By Kyung Lah and Jack Hannah, CNN
Shana Chappell sits on the grass in front of the tombstone, not sure where to look.
It’s the grave for her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, killed almost a year ago in a terror attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, as American forces left the country.
And next to it, a yellow flag marks the location for another grave, for another son.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen that,” Chappell remarked of the flag, her voice seeming stoic, held steady by the shock of losing two sons in the space of one year.
Kareem, 20, was one of 13 US service members killed in a suicide bombing outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 26, 2021, as America left Afghanistan in a chaotic and damaging withdrawal.
As the first anniversary of his death loomed, Chappell’s oldest son, Dakota Halverson, 28, became increasingly emotional.
“He started expressing that Kareem’s really gone, that he just wanted to be with him. And how much he misses him and loves him,” Chappell told CNN. She pointed at the grass plot in front of her son’s headstone. “He’d come up here sometimes and night and sleep here to be with Kareem. He would say it bothers him that Kareem’s here alone.”
Dakota was deep in grief, as was the rest of his close-knit family, but he would still smile and engage with them, Chappell said. She didn’t know she would soon lose him too.
Earlier this month, Dakota took his own life near the park where he played with his brother as a child and across the street from the permanent veteran’s memorial for the fallen marine.
Chappell blames the loss of her sons on America’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan; one killed in Kabul and the other lost in grief.
“It’s a pain that is just so hard to deal with because you can’t even understand it because it’s like a pain you’ve never felt before,” Chappell says. “You can’t even make sense of it. You can’t even describe it, that’s how bad it hurts. With Dakota, the reality this month started setting in for him.”
The making of a Marine
Chappell’s parenting philosophy was to keep her five children — Dakota, Kareem, their youngest brother and two sisters — close to her. Unlike most parents around her, she never allowed them to stay the night with friends.
“My biggest fear was something happening to one of my kids,” she says of how protective she is as a parent. “Keeping my kids with me at all times and watching them was how I could make sure nothing was going to happen to them.”
Chappell convinced one daughter to become a 911 dispatcher and not join the police department, fearing for her safety on the streets. But she couldn’t deter Kareem from the Marines.
Chappell remembers his reaction when he was about four years old and saw a Marine in his dress blues at a mall. The little boy was star-struck meeting the serviceman, as if that Marine were a real-life superhero.
“At a very young age he knew that’s what he wanted to be. He looked at them as 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 when he reached high school. As soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Chappell expected it and was proud of her boy pursuing his dream, but it did not make the separation any easier.
“I cried almost every day that he was gone,” she recalled of his time in boot camp. “I can’t handle being away from him.”
Kareem tried to prepare his mom for what could happen once he deployed, but she focused on him coming home again. “As a mom, you think, no, it’s not going to happen to me. It’s not going to happen to my kid.”
And he didn’t like to dwell on the riskier parts of being a Marine when he talked to her, she said. He didn’t tell her about the chaos outside the airport in Kabul as thousands of Afghans tried to flee their country, now back in control of the Taliban.
Instead, he sent selfie videos with local children and pictures with his fellow Marines.
Chappell also stopped watching the news, unable to take the stress of her son being at the end of America’s longest war.
But she didn’t need to watch the news to bolt awake 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 out to the point where I was like, ‘What is going on with me?’ “
Chappell turned to Instagram to try to get her mind off the dread she woke with. But the first post that popped up was an image from Afghanistan’s airport with news of a suicide bomber. Nearly 200 Afghans and 13 US service members would be killed in the attack.
The background in the photo was instantly familiar to Chappell. She had seen it before in the photos Kareem sent.
Kareem’s father would be the first in the family to know the awful 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 tell me,” Chappell said. “He never even had to say it. I just knew.”
Bond of brothers
Dakota Halverson was eight years older than his brother, but somehow Kareem joining the Marines flipped the seniority. He became a father figure to Dakota, their mother said, talking through their struggles in life as young men.
The two brothers, along with Chappell’s youngest son, often hung out at Pikes Peak Park to swing and talk, even as they grew through teenage years and one became a Marine.
They’d make goofy videos, their mom said, always laughing even when life wasn’t easy in their hometown.
Norco, California, brands itself “Horsetown, USA” with dirt paths for horses rather than sidewalks for pedestrian. The rural community is just an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, but instead of international glitz and glamour, it is tight and local.
When the flag-draped coffin of Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui returned home from Afghanistan, Norco mourned its fallen son with a procession of horses, cars, and a large town funeral.
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 Afghanistan withdrawal, with all 13 named on individual concrete plaques.
Kareem’s picture was added to a banner on a main street in town, his official USMC stare serious as he posed in his Marine dress blues, much like the Marine he met at a mall when he was just four.
His final resting place is a plot facing a steep hill he loved to climb with his brothers.
But all the ceremony eventually faded, and life began to move on.
That didn’t happen for Dakota, says his mother.
“They have that brothers’ bond,” says Chappell. “As the one year (anniversary) was approaching, I didn’t realize that Dakota hadn’t really accepted that Kareem was gone. I just took it as we’re all hurting because we all are. I didn’t know he was going to do that.”
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department report says Dakota was found at Pikes Peak Park, the park where he spent so many hours with Kareem.
Their mother calls it “the ripple effect,” first Kareem gone and now Dakota too, stemming from the grief of losing his brother. She ties it all back to Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from the country. And she says Kareem and the other service members have not had their due honor.
“The withdrawal was a complete failure,” Chappell said. “They wanted the disastrous pullout forgotten about and they wanted the 13 that were killed to be forgotten about, mainly because they were so young.”
Chappell lays blame squarely on President Joe Biden himself, as the commander in chief during the US pullout. She feels Biden was too detached from the families, mainly because of the political fallout from the loss of US life. “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 gets me.”
Tattoos and uncertainty
To their protective mother of course, her children are anything but disposable. She cannot keep her sons safe anymore and she wears the permanence of death and loss on her body.
On her right arm, a tattoo marks Kareem’s KIA date of 8-26-2021 beneath his rifle. Another rifle and stars form the number “13” on her upper arm. The image of a flag covers her shoulder.
Chappell winces as she lifts her shirt to show off her newest tattoo on her right oblique, still healing. 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 oldest son.
At Kareem’s grave site, Chappell looks at the yellow flag marking where Dakota will be buried. She didn’t expect to bury one son, much less two. She is raising what money she can with a GoFundMe account so she can bury Dakota next to his beloved brother.
“Kareem’s not alone because he went to join him,” Chappell said.
She is wracked by guilt, saying several times she should have been paying closer attention. “I was with him all the time. He just acted so happy that I would have never thought,” she said.
Now, the mother of five has three children she says she is determined to live for and protect.
She had told herself she would resume some of her old activities once 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 keep saying, what am I going to do when the shock phase wears off? How am I going to react to this? What’s going to happen to me?”
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