Hundreds showed up for a memorial hike in southern California Sunday to pay tribute to Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, one of the 13 service members who died in a suicide bomb attack last week at Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as refugees were still being evacuated.
Nikoui, a U.S. Marine who graduated from Norco High School in 2019, had planned to go on a hike with a fellow former JROTC cadet at Pumpkin Rock Trail after his return overseas. Ashley Lopez, who was his drill instructor in high school, described how the pair planned their reunion over social media, as Nikoui had recently sent her a photo over Snap Chat of him smiling alongside an Afghan child.
Lopez, who helped organize the memorial hike Sunday, told Pasadena Star-News she wishes she had taken a screenshot of the photo, as it was the last time she saw Nikoui alive before the Aug. 26 attack.
“We were messaging each other, messing around talking about the good ol’ times with one of my old cadets,” Lopez said Sunday. “The last picture I saw of him was there on Snapchat — and I obviously didn’t know this was going to happen — but I wish I would have screenshot that picture.”
Norco Mayor Kevin Bash described to hundreds of mourners gathered at Pumpkin Rock, a Jack-o-lantern-painted tourist attraction overlooking the Inland Empire, how Nikoui had rushed back inside the Kabul’s airport to get more children to safety when the bomb went off outside Abbey Gate.
“You weren’t going to stop him from trying to go back and rescue some more people. But he went out doing what he loved to do — and that’s saving people,” Staff Sgt. David Spratley, who was Nikoui’s mentor, told Star-News at the memorial hike. “Heaven is getting a good warrior.”
The City of Norco Facebook page shared a video shows hundreds of people waving American flags at Pumpkin Rock who had ascended the peak by foot, car, bike and even some on horseback. The crowd solemnly listened to a rendition of “Taps” played by trumpet.
A photo also showed Nikoui’s half-sisters, Ashley and Karena Sylvester, holding a banner at the rock with the fallen soldier’s photo that read: “Gone Too Soon. A Norco Hero Kareem Nikoui. Semper Fi.”
“There was a line of traffic coming in this morning, and I cried,” Lopez said. “I was like: Wow! The city of Norco really came to show their love for Kareem.”
The hike followed a $5 pancake breakfast at America Legion Post 328 in Norco to raise money for Nikoui’s family, KNBC reported. 13 glasses of beer were placed on a table with 13 empty chairs in the corner of the room.
“Kareem was just always involved in something, whether it was helping out with the Pearl Harbor event or POW event down at the monument,” Spratley said, describing the now fallen soldier’s high school days. “He was a kid who was always full of laughter and fun and just had a lot of heart.”
Nikoui’s name will be enshrined on the “Lest We Forget Wall” at the George A. Ingalls Veterans Memorial Plaza, which honors Norconians who made the ultimate sacrifice, the city said. A Gold Star Families Memorial Monument is currently being constructed at the same location.
Nikoui previously attended Holly Avenue Elementary School in Arcadia and First Avenue Middle School before he completed high school in Norco. Norco High School Junior ROTC, the Corona-Norco Unified School District and the City of Norco organized the memorial hike on Sunday.