23-Year-Old Widow Remembers Love Story with the Last Soldier Killed in Afghanistan

From first meeting as teenagers to a proposal that still makes her laugh, Alena Knauss opens up about loving and losing her husband, Ryan: "I don't believe in people, but he made me believe in people"

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan and Alena Knauss. Photo: Courtesy of Alena Knauss

Growing up in Corryton, Tennessee, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss "always, always, always wanted to be, in some way, shape or fashion, a member of the military," his widow, Alena Knauss, tells PEOPLE.

"I think it was just a sense of service, really and truly," she says. "He loved to help people."

Helping people was exactly what Ryan was doing when he and 12 other U.S. service members were killed at the Afghanistan capital airport on Aug. 26 as the military was safeguarding evacuations at the end of the war.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for what officials said was a suicide bombing and gun attack outside the airport in Kabul, among the throngs of would-be refugees and troops.

The 13 service members killed were the final American fatalities of the 20-year war. Ryan is thought to be the last of them to die.

He was 23; so is Alena — their birthdays are a month apart.

In an interview with PEOPLE, she shared her grief over her husband's death and her abiding love for the man she calls "so selfless."

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26. Courtesy of Alena Knauss

Theirs wasn't always a storybook romance — at least, not at the beginning.

Alena was 16 years old and working at a local pizza parlor when Ryan walked in for his first day on the job. While the rest of the staff was "burnt out" from the long hours, Ryan was full of energy, Alena says. Which didn't exactly endear him.

She remembers complaining to a friend, who was the manager: "Who is this kid? Who does he think he is? He needs to calm down. He was really over here acting like he owns the place."

The friend told her: "Well, of course he does. That's my brother.' "

After Alena attempted to backpedal by saying she was only kidding, Ryan's brother offered her a tip: "No, he has got way too much confidence. Knock it down a peg or two."

Over time, it became clear that the new kid at work was more than an annoyance. He was introspective, caring and intuitive in a way she hadn't seen from most people her age.

Still, Alena brushed off Ryan's attempts to date her for a year and a half. It was her mother who finally convinced her to give it a try.

"My mom always roots for an underdog, that's her thing," Alena says. "She would come in to get pizzas and Ryan was polite, just kind, caring, I think everything you would want for a daughter. And so of course my mom was like, 'Alena, if you do not give this boy a chance, he will always be the one you look back and wonder, What if?' "

After that, Alena never wondered "what if" again.

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan Knauss. Courtesy of Alena Knauss

A first date at a yogurt shop turned into occasional love notes on her car and morning gifts of donuts and coffee.

When the two finished high school, Ryan told Alena of his decision to enlist in the Army. Basic training came and went before Alena broached the topic of marriage.

"After airborne, he was going to be cut orders and I knew from my father [who also served in the military], if we want to get all this stuff moved for free, I need to be on your orders," she says. "And I was like, 'That's a bigger thing, talking about marriage and stuff, do you ...' "

"Not even missing a beat," Alena says, "he was just like, 'Absolutely. When can we do it?' "

The couple was married in 2016, following a brief engagement and proposal that Alena can't help but laugh about all these years later.

"One day he was like, 'Hey, I need to go by the mall,' so we drove to the mall and he's like, 'You just stay here,' " she says, noting that she was driving as he couldn't have a car during training.

She knew immediately what was going on: "Oh my God, he is going in there and he's going to buy a ring."

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan Knauss. Courtesy of Alena Knauss

Sure enough, Alena says, Ryan came out of the mall with a box clearly visible in his pocket. He directed Alena toward the local airborne museum, where the couple ran into another roadblock: metal detectors.

"I think it was the metal hardware on the ring box that went off," she says.

After Ryan emptied his pockets for the guard on duty — making the ring now clearly visible — he and Alena took an awkward walk outside, to a memorial garden behind the museum.

"God love him, he didn't have a car and this was the prettiest spot he could think of," Alena says. "And finally, he's just so nervous that he gets down on one knee, he opens the ring box upside down, the ring falls out, and we're both bending over on our hands and knees looking for this ring."

"He would be kicking me for telling that story because I always gave him a hard time about it," she continues. "I'm still keeping him in check with the confidence."

Ryan deployed for a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, in 2017 and 2018, as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.

When he came back, he and Alena settled into married life, purchasing a "storybook" Victorian home off-base in 2019 and spending their little free time together cooking, watching movies and doing one of his favorite activities: metal-detecting.

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan Knauss. Courtesy of Alena Knauss

"I think his best find was a sardine can," Alena jokes. "But he really thought that he had found gold. That's the best thing about him: He could make anything fun. And, I mean, we had a hell of a time with that sardine can."

The two last saw each other on Aug. 15, before Ryan headed to Afghanistan. It was 11 days before the airport attack.

He had been anticipating the trip for at least a week, as the situation in Kabul, where America was on a tight deadline to evacuate, began to grow more panicked. He was serving in psychological operations.

"He just kept saying, 'This is going to be quick. This is going to be a turn and burn, I should be back soon,' " Alena says. "And I was like, 'Okay. Well, I'm really going to miss you.' And he's like, 'You don't need to miss me.' "

She saw the reports of service members killed and wounded in the Aug. 26 suicide bombing, but she wasn't worried. She had no idea Ryan was even in the area at the time.

Alena and her sister-in-law were holed up in the couple's bathroom that Thursday night attempting a late-night DIY renovation of the bathroom and working on very little sleep when they heard a loud knock on the door.

Ryan Knauss, 23, the last American to die in the Afghan war after the suicide bomb at the Kabul Airport on Aug. 26
Ryan Knauss. Courtesy of Alena Knauss

Fearing an intruder, Alena crept into the foyer and spotted a blue sleeve out the front door.

"So I opened the door [and] when I see the dress blues, I didn't think they did that anymore. I thought that would be a phone call or something, so I didn't think anything of it," she says.

But as soon as the soldier in front of her uttered those four words — "ma'am, we're so sorry" — she knew.

"I've never felt so small and so helpless," she says.

They asked to come in while she tried to process what they were telling her.

"I'm like, 'No, there has to be a mistake. I was just speaking with him, there's a mistake.' And they're like, 'Ma'am, we wouldn't be here if there was a mistake. May we come in?' Very polite, of course, but that's not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that they were sorry, [that] they knocked on the wrong door."

The days since have been full — with interviews, with meetings with her Casualty Assistance Officer, with funeral arrangements — and an impromptu call in the Target parking lot with President Joe Biden.

"I think a lot of people are angry right now, and I think that this has been a catalyst for anger," Alena says. "But what the president shared with me, I was very comforted by and he was very kind to me. And I am so grateful that he took the time to speak with me, just sharing his experience with loss. And not comparing grief, but saying, 'I've experienced loss.' "

She continues: "He was just telling me that it's okay not to be okay, and that no one can tell me how to do it, and that grieving is a process. It felt like I was speaking with a member of my family, a grandfather and not the president. He was not overly boastful or proud."

Though she grieves, Alena says she's comforted by the fact that Ryan died doing what he loved.

"If he could have chosen what he was doing when something like this happened, that's what he would be doing," she says. "He was so selfless and people like that — I don't believe in people, but he made me believe in people. [He was] someone you would read about in a fairy tale."

Ryan will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with remembrances spanning two memorials: one at Arlington, for his fellow service members, and one in Knoxville, for friends and family.

The memorials, Alena says, are the close of a significant chapter for her and her late husband.

She will face the next chapter on her own.

"As bad as it sounds now, [I've been] figuring out how I'm going to be okay," she tells PEOPLE. "I think in a good way, you get swept up a bit making sure your loved one's okay in this time. But after he is laid to rest, then you just have to sit in the quiet, in the moment, and think: 'Okay, now what about me?' "

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