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Memorial Day: The mother of a Marine who died in Kabul talks about losing her son

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is Memorial Day, when the U.S. remembers those who have died in military service.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BUTTERFIELD'S "TAPS")

KELLY: Just after noon today was the traditional wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley gave a brief speech. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin then spoke, and so did the commander in chief, President Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America's beloved daughters and sons who dared all, risked all and gave all to preserve and defend an idea unlike any other in human history - the idea of the United States of America.

KELLY: Biden also acknowledged the sacrifice of military families and loved ones whose grief he described as a, quote, "black hole in the center of your chest."

Today is the first Memorial Day in 20 years that the U.S. is not at war in Afghanistan. But it's been less than a year since 13 service members were killed in Kabul during the final days of the U.S. evacuation. As the U.S. takes a national holiday, KPBS reporter Steve Walsh spoke with the mother of one of the Marines who died that day.

CHERYL REX: Next week, I'll change the flowers out to the red, white and blue. They just didn't have blue right now.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: A week before Memorial Day, I met with Cheryl Rex at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Orange County. We stand at the grave of her son, 20-year-old Lance Corporal Dylan Merola. I asked what she was doing last Memorial Day.

REX: Memorial Day is usually my birthday or my birthday weekend, so it's going to be even harder every year - not only for what we represent for Memorial Day, but you can't really celebrate after something like this.

WALSH: She comes to her son's grave 5 to 6 times a week, decorating the grave to fit the holiday. His marker is covered with angels, Marine flags and red, white and blue streamers to fit Memorial Day.

REX: Sometimes I can sit here for 6 hours, 8 hours. It just depends. That's all I have left. I sit with him and talk with him.

WALSH: Merola was killed on August 26 of last year, along with 12 other U.S. troops. Most were Marines from the 2nd Battalion First Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton. Their unit arrived 11 days earlier from Jordan, one of several rushed to Kabul in the last days of the American presence in Afghanistan.

REX: The things that they saw out there - the kids, the babies, the women, even grown men coming, running to them, asking for their help and to save them.

WALSH: They were guarding the entrance to the airport as thousands of Afghans pressed their way into the Abbey Gate entrance, hoping to get on the last American flights out of Kabul. An ISIS-K bomb exploded, killing the service members and at least 170 Afghans.

REX: I pretty much knew that morning. I woke up to the alert on my phone that there had been an explosion in Afghanistan. And that whole day was just horrible - waiting, not knowing.

WALSH: Three of the Marines were from Southern California. People lined the streets as their caskets arrived for funerals in September.

REX: My whole life is completely different. I know I'll never be the same person I was.

WALSH: Dylan wanted to be a Marine nearly all of his young life. He joined right out of high school.

REX: Losing a child is something that nobody could ever in their - the pain itself is something that I can't even explain.

WALSH: Her mother, Dylan's grandmother, Clarinda Montsuoka, says they've become even closer over the last year.

CLARINDA MONTSUOKA: She cries a lot more (laughter).

REX: I didn't cry before.

MONTSUOKA: It's hard to say because she's always been a very strong mom. Our whole family is pretty strong.

WALSH: Marines from her son's unit visit regularly from Pendleton. The ones who don't come to the house leave coins at the gravesite. Dimes mean they served together. Quarters mean they were with Dylan in Kabul. She has a jar filled with coins that she keeps in her room.

REX: The Marines come up. They've been a big support to myself, my other children and my family. That's basically it. I don't really go out in public much right now. Family is everything to us.

WALSH: Rex's oldest son, Brandon, told her in January that, at 24, he was joining the Marines. He's scheduled to graduate boot camp in San Diego roughly one year after his brother died in Kabul.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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