A Mom Remembers the Many Things to Love About Marine Son Killed in Afghanistan Evacuation

"The word 'can't' didn't exist in his vocabulary because if he wanted something bad enough — like being a Marine — he was going to get it," Shana Chappell says of her son

Kareem Nikoui
Kareem Nikoui. Photo: Courtesy Shana Chappell

Anything Kareem Nikoui said he was going to do, he did.

At 4 years old, he set his sights on becoming a U.S. Marine. Fourteen years later, as a high-school senior, he reached that goal.

"He was a go-getter," says his mother, Shana Chappell. "The word 'can't' didn't exist in his vocabulary because if he wanted something bad enough — like being a Marine — he was going to get it."

The 20-year-old lance corporal was doing what he loved on Aug. 26 when he and 12 other service members were killed in an attack at Kabul's airport in Afghanistan where the military was safeguarding evacuations at the end of the war.

Nikoui was among those at the airport's Abbey Gate who personally delivered desperate members of the Afghanistan women's soccer team to safety. His death has shattered his family, which includes four siblings who are struggling to reconcile their loss.

"Kareem always wanted to help out anyone he could," Chappell says. "He wanted to protect everyone. That's the type of person he was."

Nikoui had forever seen Marines as the strong guys, as heroes. "He didn't come from a military background," says his mom. "He joined because he wanted to do something special for our country."

Kareem Nikoui
Kareem Nikoui (left). Courtesy Shana Chappell
Kareem Nikoui
Kareem Nikoui. Courtesy Shana Chappell

Since her son's death, Chappell spends her days and nights now huddled in his grey USMC hoodie, often driving alone in her truck flying the Marine Corps flag, reflecting on all that she cherishes about him. His great laugh, for one.

"He was so perfect and special in so many ways," she says of Nikoui, named for his grandfather who came to the United States from Tehran, Iran. "He loved to see people smiling, so he always had a joke to tell."

There was the way he was so amazing with kids: "His niece and nephew were very close to Kareem. He would buy them presents and teach them to shoot Airsoft guns."

And he was the best brother his siblings could ask for. "They were all so close and he'd do anything for them," Chappell says.

She remembers how a neighbor recently came over to share a favorite memory of Nikoui's generosity. A few weeks before he deployed, on a hot Southern California day, the neighbor had had some gravel delivered. Suddenly Nikoui appeared and took hold of a shovel. The neighbor protested, but Nikoui insisted on helping, telling the neighbor he needed the workout.

There was so much more to him: He was a champion jiu-jitsu contender with several national titles and one world title. He loved all animals, including his dogs Kenya and Atlas (who recently succumbed to a rattlesnake bite), and he often would stand out back with the family horses, stroking them and hugging their necks.

When he was at home relaxing, he liked to create games on the computer — "really cool military games," says Chappell. "Me and his younger brother would get characters named after us and Kareem would have us try them out. He even got his dad and sisters involved."

Kareem Nikoui
Kareem Nikoui (center) with his sister Shyler (right) and brother Steven. Courtesy Shana Chappell
Kareem Nikoui
Kareem Nikoui. Courtesy Shana Chappell

Stationed at Camp Pendleton, about 85 miles to the south of his family home in Norco, Nikoui usually was able to come up for the weekends. He often brought his Marine buddies.

"It was beautiful to have them all here," Chappell says. "I'd laugh because all of the kids would have to hike so much during the week for training at Pendleton and then they'd come here to relax and take a break, but Kareem would take them out our back gate and up into the hills to hike. They'd ask me, 'Why does Nikoui make us hike every time we're here?' I'd let them know he's just sharing the things he loves."

He was always listening to music — rap, hip-hop, oldies, rock — and his eclectic tastes skewed country. Conway Twitty's "That's My Job" was a favorite.

"I'd pick him up from Camp Pendleton on Fridays and take him back to base on Sundays," says Chappell, "and he liked to play a song in my truck called 'They Call Me Doc,' by Walker McGuire."

He was a self-taught keyboardist and would listen to songs and figure out how to play them. It was a gift he liked to share. "He'd just started working on a song for me that I like: It's 'Take on Me' by A-ha, the slow version from the movie Deadpool 2," his mom says.

Nikoui wouldn't permit her to record him performing it because he'd only learned the first half, she says. "He asked me to wait until he got back from his deployment so he could finish it and then I could make a video."

Kareem Nikoui
From left: Kareem Nikoui with his mom, Shana Chappell. Courtesy Shana Chappell

A few days before Nikoui died, he sent a family group text saying he'd purchased the movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a beautifully animated film about a mustang on the American frontier. It had been Nikoui's favorite childhood movie, and he still loved it. He asked his parents and siblings to log on to his Amazon account and watch it together as a family.

In the movie, Spirit remembers home: "My heart galloped through the skies that night, back to my herd, where I belonged. I wondered if they missed me as much as I missed them."

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