marines, she decided to follow. They soon married.
Described by her friends and family as vivacious, confident, bright, and strong, Sergeant Gee graduated from her corporal school at the top of her class and was meritoriously promoted to sergeant in Kuwait, not long before landing in Afghanistan.
Photos from the airport show her walking young girls across the tarmac to a hulking cargo jet and standing guard next to long lines of Afghans walking up the ramp of one of the planes.
She was not intimidated by the demanding, largely male world of the Marines, her family said.
“She was a trailblazer in a sense,” Mr. Fuoco said. “When she did something, she did it all the way, and I really think she enjoyed trying to surpass the men.”
That included in physical feats. She held a base record in her weight class for dead lifting 280 pounds. But, Mr. Fuoco said, she was also kind and tender. After this deployment, she talked about starting a family.
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
“Her last breath was taken doing what she loved — helping people,” her roommate and fellow Marine, Sgt. Mallory Harrison, said in a Facebook post.
For their generation, Sergeant Harrison wrote, stories of combat deaths often felt like something from the past — stories told by elders about a war that younger Marines had missed. Deployment meant work that was often dull and quiet. Then suddenly combat came ripping back, real and raw.
“Then bad people do bad things, and all of a sudden, the peaceful float you were on turns into you going to Afghanistan & for some, never coming back,” Sergeant Harrison wrote. “It turns into your friends never coming home. There’s no way to adequately prepare for that feeling. No PowerPoint training, no class from the chaps, nothing. Nothing can prepare you.”
Sergeant Gee was serving beside other Marines who, like her, shared a love of the Marine Corps and a commitment to their work. On Saturday, the communities they called home paid tribute.
The service members killed in the attack, in addition to Sergeant Gee and Sergeant Rosario, include Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City; Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif.; Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha; Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.; Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas; Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo.; Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo.; Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif. The dead also include the Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio, and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.
In the cities where they live, scattered across the country, people gathered to remember. In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox ordered flags across the state lowered to half-staff for the oldest Marine killed, Sergeant Hoover. Echoing the sentiments of many, Mr. Cox said in a statement, “Staff Sergeant Hoover served valiantly as a Marine and died serving his fellow countrymen as well as America’s allies in Afghanistan.”