Shana Chappell sits on the grass in front of the tombstone, not knowing where to look.

It is the grave of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, killed nearly a year ago in a terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, as US forces were leaving the country.

And next to it, a yellow flag marks the location of another grave, of another son.

“This is the first time I’ve seen that,” Chappell said of the flag, his voice sounding stoic, marked by the shock of losing two children in the space of a year.

Kareem, 20, was one of 13 US service members killed in a suicide bombing outside Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 26, 2021, as the United States was leaving Afghanistan in a chaotic and fatal retreat.

As the one-year anniversary of his death approached, Chappell’s eldest son, 28-year-old Dakota Halverson, grew increasingly emotional.

“She started expressing that Kareem was really gone, that she just wanted to be with him. And how much he misses him and he loves him,” Chappell told CNN. He pointed to the patch of grass in front of his son’s headstone. “She used to come here sometimes and sleep here to be with Kareem. He said it bothered him that Kareem was here alone.”

Dakota was deeply grieving, as was the rest of her tight-knit family, but she was still smiling and engaging with them, Chappell said. She didn’t know that she would soon lose him too.

Earlier this month, dakota took her own life near the park where he played with his brother as a child and across the street from the permanent memorial to veterans for fallen Marines.

Chappell blames the loss of his children on the disastrous US exit from Afghanistan; 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 make sense of it. You can’t even describe it, it hurts that bad. With Dakota, the reality of this month started to settle in for him.”

The creation of a marine

Chappell’s parenting philosophy was to keep her five children, Dakota, Kareem, her younger brother and two sisters, close to her. Unlike most of the parents around her, she never allowed them to spend the night with friends.

“My biggest fear was that something would happen to one of my children,” she says of how protective she is as a mother. “Having my kids with me at all times and watching them was how I could make sure nothing would happen to them.”

Chappell convinced a daughter to become a 911 dispatcher and not join the police department, fearing for her safety on the streets. But she couldn’t talk Kareem out of the Marines.

A young Kareem started calling his toy soldiers “Marines” after being inspired by a shopping mall.

Chappell remembers his reaction when he was about four years old and saw a marine dressed in blue in a shopping mall. The boy was amazed to meet the military man, as if that marine was a real-life superhero.

“At a very young age I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I saw them as strong and fearless. All little boys want to be strong and fearless,” Chappell said.

The young man started calling his toy soldiers “Marines” and joined ROTC when he got to high school. As soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Chappell was looking forward to it and was proud that her son was chasing his dream, but that didn’t make the separation any easier.

“I cried almost every day since he left,” he recalled of his time in training camp. “I can’t bear to be away from him.”

Kareem tried to prepare his mother for what might happen once he deployed, but she was focused on him coming home again. “As a mother, you think, no, it’s not going to happen to me. It’s not going to happen to my son.”

Kareem, second from right, sent photos with children and his fellow Marines instead of telling his mother about the chaos in Kabul.

And he didn’t like to dwell on the riskier parts of being a Marine when talking to her, he said. He didn’t tell her about the chaos outside Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee their country, now under Taliban control.

Instead, he sent videos of selfies with local children and photos with his fellow Marines.

Chappell also stopped watching the news, unable to bear the stress of his son at the end of America’s longest war.

But you didn’t need to watch the news to wake up on August 26, 2021.

“I woke up crying. I couldn’t understand why I was crying. I was very emotional for Kareem. Very stressed to the point of thinking, ‘What is going on with me?'”

Chappell took to Instagram to try to take his mind off the dread he woke up with. But the first post that appeared was an image from the airport in Afghanistan with news of a suicide bomber. About 200 Afghans and 13 US military personnel would be killed in the attack.

Still from a video Kareem sent his mother befriending an Afghan boy.

The background of the photo was instantly familiar to Chappell. He had seen it before in the photos Kareem sent.

Kareem’s father would be the first in the family to know the terrible truth and he would have to share it.

“He said, ‘Shana.’ And as soon as he said, ‘Shana,’ I started screaming because I knew what he was going to say to me,” Chappell said. “He didn’t even have to say it. He just knew it.”

sibling bond

Dakota Halverson was eight years older than her brother, but somehow joining the Marines Kareem changed the seniority. He became a father figure to Dakota, his mother said, speaking of his struggles in his life when they were young.

The two brothers, along with Chappell’s youngest son, often hung out at Pikes Peak Park to swing and talk, even as they grew to their teens and one became a Marine.

They made ridiculous videos, her mother recalled, always laughing even when life was not easy in her hometown.

Norco, California calls itself “Horsetown, USA” with dirt roads 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 glamour, it’s cramped and local.

When Kareem Nikoui’s flag-draped coffin returned home from Afghanistan, Norco mourned his fallen son with a procession of horses, cars and a grand funeral in the city.

Afghanistan

Kareem’s photo is still seen from above in Norco.

The city added Kareem’s name to its Veterans Memorial. A local philanthropist offered space for a memorial honoring the 13 service members killed in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with all 13 named on individual concrete plaques.

Kareem’s photo was added to a banner on a main street in the city, his USMC officer looking serious as he posed in his navy uniform, much like the Marine he met in a mall when he was just four years old.

His final resting place is a plot facing a steep hill that he loved to climb with his brothers.

But the whole ceremony eventually fizzled out and life began to move on.

That didn’t happen with Dakota, her mother says.

“They had that sibling bond,” says Chappell. “As the first year (anniversary) approached, I didn’t realize that Dakota hadn’t really accepted that Kareem was gone. I just took it because we were all hurt because we all are. I didn’t know I was going to do that.” .

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department report says Dakota was found in Pikes Peak Park, the park where he spent so many hours with Kareem.

Her mother calls it “the domino effect”, first Kareem left and now Dakota too, due to the pain of losing her brother. She links it all to Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s chaotic departure from the country. And she says that Kareem and the other soldiers have not had their due honor.

“The start was a complete failure,” Chappell said. “They wanted the disastrous retreat to be forgotten and the 13 who were killed to be forgotten, mainly because they were so young.”

Chappell places the blame squarely on President Joe Biden himself, as commander-in-chief during the US pullout. He feels Biden was too estranged from families, primarily due to the political fallout from the loss of life in the United States. “It could have been handled completely differently and those 13 kids would still be here. They were treated like they were disposable and replaceable and that’s what really bothers me.”

Tattoos and uncertainty

To their protective mother, of course, her children are anything but disposable. She can no longer keep her children safe and she carries the permanence of death and loss in her body.

On his right arm, a tattoo marks Kareem’s KIA date of 8-26-2021 below his rifle. Another rifle and stars form the number “13” on the top of his arm. The image of a flag covers his shoulder.

Afghanistan

Shana Chappell displays the tattoos with which she honors her son and the others killed in Kabul.

Chappell winces as he lifts his shirt to show off his new tattoo on his right oblique, which he’s still recovering from. She reads “Dakota” with the years of her life, an orchid rising above her name.

“My CoCo loved orchids,” she explained, using her oldest son’s nickname.

At Kareem’s grave, Chappell looks at the yellow flag that marks the place where Dakota will be buried. He didn’t expect to bury one son, much less two. She’s raising all the money she can with a GoFundMe account so she can bury Dakota next to her beloved brother.

“Kareem is not alone because he went to join him,” Chappell said.

She is wracked with guilt and says several times that she should have paid more attention. “I was with him the whole time. He just acted so happy I never would have thought about it,” she said.

Afghanistan

Dakota’s body will rest next to her brother.

Now the mother of five has three children that she says she is determined to live for and protect.

She had told herself that she would resume some of her old activities once she was a year after 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,” he said. “I keep saying, what am I going to do when the shock phase is over? How am I going to react to this? What’s going to happen to me?”