“It was just as you see it in the movies,” Jim McCollum said of the two U.S. Marines who showed up at his Jackson, Wyoming, home.
He didn’t even need to open the door to know his son, Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, had been killed in Kabul.
“As soon as I saw them on the porch, I knew he was gone,” Jim told The Daily Beast.
McCollum, 20, was one of the 13 U.S. military personnel who died in the horrific Kabul bombing Thursday that left nearly 200 Afghans dead and hundreds more injured. His devastated dad described how his death cut short a path that seemed headed toward greatness, with McCollum and his wife expecting a baby in less than a month.
McCollum was born on Feb. 26, 2001, in Riverton, Wyoming, and spent his childhood between the cities of Dubois and Jackson. He enjoyed wrestling, mixed martial arts, and American history, training younger kids in the brawling sport. McCollum’s goal after the Marines was to become a history teacher and wrestling coach, his dad said.
His love for the military blossomed at just 3 years old. McCollum always planned to enlist, but it still surprised Jim when his son brought him the forms to sign on his 18th birthday.
“He was the most patriotic kid,” Jim said. “The right from wrong and being on the side of right—that kind of drove him in. I couldn’t have been more proud.”
McCollum dove headfirst into the work: He flew to California for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California. It was shortly after his 2019 graduation that he met his wife Jiennah in San Diego, slyly using a pick-up line outside the jewelry store where she worked.
“That kid had skills,” Jim said. “I don’t know where he got them, but they worked.”
The two eventually married during the summer of 2020 and found out they were pregnant early this year.
“It changed him,” his dad said. “It put a fire and a spark in him that was really, really nice to see. He would’ve been a great father.”
The baby, whose sex the couple wanted to remain a surprise, is expected Sept. 22.
“Everything just fell into place for him where it was a normal existence,” Jim said. “For a 20-year-old kid, there was a maturity about him that was refreshing. His life was on track and going well and good.”
That made the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan even harder for Jim to watch. He was initially told his son would return by September or October before that was pushed back to the end of the year. His communication, already very limited, went silent three weeks ago.
As the situation deteriorated further, Jim was told by a Marine Colonel on Aug. 16 that there was no definitive timeline for his son’s return.
“I told myself, ‘Hell, he isn’t going to be able to come back till February,” he said.
Jim said he does not blame any specific administration for the present situation in Afghanistan. But he does believe the Biden administration has botched the withdrawal.
“I’ve lost my son, but there are still Marines over there,” he said. “We gave them everything they need, and we are pinned down at the airport. I am scared shitless to see what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to come our way.”
What angers him most, Jim said, was the lack of immediate retaliation for his son and the other service members’ deaths. He described how he felt seeing the Taliban claim the Afghan presidential palace, thinking the best action was to “bomb the damn thing.”
“There is peace through strength,” he said. “We know where they are, and that is so frustrating. We’re sitting on our hands. That one is hard for me to swallow today.”
What gives him some comfort, however little, is knowing McCollum died in service of his loved ones and his country.
“He died doing what he loved and with the ones he cared about, doing the right thing,” Jim said. “He always wanted to be on the side of right, the side of righteousness. He did exactly what he lived his life doing.”