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JACKSON, Wyo.– This article is part of a Fox News Digital series examining the aftermath of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago this week.
launches the corporal. Rylee James McCollum bought a stuffed tiger while deployed to Jordan and slept with it every night. The Marine, delighted to be a father, bought it as a gift for his soon-to-be-born daughter.
“He took a rash and a crack from sleeping with a stuffed animal,” Rylee’s father, Jim McCollum, told Fox News. “But it meant something to him.”
The tiger made it home safely, but 20-year-old Rylee did not. He was one of 13 US service members killed in the August 26, 2021 suicide bombing at Kabul airport during the evacuation from Afghanistan.
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Her daughter Levi was born 18 days later.
“There was a braggart”
Rylee knew he wanted to be a Marine since he was 4 years old, his family told Fox News.
“It was never, ‘I want to be a Marine. I hope I become a Marine,'” Jim said. “It was, ‘I’m going to be a Marine.'”
His sister Roice, 23, said “he’s talked about it all his life”.
Rylee, born and raised in Jackson, Wyoming, has always marched to the beat of his own drum with a quick wit and a cheeky sense of humor.
“There are a lot of Rylee-isms out there, some appropriate, some not so much,” another sister, Cheyenne, 27, told Fox News. “He was so smart and it got him in a lot of trouble. But he always knew what to say to get out of trouble.”
Jim said Rylee was multi-faceted and his son could come across as “very abrasive”. Truly, “he was a kind, caring, loving child, just beautiful. But you had to be in his circle to know that.”
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Rylee started wrestling around the same time he started saying he would become a Marine. His devotion to sport marked him deeply.
“Wrestling was his life,” Jim said. “You saw him become who he was, who he was going to be.”
He also had an affinity for United States history.
“He knew every war, every battle, every gun, every skirmish we’ve ever had, every president,” Jim said. “It’s one of my favorite memories of him, how committed he was and how it all intertwines and puts him back to where he was when he died.”
On February 26, 2019, Rylee’s 18th birthday, Jim received a call from his son asking his father to come to Jackson Hole High School to sign the enlistment papers.
“I dropped everything,” Jim said. “A pretty proud moment for me.”
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The effect joining the Marines had on Rylee was obvious.
“You could just see, the chest was out, the chin was out,” Jim said, recalling his son’s boot camp graduation. “There was a swagger, for lack of a better word.”
“He accomplished something he wanted to do, which he always found a way to do, but this one really meant to him,” added Jim.
Despite the efforts of his family and friends to convince him otherwise, Rylee pledged to join the infantry.
Rylee got married on Valentine’s Day in 2021. Shortly after, he was sent to Jordan for his first deployment.
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Rylee broke his phone in Jordan, so contact with home was sporadic. His family was looking for the green dot next to his name on Facebook indicating he was online to find out he was okay. Sometimes he would borrow someone’s phone to call or video chat with a laptop.
Twice Jim missed group calls with Rylee and her daughters because of work.
One of them was the last time Cheyenne spoke with her brother before he was sent to Kabul.
“I chatted with him for about 10 minutes, just singing and telling him that I miss him and love him,” she said, beginning to choke. Then she realized they should add Jim and Roice to the call.
Roice joined briefly before losing service, but Jim declined the call due to work. He said missing that last call was his only regret.
“It was like, ‘I’ll catch it next time,'” Jim told Fox News. “Well, there was never a next time.”
“I should have stopped working. What is most important? He continued. “In retrospect, man, I should have answered that call.
The McCollums watched the withdrawal from Afghanistan unfold in real time. The sinking feeling in their gut grew every day.
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Jim could tell something was wrong during the evacuation. He said it was clear the situation was a “shipwreck” after seeing Afghans falling from planes running off the runway.
“It was a hell of a job given to them,” Jim told Fox News. “Then you start to realize how desperate the situation was… leading up to the day of the explosion.”
Less than 24 hours after the ISIS-K terrorist detonated a suicide bomb at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Marines showed up at the McCollums’ home to share news of their son.
Still, Jim said “Rylee would have done the same thing 100 times without a doubt.”
“I would have encouraged him a thousand times over,” he added.
Levi, who is approaching his first birthday, remains a bright light for Rylee’s family.
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“She’s Rylee’s mini-me, and she’s absolutely gorgeous,” Jim told Fox News. “I can look into his eyes, and I see Rylee the boy, and I see Rylee the man in that little girl.”
“I want her to know who her father was. Good, bad and otherwise,” he continued. “The funny stories, what a great man he was, what a great father he was going to be.”
Rylee’s name is inscribed on a memorial in downtown Jackson Hole. Students from the local high school painted a rock decorating the base of each member of the McCollum family.
Jim visits every day to talk to his son.
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The Gold Star’s father said he would ensure that none of the 13 military personnel killed in the evacuation from Afghanistan would be forgotten.
“Let the world remember: it wasn’t just Marines, Army and Navy,” he told Fox News. His t-shirt was styled like a Marine and had “US13” printed on it.
“They were all young kids,” Jim said. “Absolutely beautiful people.”