Shana Chappell sits on the grass in front of the tombstone and doesn’t know where to look.
It is the grave for her son, Marine Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, who was killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan nearly a year ago as US forces left the country.
And next to it a yellow flag marks the spot for another grave – for another son.
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“This is the first time I’ve seen this,” Chappell remarked over the flag, her voice kept calm by the shock of losing two sons in a year.
Kareem, 20, was one of 13 Americans killed in a suicide bombing outside Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, 2021, as US troops left Afghanistan in a chaotic and damaging retreat.
As the first anniversary of his death loomed, Chappell’s eldest son, Dakota Halverson, 28, became increasingly emotional.
“He started out saying that Kareem is really gone, that he just wanted to be with him. And how much he misses and loves him,” Chappell told CNN.
She pointed to the lawn in front of her son’s gravestone.
“He came here at night sometimes and slept here to be with Kareem. He would say it bothers him that Kareem is here alone.”
Dakota was deeply in grief, as was the rest of his close-knit family, but he would still smile and engage with her, Chappell said.
She didn’t know that she would soon lose him too.
Earlier this month, Dakota committed suicide near the park where he played with his brother as a child and across from the permanent Veterans Memorial to the fallen Marine.
Chappell blames America’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan for the loss of her sons; one killed in Kabul and the other lost in grief.
“It’s a pain that’s so hard to deal with because you can’t even understand it, because it’s like a pain you’ve never felt before,” says Chappell.
“You can’t even understand it. I can’t even describe it, it hurts so much. With Dakota, reality started to crumble for him that month.”
The Making of a Marine
Chappell’s parenting philosophy was to keep her five children – Dakota, Kareem, her youngest brother and two sisters – close to her.
Unlike most parents around her, she never allowed them to sleep over at friends’ houses.
“My biggest fear was that something would happen to one of my kids,” she says of how protective she is as a parent.
“By always having my kids with me and watching them, I could make sure nothing happened to them.”
Chappell persuaded a daughter to become a 911 dispatcher instead of joining the police force because she feared for her safety on the road. But she couldn’t keep Kareem away from the Marines.
Chappell recalls Kareem’s reaction when he was about four years old and saw a Marine dressed in blue at a mall. The little boy was blown away when he met the soldier like this marine is a real superhero.
“He knew from a young age that this was what he wanted to be. He looked at her strong and fearless. Every little boy wants to be strong and fearless,” Chappell said.
The youngster started calling his toy soldiers “Marines” and joined the ROTC once in high school. As soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Chappell expected it and was proud that her boy was pursuing his dream, but it didn’t make the breakup any easier.
“I cried almost every day that he was gone,” she recalled of his time in boot camp.
“I can’t bear to be apart from him.”
Kareem tried to prepare his mother for what might happen after his assignment, but she was focused on getting him home.
“As a mother you think, no, that doesn’t happen to me. That will not happen to my child.”
And Kareem didn’t like to delve into the riskier side of naval life when he spoke to her, she said.
He didn’t tell her about the chaos outside Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee their country, which was now back under Taliban control.
Instead, he sent selfie videos with local children and pictures with his fellow Marines.
Chappell also stopped watching the news, unable to bear the stress of having her son in Afghanistan at the end of America’s longest war.
But she didn’t need to watch the news to wake up on August 26, 2021.
“I woke up crying. I couldn’t figure out why I was crying. I was very emotional about Kareem. Very stressed to the point where I was like, ‘What’s wrong with me?'” she said.
Chappell took to Instagram to try to take her mind off the anxiety she’d woken up with.
But the first post that surfaced was a picture from the Afghan airport with news of a suicide bomber. It was later revealed that nearly 200 Afghans and 13 US soldiers were killed in the attack.
The background in the photo was immediately familiar to Chappell. She had seen it in the photos Kareem had sent.
Kareem’s father would be the first in the family to learn the terrible truth and have to share it.
“He said, ‘Shana.’ And as soon as he said ‘Shana,’ I just started screaming because I knew what he was going to say to me,” Chappell said.
“He didn’t even have to say it. I just knew.”
union of brothers
Dakota Halverson was eight years older than his brother, but somehow Kareem’s entry into the Marines changed seniority.
He became a father figure to Dakota, her mother said, recounting her struggles in life as young men.
The two brothers often hung out at Pikes Peak Park with Chappell’s youngest son to swing and talk, even as they grew through the teenage years and became a Marine.
They made silly videos, her mother said, and always laughed, even when life in their hometown wasn’t easy.
Norco, California bills itself as “Horsetown, USA” with dirt tracks for horses instead of sidewalks for pedestrians. The rural community is just an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, but instead of international glitz and glamor, it’s narrow and local.
When the flag-draped coffin of Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui returned home from Afghanistan, Norco mourned his fallen son with a procession of horses, cars and a funeral in a large city.
The city added Kareem’s name to its Veterans’ Memorial.
A local philanthropist provided space for a memorial honoring the 13 soldiers killed in the retreat from Afghanistan, with all 13 named on individual concrete plaques.
Kareem’s picture was put up on a banner on a main street in town, his official USMC staring at him gravely as he posed in his navy blue – similar to the marine he met at a mall when he was four.
His final resting place is a plot of land overlooking a steep hill, which he was happy to climb with his brothers.
But the whole ceremony eventually faded, and life began to move.
That didn’t happen with Dakota, says his mother.
“They have the bond of these brothers,” Chappell said.
“As that one year[anniversary]approached, I didn’t realize that Dakota hadn’t really accepted that Kareem was gone.
“I just took it because we’re all hurt, because we’re all hurt. I didn’t know he would do that.”
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department report states that Dakota was found at Pikes Peak Park, the park where he spent so many hours with Kareem.
Her mother calls it “the ripple effect”, first Kareem left and now Dakota as well, due to grief over the loss of his brother.
She blames it all on Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from the country. And she says Kareem and the other service members don’t have the credit they deserve.
“The withdrawal was a complete failure,” Chappell said.
“They wanted the catastrophic withdrawal to be forgotten and they wanted the 13 who were killed to be forgotten, largely because they were so young.”
Chappell blames President Joe Biden himself as Commander-in-Chief during the US withdrawal. She feels that Biden has been too distant from families, largely because of the political fallout from the loss of US lives.
“It could have been handled very differently and those 13 children would still be here.
“They’ve been treated like they’re disposable and replaceable, and that really kills me.”
tattoos and insecurity
Of course, for their protective mother, their children are anything but disposable.
Unable to protect her sons, she carries the ravages of death and loss on her body.
On her right arm, a tattoo marks Kareem’s KIA date of 8/26/2021 under his rifle. Another gun and stars form the number “13” on her upper arm. An image of a flag covers her shoulder.
Chappell winces as she lifts her shirt to reveal her latest tattoo, which is still healing, on her right slant. It reads “Dakota” with the years of his life, an orchid rising above his name.
“My CoCo loved orchids,” she explained, using her nickname for her eldest son.
At Kareem’s grave, Chappell looks at the yellow flag marking where Dakota will be buried.
She hadn’t expected to bury a son, let alone two.
She is raising money through GoFundMe so she can bury Dakota next to his beloved brother.
“Kareem is not alone because he went to him,” Chappell said.
She is wracked with guilt and repeatedly says she should have been more careful.
“I was with him the whole time. He just acted so happily that I never thought,” she said.
Now the mother-of-five has three children who she says she is determined to live for and protect.
She had told herself that she would resume some of her old activities when she reached the one year anniversary of Kareem’s death next Friday. But that was before Dakota died, and now she just doesn’t know.
“I’m still in the shock phase right now,” she said.
“I always say, ‘What do I do when the shock phase wears off? How will I react to this? What’s going to happen to me?’”
– With Jack Hannah, CNN
https://7news.com.au/news/north-america/a-mums-unfathomably-painful-year-one-son-killed-in-terror-attack-then-a-second-lost-to-the-grief-c-7965558 A mother’s unfathomably painful year: a son killed in a terrorist attack, then a second lost to grief