When troop bugler J.J. Saunders finished the final note of “Taps,” you could’ve heard a tear fall.

The room was silent as J.J. performed the somber bugle call — a poignant, moving conclusion to a small ceremony that honored the 13 members of the U.S. military killed in the Aug. 26 attack on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The memorial at the Troop 777 court of honor was planned entirely by Scouts — young people looking for a way to process the tragedy and honor those who were killed.

Rafe Kotalik and his brothers came up with the concept: Thirteen flashlights would be arranged in a circle, with each pointing at the troop’s American flag in the center. Thirteen Scout neckerchiefs would be added. Thirteen Scouts would stand nearby to salute the display as “Taps” was played.

“We can always find a way to remember and honor the sacrifices of others, especially those that have fought for our freedom and on behalf of our country,” Rafe says. “As Scouts, we should never underestimate our ability to make a difference, even in small ways.”

J.J. Saunders performs “Taps” at the memorial.

Processing and planning

Rafe is a 16-year-old Eagle Scout and Venturing Summit Award recipient from Troop 777 of the Woodlands, Texas, part of the Sam Houston Area Council.

He serves as a junior assistant Scoutmaster and has two older brothers who are active military. Rafe also knows that several of his troopmates come from families with strong military ties.

When he heard the tragic news, Rafe knew that the program for his troop’s next court of honor needed to change.

“I let our unit leadership know that I wanted to pull together a tribute,” Rafe says. “While a court of honor is usually a time to celebrate, it just didn’t seem like the best timing with the recent loss in Afghanistan.” 

Along with his younger brother, Reed, Rafe started planning. He asked each family in the troop to bring two small items to the Aug. 29 court of honor: a flashlight and a Scout neckerchief. 

Several Troop 777 Scouts and parents helped set up the display, which included a sign that read, “At our court of honor, we choose to honor you, our 13 fallen American heroes.”

What our nation needs

Terri Simpson, committee chair of Troop 777, watched this impromptu memorial take shape over just three days.

Given the troop’s military connections, Simpson knew that conversations about the Kabul attack were happening at these Scouts’ homes. That fact made Rafe’s memorial even more fitting — and necessary. 

“Each Scout was aware of the circumstances surrounding the sudden deaths of these brave men and women,” Simpson says. “This tells me that recent worldwide events have been spoken about at each family’s home.”

As she watched the Scouts stand in reverent attention and considered all that the moment symbolized, Simpson felt moved.

“Together, with the leadership of Rafe, these boys elevated their court of honor to something extraordinary — something memorable, something reassuring and something that our Scout family, and nation, truly needs at this time,” she says.

Rafe Kotalik speaks at the court of honor, across the stage from a memorial to the 13 U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan.


Symbolism and sacrifice

A flashlight and neckerchief are Scouting staples, but Rafe says he didn’t choose them at random.

Including the neckerchief, which Rafe calls “the most recognizable part of the Scout uniform,” meant each Scout had to remove an important part of their Scouting identity for the memorial. 

“While it meant a part of our uniform was missing, I just felt like it was the best tribute to honor these fallen heroes,” Rafe says. “Our Scouts agreed and removed them as they walked into the fellowship hall.”

A flashlight, meanwhile, helps light the way and keep Scouts safe in the dark. 

“I wanted the flashlights to bring light and hope,” Rafe says. “At the time of the tribute, evacuations from Afghanistan were continuing, so the flashlights were also a sign of prayer for safe return.”

Each flashlight was held in place by rocks painted with the words of the Scout Law.

Heroes, remembered

With such a large tragedy, it can be easy to think of the total number of casualties and lose sight of the fact that each of those 13 men and women leave behind grieving families. Rafe and his fellow Scouts wanted to make sure that they were recognized individually.

The 13 fallen soldiers are:

  • Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover
  • Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo
  • Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui
  • Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak
  • Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss

Says Rafe: “I pray that the families who lost their sons and daughters find comfort in tributes like ours and know their sacrifice is not forgotten.”

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