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Widow Of Soldier Killed In Kabul Bombing Said He Was 'Brilliant'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The last of the 13 U.S. service members to die after the suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul last week was Staff Sergeant Ryan C. Knauss, a 23-year-old special operations soldier from Tennessee. His widow, Alena, spoke with Jay Price of member station WUNC.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: She was the Army brat living in various base towns as her dad transferred around. But he was the one who had wanted to be in the military since he was in elementary school.

ALENA KNAUSS: He never saw anything else for himself. He was one of those people that, anything he wanted to do, he could have done. He was brilliant. But he just wanted to serve his country. It's all he wanted. He thought that was the best way he could help people.

PRICE: Ryan Knauss had done a nine-month tour in Afghanistan earlier and seen combat, but mostly he mentored Afghan troops. That was the main U.S. mission by that stage of the war. It was much like deployments U.S. forces had done for two decades. This one was different, though. It was all about helping American civilians and Afghan refugees get out.

KNAUSS: The days I was lucky to hear from him, he was, like, explaining intimately, you know, the state that the country was in and the need. You know, that's why he was where he was because these people needed the help. That was their only hope.

PRICE: She handled this deployment, as she often did when he was gone on a mission. She tackled a home improvement project, this time tiling a hallway, laundry room and bathroom, trying to finish before he returned. Her brother, also a soldier, was deployed to Qatar, helping process Afghan refugees moving through an air base there. So her sister-in-law had come to stay with her, and they were up past midnight tiling. Alena decided to spell out her and Ryan's initials in small black tiles.

KNAUSS: And I was like, this is going to be so cheesy. And he's going to hate this. But I put just A&R and the year.

PRICE: She had those black tiles in her hand when the knock on the door came.

KNAUSS: I just saw the uniforms, and I just knew. I think I screamed. And I just - they asked. They were like, are you Alena Knauss? And I was like, yeah, I am.

PRICE: She couldn't sleep, so she finished the initials, at least, sobbing as she went. Somehow it seemed important, even though she already knew she'd be selling the house. The future they had been mapping out was suddenly gone. She flew to Dover to meet the C-17 that carried his body and those of the other 12 service members killed by the blast. The other families of the fallen joined her. So did President Biden, who had to lean over to talk as she sat in a chair because she just couldn't stand up.

Alena Knauss says her husband was a history buff and would have wanted to be remembered - remembered for helping others, for serving his country and as a part of history. He is now. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, Knauss didn't die immediately, only later succumbing to his wounds. That means he was likely the last American service member killed in the war.

KNAUSS: He was helping people. And if he was the last, I would be grateful that no one else would ever feel what I'm feeling. God, it doesn't feel good. And so to know that, yes, I'm in shambles and I'm hurting, but that no mother, father, wife, brother, sister ever has to feel such emptiness, I would be grateful to know he was the last.

PRICE: More than 2,400 U.S. service members were killed in America's longest war and more than 100,000 Afghan troops and civilians.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Moore County, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.