'He Just Wanted To Serve His Country': North Carolina Widow Mourns One Of The Last Troops To Die In The Afghanistan War
Ryan Knauss's widow, Alena, said she was the Army brat in their household, having grown up in various base towns as her father transferred around.
But Ryan 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."
Alena spoke in an interview in her North Carolina home, four days after her husband's death in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said Knauss, a 23-year-old special operations soldier from eastern Tennessee, was the last of the 13 U.S. service members to die after the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.
"He was brilliant ... but he just wanted to serve his country," Alena said. "He thought that was the best way he could help people."
Ryan Knauss was based at Fort Bragg, N.C. and was a member of the 9th Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group.
He had done an earlier nine-month tour in Afghanistan as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, also based at Ft. Bragg. He had seen combat then, but mostly he mentored Afghan troops. That was the main U.S. mission by that stage of the war. It was much like the deployments U.S. forces had done for two decades.
This most recent deployment was different, though. In the final days of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the mission was about helping American civilians and Afghan refugees get out. And Alena said there was nothing Ryan loved more than helping people.
“That's why he was where he was at the time because these people needed the help,” Alena said. “That was their only hope.”
Alena said she and Ryan met while working together at a pizza parlor when they were 15 years old. They 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 was charismatic."
“He had this ability to really get to know you,” she said, laughing. “Even if you didn't want him to.”
His big thing, she said, 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 with his hands,” she said. “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 thought the way you did, and really get to the root of it, not trying to change anything, just out of interest for people.”
Alena handled this deployment as she often did when he was gone. She tackled a home improvement project -— 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 at an airbase. 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 in the laundry room.
"I was like, 'This is going to be so cheesy, and he's going to 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 on the door came.
“I just saw the uniforms, and I just knew. I think I screamed,” she said. "They asked, 'Are you Alena Knauss?' and I was like, 'Yeah, I am.'"
She couldn’t sleep, so she finished tiling the initials, 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.
“My sister-in-law and I had been at T.J. Maxx that morning, and we always wind up in the baby section, and there was this little pink cardigan, and I was just obsessed with it," she said. "One of the last things I said to him on a Facetime call was, 'You know, when you get back we need to be in baby mode.'”
Instead of getting him home for baby mode, she flew to Dover to meet the C-17 that carried his body and those of the 12 other service members killed by the blast. 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.
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 for being 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, which officially ended at the end of August.
“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. “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 would be grateful to know he was the last."
The last of more than 2,400 U.S. service members who were killed in the war, along with more than 100,000 Afghan troops and civilians.
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.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC