The Last American To Die In The Afghan War: 'He Was Helping People'
His widow, Alena Knauss, said she was the Army brat, living in various base towns as her dad transferred around. But Ryan Knauss was the one who wanted to be in the military since he was in elementary school.
"He never saw anything else for himself," Alena Knauss said. "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."
According to Pentagon officials, Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss was believed to be the last of the 13 U.S. service members to die after the suicide bombing in Kabul last week. That would make him the final American military fatality in the 20-year U.S. war.
The 23-year-old was a special operations soldier from eastern Tennessee. He was based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and a member of the 9th Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group.
Knauss had done a nine-month tour in Afghanistan in 2017 and 2018, as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, also based at Bragg. He had seen combat then, though mostly he mentored Afghan troops. That was what the main U.S. mission had become by that point in the war, having moved almost entirely away from direct combat.
Sent for the evacuation
This deployment to Hamid Karzai International Airport, though was different. It was all about helping American civilians and Afghan refugees get out. And there was nothing Ryan Knauss would have wanted to be be doing more than that, his widow said.
"That's why he was where he was at the time, because these people needed the help," said Alena Knauss. "They had no other option. That was their only hope."
She thinks that even if he knew what would happen to him, he would have gone anyway.
"If he had a crystal ball, he'd do it again," she said.
The couple met working together at a pizza parlor when they were 15 years old, and began dating a couple of years later. After he wore down her resistance, she said.
"He had one of those things where you just couldn't hate him," she said. "He just had this energy, and everybody's been talking about it. He was charismatic."
"He this ability to really get to know you," she said, laughing. "Even if you didn't want him to."
His big thing, she says, was solving problems.
"He just was a fixer, and it bled over into his work life, his love life," she said. "I mean, everything. He just had a magic touch, like he could fix anything."
By that she meant heads and hearts. People.
"It was funny, because he couldn't fix anything, like, with his hands," she said. "Handy-wise, that was me. But mentally, he had always been very interested in psychology. If you were the exact opposite of him, he would sit and talk to you for hours to figure out why you've thought the way you did, and really get to the root of it, not trying to change anything, just out of interest for people."
She said they were blissfully happy, and even though they had been married since 2016, it seemed like the glow of being newlyweds never faded.
A poignant project
She handled this deployment as she often did when he was gone in the past: 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 to process Afghan refuges at an air base there. So her sister-in-law had come to stay with her and they were up past midnight, tiling.
Alena had decided to spell out her and Ryan's initials in small black tiles
"And I was like, 'This is gonna be so cheesy, and he's gonna hate this, but I put just 'A' and 'R' and the year," she said.
She had those black tiles in her hand when the knock came at the door.
"We were really scared, because it's just two of us in the house and it had to be around 1 a.m. and I'm like, 'Oh my God,'" she said. "So I just tried to peek around the corner at my front door which has glass, and it's see-through and I just saw the uniforms and I just actually knew. I think I screamed, and they asked, 'Are you Alena Knauss?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I am.'"
"They were like, 'We're so sorry,'" she said. "I just screamed. I was just like, 'No, no, there has to be a mistake.'"
After the soldiers left, she couldn't sleep, so she finished tiling in the initials at least, sobbing as she went. Somehow it seemed important, even though she already knew she'll be selling the house.
And the future they were mapping out was suddenly gone.
"I had been at T.J. Maxx that morning, and we always wind up in the baby section and there was this nice little pink cardigan and I was just obsessed with it. One of the last things I said to him on a on a FaceTime call was, 'You know, when you get back we need to be in baby mode.'"
Laying her husband to rest
Instead, she flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware 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 because she just couldn't stand up.
"He shared a lot of information that I found comforting about his personal life and his losses, and just telling me that there's no right way to do it. Just not that he's sorry, because I'm tired of hearing 'sorry,' but that (Ryan) made a difference, and it was not in vain, and that what he was doing was important, and that he mattered," said Knauss. "He and his wife both were just absolutely lovely."
Alena Knauss said her husband had been a history buff, and would have wanted to be 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.
"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," she said. "God, it doesn't feel good. I'm in shambles and I'm hurting but to know that no mother, father, wife, brother sister ever has to feel such emptiness. I mean, the gravity of it, you know, I would be grateful to know he was the last."
The last of more than 2,400 U.S. service members killed in the war, along with more than 100,000 Afghan troops and civilians.
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