A Marine from Wyoming was among the troops killed Thursday in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan.
Rylee McCollum had been sent to Afghanistan on his first deployment when the American evacuation began, his sister said, and was reportedly manning a checkpoint at the airport when the bomb went off.
Roice McCollum, Rylee's older sister, said he was expecting a baby in three weeks.
"He wanted to be a Marine his whole life and carried around his rifle in his diapers and cowboy boots," McCollum's sister said. "He was determined to be in infantry... Rylee wanted to be a history teacher and a wrestling coach when he finished serving his country. He's a tough, kind, loving kid who made an impact on everyone he met. His joke and wit brought so much joy.
"Rylee will always be a hero not just for the ultimate sacrifice he made for our country, but for the way he impacted every life around him for the better. Making us stronger, kinder, teaching us to love deeper," Roice McCollum said.
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McCollum was a 2019 graduate of Summit Innovations School in Jackson.
“Saying that I am grateful for Rylee’s service to our country does not begin to encapsulate the grief and sadness I feel today as a mother and as an American," said Wyoming Schools Superintendent Jillian Balow. "My heart and prayers are with Rylee’s family, friends, and the entire Jackson community.
“We will find many ways to honor Rylee for this ultimate and untimely sacrifice in the coming months and years - but for now, my arms are wrapped around Rylee’s loved ones from afar and I pray they find some comfort.”
In a statement, Gov. Mark Gordon said McCollum was from Bondurant, a tiny community about 45 minutes from Jackson.
"I’m devastated to learn Wyoming lost one of our own in yesterday's terrorist attack in Kabul," Gordon said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Rylee McCollum of Bondurant. Jennie and I, along with all of Wyoming and the entire country thank Rylee for his service."
Gordon announced Friday that all American and Wyoming flags in the state would be flown at half-staff through Monday evening in honor of McCollum.
Charlotte Reynolds, communications director at the Teton County School District, shared a statement expressing condolences for the former Jackson Hole High School student and Summit Innovations School alumnus.
"We send our deepest sympathies to his family, the friends he made in our community, and the staff who had the chance to work with Rylee," Reynolds said. "We honor and thank him for his service and are humbled by his ultimate sacrifice in protecting others.”
Regi Stone, whose son Eli was friends with McCollum and enlisted in the Marines around the same time, said McCollum was smart, strong, courageous and a protector. He would often stop by the Stone's house for dinner or stay the weekend with their son before being called to boot camp.
"They would blow in to have dinner, and we'd hang out and laugh. We might shoot guns on our property, you know, skeet or something," Stone said. "They loved going to hand out with other friends, building a fire... he was just a lot of fun to be around. He was just a good, fun kid to have in the house."
Stone said when the pair was waiting to find out when they were going to boot camp, his wife would say (half-joking, half-serious) that they should let others go before them in the line of fire if anything happened. Without hesitating, both men said that if anything happened to them while deployed, they would have died doing what they loved.
"Little did we know that here we are, two and a half years later, and that would come to pass," Stone said.
Stone said his son is currently deployed, and texted his family earlier on Friday saying he was hurting from the news of McCollum's passing.
Sen. John Barrasso, who visited Afghanistan in 2019 with then President Donald Trump, called McCollum a "true American hero."
"Rylee wasted no time answering the call to serve our country, joining the Marines right out of high school," Barrasso said in a statement. "As Rylee’s dad once said, he was ‘full-blooded red, white and blue.’"
Rep. Liz Cheney, who was a critic of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan even before Thursday's attack, lauded McCollum's bravery and patriotism.
"His willingness to put himself in harm's way to keep our country safe and defend our freedom represents a level of selflessness and heroism that embodies the best of America," she said in a statement.
McCollum was one of 13 American troops and dozens of Afghans killed in Thursday's suicide attack at the Kabul airport. The attack came as evacuation efforts continued at the airport in the wake of the Taliban's swift takeover of the country.
The Pentagon says it has determined that the attack at the Kabul airport on Thursday involved only one location and not two as was previously reported.
The Pentagon said there was one Islamic State suicide bomber, who struck at the Abbey Gate, where desperate Afghans were crowding to try and enter Kabul airport grounds and where U.S. troops were conducting security checks.
President Joe Biden vowed to avenge the deaths, saying to the attackers, "We will hunt you down and make you pay."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.