Her son was killed in Afghanistan last year. This is her first Memorial Day as a Gold Star mother.
Cheryl Rex's son Dylan was among the last American victims of the Afghanistan war. In the months since his death, she's visited his grave almost every day.
It’s been less than a year since 13 service members were killed in Kabul, Afghanistan during the final days of the U.S. evacuation. As American commemorate Memorial Day, Cheryl Rex finds solace in remembering.
“I’ll change the flowers out to red, white, and blue,” Rex said as she stood near the grave of her son, Marine Lance Corporal Dylan Merola. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Orange County, California in September.
It’s a world away from where she was last Memorial Day.
“Memorial Day is usually my birthday weekend,” Rex said. “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.”
She comes to the cemetery five to six times a week. She decorates her son's grave to fit various occasions. For Memorial Day, his marker is covered with angels, Marine Flags and red, white, and blue streamers.
“Sometimes I can sit here for six hours, eight hours, it just depends," she said. "It’s all I have left. I sit with him and talk with him."
Merola, who was 20 years old, wanted to be a Marine nearly all of his life. His mother said he watched the military channel when he was four years old. She wanted him to go to college first, but he enlisted right out of high school.
He was killed August 26, 2021, along with 12 other U.S. troops. Most were from the 2nd Battalion First Marines, stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. Their unit had arrived in Afghanistan 11 days earlier. It was one of several units rushed to Kabul in the last days of the American presence in Afghanistan.
They were guarding an 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.
Merola texted his mother regularly during the deployment. He said he was excited to help, but became increasingly eager to come home, Rex said.
“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,” Rex said.
A bomb, detonated by a member of ISIS K, killed the service members and at least 170 Afghans. 45 American troops were wounded. A Department of Defense investigation found that a single suicide bomber was responsible for the blast near a sniper tower at the airport gate.
“The reason so many service members were consolidated at the base of the sniper tower was the necessity to hold back the crowd and continue screening for potential evacuees for as long as possible, to save as many lives as possible,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Burt Smith during a February Pentagon briefing.
“I pretty much knew that morning," Rex said. "I woke up to the alert on my phone that there had been an explosion in Afghanistan. That whole day was just horrible waiting, not knowing.”
Three of the Marines who died were from Southern California. Along with Merola, Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui of Norco and Corporal Hunter Lopez of Indio also died. For each of their funerals, people lined the streets as their caskets arrived in September.
“My whole life is completely different. I know I'll never be the same person I was,” Rex said. “The pain itself is something that I can't even explain."
Clarinda Montsuoka - Cheryl's mother and Dylan’s grandmother - said her daughter has changed since August.
“She cries a lot more. It's hard to say because she's always been a very strong mom. Our whole family is pretty strong,” Montsuoka said. “You never think you’re going to bury a child or a grandchild. He died doing what he loved.”
Marines from Merola's unit visit regularly from Camp Pendleton, including some who were wounded in the blast. Some come to Rex's home; others leave coins at the gravesite. Dimes mean they served together. Quarters mean they were with him in Kabul. Rex has a jar filled with coins that she keeps at home.
“They've been a big support to myself, my other children and my family," Rex said of the Camp Pendleton Marines. "That's basically it. I don't really go out in public much right now. Family is everything to us.”
That family will remain strongly connected to the military. In January, Rex’s oldest son, Branden, 24, told her that he's joining the Marines. He’s scheduled to graduate boot camp in San Diego, roughly one year after his brother died in Kabul.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Cheryl Rex's son, Branden.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.