The young widow of one of the 13 US troops killed in an ISIS-K suicide blast in Afghanistan has paid tribute to her ‘best friend’ just three weeks before the birth of their first child.
Marine Rylee McCollum, 20, was killed in the suicide bomb attack in Kabul on Thursday. He had been in Afghanistan only a few weeks and was expected home in October.
His pregnant wife, Jiennah Crayton, who goes by Gigi, is expecting their first child next month.
She wrote on Facebook on Friday: ‘I lost my best friend. And nothing will ever make that hurt less. He would’ve been the best dad.
‘I wish he could see how much of an impact he made on this world. I’m so proud to call him my husband.
‘Much love to the other families affected by this. They are all heroes forever.’
Rylee McCollum (left) with his wife Jiennah Gigi Crayton (right). She shared this photo of them together in April before he was deployed
The young marine had been deployed to Afghanistan a few weeks prior to the attacks and was expected home in October
McCollum had recently tied the knot with Gigi when they eloped in Las Vegas in February
Gigi is expecting the couple’s first child next month, she is ‘crushed’ by the news of her husband’s recent death
The young widow is due to give birth in three weeks, now left to raise her child without her husband (Pictured: Gigi’s sonogram photo shared on Facebook May 18)
McCollum, who was sent to Afghanistan as evacuations started, is believed to have been killed while manning an airport checkpoint at the time of the suicide bombing.
The ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 183 people at Kabul airport.
McCollum, who graduated from Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming in 2019 before joining the US Marine Corps, had married Gigi in February of this year when the couple eloped in Vegas.
Crayton, who lives across the country from her daughter, is rushing to be by her side. She told The Sun: ‘She’s having his baby next month, my first grandbaby.
‘I’m working on getting a flight right now, I’m trying to get my week covered from work.
Sadly, Crayton never got the chance to meet her son-in-law but was excited by how happy and in love the couple appeared even from a distance.
‘I didn’t get to know him, I didn’t even get to meet him, but I do know that she was madly in love with him. He was her everything her future and her best friend,’ she shared.
‘I couldn’t wait to meet him, he made her so incredibly happy. I hadn’t known her to be so happy until she married him and found out she was pregnant. It was like she was complete.’
The soon-to-be grandmother continued, ‘I was so proud of him, I was incredibly proud of him because he was a Marine who served his country but I was even more proud of him for the respect and the love that he showed my daughter.
Gigi’s mother, Jill Crayton, said that when her daughter was with McCollum was ‘it was like she was complete’
Crayton said, ‘I hadn’t known [Gigi] to be so happy until she married him and found out she was pregnant’. Gigi is pictured at her baby shower in July
McCollum is remembered as ‘a beautiful handsome man, a young man who had his whole life in front of him’
‘She’s crushed and she doesn’t like all the attention that’s going to fall on her, she thinks it should be all about him.’
Crayton said her daughter had been ‘glued’ to the TV screen on Thursday waiting on news as she was overcome by dread.
‘I kept telling her “He’s okay sweetheart, don’t worry, he’s okay.” And then she got that knock on the door, that knock that every military spouse hates to get at 3am.
‘She loves him. And even though I’ve been through this, grief is very personal.’
Unfortunately, Crayton can relate all to well to her daughter’s devastating situation.
‘My husband died when I was nine weeks pregnant with Gigi’s brother, 15 years ago, and unfortunately history is repeating itself,’ she shared.
‘I never thought one of my daughters would go through what I did, it’s unreal and it’s awful.
‘They met while he was in the military, I don’t know exactly how long they had been dating. I moved from San Diego two years ago, we had lived there our whole lives.’
While many have attacked the Biden Administration for their poor coordination in withdrawing and evacuating Afghanistan, Jill believes that now is ‘not a time for finger-pointing.’
She does not want politics to be the focus of her son-in-law’s death.
‘He was a beautiful handsome man, a young man who had his whole life in front of him, who loved my daughter and was about to be a father. That’s what I focus on.’
People close to McCollum said that the young man had always wanted to join the marines and enlisted on his 18th birthday
Family friend, Benjamin Arlotta, said that ‘when he actually enlisted his recruiter told him he could be anything, he could do any job. He swore up and down he wanted to be an infantryman’
Crayton has now launched a GoFundMe account to raise money for her daughter and unborn baby, telling followers on Facebook: ‘Rest in peace sweet Rylee, we will take care of them for you.’
Benjamin Arlotta, a family friend of the McCollums told DailyMail.com that ‘heads should roll’ over the disastrous U.S. exit and that the young soldier’s family is ‘absolutely broken.’
The Wyoming-born Marine’s wrestling coach and close family friend told DailyMail.com that even in diapers McCollum would stand watch on his porch with a toy rifle; first said he wanted to be a Marine aged eight; and signed up on his 18th birthday.
In a glowing eulogy to the young expectant father, Arlotta described McCollum as a ‘personal hero’ and a ‘fantastic brother, fantastic uncle, and a wonderful friend’.
Benjamin Arlotta, and his wife, Talia, are long-time family friends of the McCollums. Benjamin said he is angry and devastated
‘I was his wrestling coach since he was six. He was one of the best. A great kid, a great young man and an American patriot. He loved being a Marine,’ Arlotta said.
‘He was just a good man all around. We’re all hurting pretty bad.
‘It’s impossible. I’m sitting here with the family right now – with his dad and two sisters, his brother-in-law and niece. They’re shattered, they’re absolutely broken. The entire community is.’
Arlotta said he is furious at the Biden administration and blames the White House for putting soldiers in an unnecessarily dangerous position.
‘It’s a junk show, an absolute junk show. Not just for Rylee but for every serviceman and woman over there. They were put in a very terrible spot. In my opinion this entire circumstance has been mismanaged from every level,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘The only thing I can hope for is that accountability isn’t forgotten. Because for the 13 men who were killed yesterday, heads need to roll for the way things have gone.
‘We’re just seeing the beginning of it. It’s not over, it’s only going to get worse. Everybody in the country needs to be praying for our servicemen and women right now. They have a scrap out in front of them.
‘Sadly those 13 Marines aren’t going to be the last ones to perish because of these terrible decisions that were made.’
Recalling fond memories of the young Jackson Hole native, the wrestling coach told a heartwarming story of McCollum’s determination.
McCollum and Gigi met in San Diego where he had moved to complete training
The expectant mother believes that her husband ‘would’ve been the best dad’
‘When he was 13 he came into the competition season 32lbs heavier than where he wanted to be,’ Arlotta said.
‘He told me he would lose it. We made a bet. I was going to quit chewing tobacco if he could get down there. That was September, by the time the state championship rolled around in January he had made weight.
‘He entered the wrestling tournament at that weight and I quit chewing that day.
‘He was first and foremost a man of his word. If he said he would do something, by goodness gracious he stood right in front of you until he did it.’
McCollum moved to California for training where he met Gigi, who remains in the San Diego area.
The 20-year-old lance corporal wanted to be a soldier since childhood, first telling his parents he would join the Marines age eight.
‘We were driving back from his first state wrestling tournament, I was riding with his family,’ said Arlotta.
‘We asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said he wanted to be in the Marines.
‘He enlisted on his 18th birthday,’ the coach added.
‘When he actually enlisted his recruiter told him he could be anything, he could do any job. He swore up and down he wanted to be an infantryman.
‘If you know Rylee, you know you can’t talk him out of a damn thing, so that’s what he did.’
While still in diapers, McCollum would ‘stand guard’ with his toy rifle out on his parents’ porch, his ex-coach said. And when it came to being ready to lay down his life for his country, he said the young solder would not have flinched.
‘He was first and foremost a Marine. When it came down to doing his duty he was ready to stand up for it, absolutely,’ Arlotta told DailyMail.com.
McCollum’s sister Cheyenne told DailyMail.com her brother had wanted to be a Marine since he was a toddler.
McCollum wanted to be a soldier since childhood, first telling his parents he would join the Marines age eight
His sister Cheyenne said that ‘Rylee was an amazing man, with a passion for the Marines’
‘Rylee was an amazing man, with a passion for the Marines. He was a son, a brother, a husband and a father with a baby due in just three weeks,’ said Cheyenne.
‘He wanted to be a Marine his whole life and carried around his rifle in his diapers and cowboy boots.
‘He was determined to be in infantry and this was his first deployment.
‘Rylee was sent to Afghanistan when the evac began. Rylee was manning the check point when he suicide bomb went off.
‘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. To his friends and teammates and coaches, he was family.
‘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. We love you Rylee,’ she said.
Regi Stone, whose son Eli enlisted around the same time as McCollum, described him as ‘smart, strong and courageous’ and said he drew comfort when the two hung out together.
‘We always knew that Rylee had his back and my son his,’ Stone told Reuters, adding that he got to know McCollum during visits for dinner at their house.
‘He’s a defender. He loved his country and wanted to make a difference.’
McCollum played football before graduating from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole High School in 2019.
‘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,’ State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in a statement.
‘My heart and prayers are with Rylee’s family, friends, and the entire Jackson community.’
The 13 US service members killed in the Kabul blast
Navy Corpsman Maxton Soviak, 20
Navy Corpsman Maxton Soviak, 20
Lance Corporal David Lee Espinoza, 20
Lance Corporal Rylee McCollum, 20
Lance Corporal Jared Schmitz, 20
Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, 20
Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23
Lance Corporal Dylan Merola, 20
Sgt. Johanny Rosario, 25
Lance Corporal Hunter Lopez, 22
Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, 31
Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23
Corporal Daegan Page, 23
Corporal Humberto Sanchez, 22