Today, Aug. 26, marks one year since an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members and about 200 Afghans outside the international airport in Kabul.
Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, one of the 13 service members who died, was only 20 at the time of the fatal attack. His widow, Jiennah Crayton, also known as Gigi, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, less than a month after the bombing.
His son Rylee was “fun,” Jim McCollum says.
“He was genuine, real,” McCollum says. “He had a huge heart, very compassionate, but you had to know him to see that side of him, because he was also very abrasive.”
“We have pictures of him at about 3 years old, 2 or 3, in a diaper, in his sister’s boots, no pants, with his gun and his dog out playing Army, Marine, whatever, protecting the family,” McCollum says of his son. “Just loved it. He was very fascinated with the military his whole life.”
One year after the terrorist attack that killed his son and 12 other service members, McCollum says he doesn’t want to talk with President Joe Biden about the attack or his handling of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:
I’m highly disappointed. If you could sit down and have a discussion and know that it was sincere and that somebody was going to listen to you, it would be different. But so far the government, they’ve been less than honest with me, and it’s all lip service and just standard routine. They’re just going through the motions.
McCollum joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the life and legacy of his son Rylee, his 1-year-old granddaughter Levi Rylee Rose, and how the Biden administration handled the exit from Afghanistan.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Renck: One year ago, on Aug. 26, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans, and wounded or injured countless others. U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20, was one of the 13 service members killed. And his dad, Jim McCollum, joins the show today to discuss his son’s life and legacy. Jim, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jim McCollum: Absolutely. Thank you for reaching out and having me on.
Renck: Of course. Now, first and foremost, tell us a little bit about Rylee. What was he like?
McCollum: I love that question. It’s so hard to wrap him up in a quick answer. He was fun. He was genuine, real. He had a huge heart, very compassionate, but you had to know him to see that side of him, because he was also very abrasive. He was all boy. He was a wrestler from about 4 years old on, so just that toughness, that mental toughness, and kind of closed off.
So just a unique kid. Very intelligent. Once you were in his circle and you were a friend, you were a friend for life. He was a solid kid.
Renck: Did Rylee always want to be a Marine? Why did he sign up when he did right after high school?
McCollum: He did. In fact, we have pictures of him at about 3 years old, 2 or 3, in a diaper, in his sister’s boots, no pants, with his gun and his dog out playing Army, Marine, whatever, protecting the family. Just loved it. He was very fascinated with the military his whole life.
And I tried to join the Marines right after the invasion of Kuwait and permanently disqualified for a medical condition. But Rylee knew that story and he knew how passionate I was and how patriotic I was. And the Marines have always been the branch that I just admired the most. And from a young age, he just fed off that and it kind of shaped what his interests were. And not even knowing, we look at it now and we could see that’s the direction that he was taking.
He absolutely loved history. He knew just about every battle, skirmish, and war that we’ve ever been in. He could tell you who the president was, the generals, what weapons were used. It was fascinating.
And then on his 18th birthday, I got a call. I was at work and, yeah, he was still in school. “Dad, I need you to come in and sign some papers. I’m joining the Marines.”
And if I might add another one, it was never, “I hope I become a Marine. I want to be a Marine.” He always said from a young age on, “I’m going to be a Marine.” That was his mission. He wanted to be a Marine.
Renck: Wow. That is such a great story. And what was Rylee hoping to do after his military service or afterward?
McCollum: If he didn’t make a career out of it—which, I was really trying to push him, “Man, you’re retired at 38, dude. And you can do anything you want.” But he wanted to reenlist one more time and then he wanted to be a history teacher and a wrestling coach.
Renck: Now, I want to talk a little bit about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s been one year since the U.S. left. What are your thoughts on how President [Joe] Biden managed the U.S. withdrawal and the criticism of his actions that came later?
McCollum: He didn’t pay much attention to the criticism. As it was unfolding, and as it happened, Rylee was still in Jordan at the time when things really started to fall apart in Afghanistan.
And my personal opinion is the way we did it was just completely wrong. Everything was fumbled. Every step was, giving up the airport, the base, the weaponry, just so many things that could have been done differently. And it’s easy to armchair quarterback after the fact or sitting on your couch. But there were just so many things that were done so poorly.
And I’ve said this for many years, even when President [Donald] Trump was talking about the withdrawal, not knowing how his would’ve looked. We had to leave a presence.
You can’t go into a country for 20 years, change their culture, women that were now 18, 20 years old, new freedom. They had a little taste of that. And then it was just ripped right out from under them.
If we were going to leave, we should have left 18 years ago, if we were going to leave like that. And I bounce back and forth on the political side of things. You can’t blame, I can’t blame, any one person for the death of my son or the 13, but just the way everything happened. And leaving so much ammunition and weaponry and I mean millions of dollars. It was fumbled. In my mind it was an absolute atrocity.
Renck: Yes. And one year later many people throughout the country and throughout the world are remembering exactly what happened, especially on the 26th of August when that attack happened at Kabul. Do you know when Rylee arrived at the airport? Are you able to share any details about what he was doing in the hours before and leading up to the attack?
McCollum: To the best of my knowledge, [Aug. 16] was the day that they left Jordan and flew into Afghanistan. And then we had no contact with him, my daughters and I. I believe Gigi talked to him one time the day before on Aug. 25 and he had a cold or allergies and he said he was just absolutely exhausted. But that is the only information we had.
We did get a phone call from, all the parents of the Marines that were there, we were all in a chat basically together and we received a phone call from the Marines and kind of let us know what was going on, what was expected.
Obviously, it was a hostile situation. And we were told there would be no contact. That was exactly a week before the 26th, so that would’ve been on the 19th.
And then just watching things unfold on news and trying not to think about it too much and not to worry. It was stressful, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined this kid from Jackson, Wyoming, little tiny pocket in northwest corner Wyoming, would be one of the casualties.
Renck: And you talked about some of the other Marines that Rylee was with. Have you kept in contact with any of the families that also lost sons and daughters in the attack?
McCollum: Absolutely. I’ve actually become friends with the majority of them. We kind of lean on each other a little bit and definitely check in on each other, see how everybody’s doing, and try to meet up as often as we can. It’s family now. It’s beyond just someone we know. They’re definitely family.
Renck: And have you been able to keep in touch with anyone from the Biden administration or the Pentagon? What was the extent to which they reached out to you and to Rylee’s wife Gigi after the accident?
McCollum: Absolutely nothing. We’ve received nothing. After Dover, there might have been, I think I got a letter from the Pentagon. There might have been one or two letters immediately after. But other than that there’s been absolutely nothing.
Renck: And has that been the same with the other families that you have come to know and that you were just describing?
McCollum: To the best of my knowledge, yes.
McCollum: There hasn’t been any follow up, any sincere reaching out, or anything. To the best of my knowledge, almost a year later, their names have still not been spoken. I know [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi wouldn’t allow it on the floor. She refused to let the names be spoken. And to the best of my knowledge, President Biden has not said any of their names, which is really disappointing.
Renck: And speaking of President Biden, if you could talk to him about his leadership in leaving Afghanistan and the results, what would you say to him?
McCollum: I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t even entertain that conversation. I’m highly disappointed. If you could sit down and have a discussion and know that it was sincere and that somebody was going to listen to you, it would be different. But so far the government, they’ve been less than honest with me and it’s all lip service and just standard routine. They’re just going through the motions.
And I understand this happens a lot. We’ve lost a lot of Marines and soldiers and sailors in the last 20 years. So it’s something that is fairly repetitive to them, but it’s not repetitive to us. This is brand new. But there has been absolutely zero sincerity in anything that they’ve done for us or said to us.
Renck: Now, I want to shift a little bit to what Rylee would have come home to. Rylee was going to be a father. His wife Gigi actually gave birth about a month after the attack to a baby girl, Levi Rylee Rose. How are Gigi and Levi doing? Can you tell us a little bit about your granddaughter?
McCollum: Oh, absolutely. I love that kid. I look at her and I see Rylee. I see Rylee as the boy and I see Rylee as the man in her face, and it’s so cool to see. And she’s absolutely beautiful. Yeah, she was born 18 days after Rylee died. We flew out the day after she was born. She was almost born in Wyoming.
McCollum: But she ended up, they made it back to California just in time to have the baby. So we flew out to Camp Pendleton to be with Gigi and meet the granddaughter for the first time. And we were also there when the 21 came back. So that whole week was a really special week for me. I got to see Rylee’s fellow Marines come home, which was pretty cool.
Yeah, Gigi, for a 21-year-old girl to be put in the position that she is, a brand new mom and make such life-altering, life-changing decisions, the girl is solid. I’m extremely proud of her. Rylee definitely picked a wonderful partner in life.
She has, some days are rough. There’s constant reminders. My daughters go through the same thing, but it’s different. I think her days are, we can’t understand how rough her days are, but she’s doing well.
She left California. She just picked a place on a map and said, “I got to get away from where everybody knows me and just disappear so I can figure out what I’m going to do with my life.” So she’s doing that and she’s doing well. I’m actually going to see her in a couple weeks. Pretty excited about that.
Yeah, the last time that they were together, Rylee and Gigi were at the house in Wyoming. And we were talking about the future. And where we live is extremely expensive, so Rylee was looking at other places in Wyoming or possibly Montana is where he wanted to go to school and become a history teacher and wrestle. He wanted the mountain life and he wanted to have horses and live that lifestyle. So he was trying to figure out where that good place might be.
Renck: How did Rylee and Gigi meet and how long were they together?
McCollum: A little over a year, I think, they were together.
And there was a jewelry store where Gigi worked that was really close to a movie theater where all the Marines would go and watch movies and a really nice food court and neat little location.
And Rylee saw her one day, and being a kid, the cheesiest pickup line in the world, but it worked. Gigi said it didn’t work, she thought it was horrible, but he walked up to her and said, “Excuse me, I lost my number. Can I have yours?” and handed her his phone. And she laughed at him and gave him her number.
And then she kept telling him, “No, no. I can’t. I don’t want to date a Marine,” and so on and so forth. And then he caught her one day when she was on lunch and said, “I know you’re on break so come have lunch with me.” And that kind of started it. And they were together ever since.
Renck: That’s great. I love that story. That is an awesome pickup line.
McCollum: Yeah, it’s the cutest little story and how it worked out and it’s like, that is just fantastic.
McCollum: It makes me smile.
Renck: Yeah. I’m smiling right now as we’re having this conversation. That’s a great pickup line. Props to Rylee.
Oh, man. Well, Jim, just one final question for you. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or that you think is being missed in the media coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal or the airport attack that our listeners should keep in mind with the one-year anniversary?
McCollum: There’s a few things that keep rattling through my head, and it’s been a rough couple weeks and I don’t why. I’m pretty solid and pretty strong, but these last two weeks have really, the emotions are different, and I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is.
I received, I don’t even know where I found it yesterday, somebody sent me a letter from an Afghani civilian. I posted it to my Facebook page. And he’s talking about the situation right before the explosion, that he met a Marine and he was talking to him at 2:30 in the afternoon. He was exhausted and dehydrated and he met a Marine and his name is McCollum. And he said handing water to women and children and talked to him for a while and went to try to see if he could help get him through. But that letter last night just absolutely floored me.
Holy cow. I’m proud of my kid. I knew what he was doing. All reports that I’ve gotten up to the time of his death he was doing exactly what he needed to do. But to get and receive a letter from somebody that I don’t know, that it explains exactly who Rylee was in four short paragraphs—just a kind, giving, caring person—and he was there to do a job and he was doing it.
And all 13 of those kids in that whole unit, Ghost Company, if I could ask the whole world to remember anything, it’s remember the sacrifice that they made and that they did a hell of a job for people they didn’t even know, people that probably didn’t really like them, but they did it. And they got more people through the Abbey Gate than anybody else while they were there. Just selfless.
You always think of Marines and fighting and war and battle and all that. But these kids, they’re trained to be Marines. They’re trained to fight. But they did a humanitarian mission, above and beyond anything you could expect from anybody. Absolutely, absolutely wonderful.
And my biggest thing is, for me and for a lot of the families, is just remember them. Don’t forget them. And for the rest of my life, I’m going to make sure those kids are remembered and appreciated. And there’s a lot of people that are doing that. So I’m very grateful.
Renck: Absolutely. Jim, we will never forget your son Rylee, as well as the other service members that were killed in the airport attack last year. Thank you so much for joining us today to share your story, to tell us about Rylee and his awesome pickup line. I can’t wait to see more pictures of your granddaughter. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
McCollum: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
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