Cpl. Hunter Lopez’s mother, Alicia Lopez, told Coffee or Die Magazine that Hunter was a part of a rescue attempt that ended with him carrying this little boy for several miles. Alicia was told the photo was taken about 10 hours after he landed in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Hunter Lopez/Instagram.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department deputy Alicia Lopez was awake.
It was 4 a.m. in California, and the 47-year-old mom of three needed to breathe. She took a puff on her inhaler and tried to go back to sleep. But two hours later, the alarm went off.
Her husband, Capt. Herman Lopez, wasn’t next to her. They worked in the same department, but on Aug. 26, 2021, he was out of town at a law enforcement conference.
She got their 17-year-old daughter, Trinity, off to school. Their younger son, Owen, 18, was at San Diego’s Military Entrance Processing Station, the first stage in his US Army enlistment.
Their oldest child, Hunter, 22, was deployed to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, helping thousands of US citizens, Afghans, and international aid workers escape from the Taliban, who now controlled the landlocked Asian country.
Alicia hadn’t been clocked into her shift at the Riverside County Courthouse for very long when co-workers began to talk about the 13 US service members killed by a suicide bomber near the airport’s Abbey Gate.
Some of Alicia’s coworkers asked whether Hunter had talked with her recently.
She tried messaging the corporal on her mobile phone, but it drew no response. Herman tried, too, but both knew their son often went days without communicating with them.
Then they learned that one of Hunter’s Marine buddies had been wounded in the blast. They began to worry because the two Marines were often inseparable. Herman reached out to his son on social media. Silence.
“It got to the point where I was pleading with him to answer,” Herman said.
Hunter’s friend’s wife called Alicia to tell her the military was airlifting Hunter’s critically injured buddy out of Kabul. The woman didn’t know Hunter’s fate.
“At that point, I kind of realized that something had happened to Hunter,” Alicia said. “And then if he was either really injured or — that he was gone.”
Herman left the conference early. Back home, he and Alicia went to watch their daughter’s volleyball game.
Herman split off to fetch takeout. Alicia and Trinity found a white sport utility vehicle parked outside the house.
“I just kind of already knew, and then I saw the Marines get out of the car,” Alicia said. “I pulled my car into the driveway and I told them to stop and to go away, that I didn’t want to hear it.”
Inside the house, when everyone settled into their seats, the Marines told the family Hunter had been killed in action.
“You talk about an impact, it’s a change in your life, really,” Herman said. “It’s everything that you perceive for the future has changed.”
They’d planned to help Hunter buy a new car when he rotated home from deployment. They’d dreamed of pinning a law enforcement badge after he graduated from a police academy because they thought he’d join the family business. They planned on going to the Olympics together when they began in Los Angeles in 2028.
Some of you might read this story and think it’s about the deep pain of a family who lost a Marine to war, or that it focuses on the black sense of loss that shadows those left behind after a tragedy.
It’s not. This is an article about a good man who became a Marine, and how his life continues to ripple through the Corps and Riverside County in ways hard to predict.
For the Lopez family, it’s meant learning what Hunter experienced in the Corps, how he gave back to junior Marines, and how a good man lived the core values that gave his life meaning, from California to Kabul.
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They point to the deputy at the sheriff’s department who’d kept in touch with Hunter, hoping to mentor him when he came home and began his law enforcement career. But he told Herman they didn’t talk much about cops in their last conversations. Instead, they discussed what the corporal saw in Kabul.
He’d watched babies and toddlers who were injured or killed — part of a parade of haunting images the young Marine witnessed at the airport during the withdrawal of US forces.
“I feel bad for Hunter that, at such a young age, he had to witness all of that, but I know that he was the right man for the job,” Herman said. “And I know that it just prompted him to work harder and do all he possibly could to help people. I’m very proud of him for that reason — for many other reasons — but he stood up to the challenge.”
In the wake of his death, Hunter’s fellow Marines contacted the Lopez family to share funny anecdotes and the sea stories infantrymen tell, but they all ended the same way: with an assurance that the son they sent off to war became an excellent Marine who was beloved by his troops.
There was the Marine he taught to drive. Hunter helped prep him for his driver’s license test, and even loaned him his car to use for it. The Marine told the Lopez family that Hunter was forever humble and never told anyone about what he’d done, but he wanted them to know that if the corporal hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t have a driver’s license.
“I’m definitely proud of him for doing what he did in this short life. I wish every day that I still had him — I want to see him,” Herman said. “I’m glad that he was part of this mission. I’m glad that he was able to help so many people. I’m obviously proud of him. I’ll always be proud of him.”
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The Lopez family knew Hunter was going to be a leader. They watched him work his way up the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s Explorer Program — a scouting initiative for law enforcement.
Hunter loved the camaraderie he saw in the ranks of police officers. He was calm and patient, quiet yet dogged. He wanted to belong to something greater than himself, so he joined the Marines.
“We’ve said this since he was about five, but he was always like an old soul, always a little wiser, it seemed like,” Herman said.
His parents were convinced he’d leave active duty in the Marines after his tour. They didn’t know until after he died that he’d been talking to his command about switching over to the Marine Corps Reserves and earning his commission as an officer.
He’d continue to serve in the military while training to become a deputy.
It was another surprise in a surprising life, one that continues to play out in tributes to their son by the Marines and their California community, or in posts on social media from others who knew him.
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The Lopez family and the Desert Sands Unified School District started the Hunter Lopez Memorial Scholarship Fund. It provides college scholarships to deserving students. They hope to bestow the first scholarship at the end of the 2021 school year.
Donations can be made here.
All of it keeps their son’s memory alive, but it also serves as a reminder that he’s dead. The pain that comes from losing him is always there, but so’s the pride when they realize how many lives he’s touched and how many people over the years will continue to benefit from the fund.
“We sit there and think like, Oh, he’s just off the grid, and then we see posters everywhere of him and tributes and just all kinds of stuff that we’re like, Oh. wait. He’s gone,” Alicia said. “It makes us proud to know that people are loving on him so much and that he’s made such an impact. But at the same time, it hurts because I would do anything and give it all back to have my boy.”
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.
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