JACKSON —Rylee McCollum, born Feb. 26, 2001, loved to wrestle.
Since the day they met, his former wrestling coach Ben Arlotta recalled, Rylee was always the hardest-working wrestler in the room, even when he was a 5-year-old “spunky little roly-poly of a kid.”
He worked out twice a day, every day, no matter whether it was wrestling season, Arlotta said. And for 10 years, until Rylee went to high school, Arlotta watched Rylee put his body through grueling work.
The Jackson native practiced takedowns, defensive moves, conditioning — anything he could do to make his wrestling game better. When he had to cut weight, he did it, even when Arlotta didn’t think it would be possible. When he lacked a particular talent, he made up for it with the grit and self-determination that his coaches, family and peers saw so clearly in him.
“He put a lot of pressure on himself to be successful because he loved wrestling,” Arlotta said.
And, according to his father, Jim McCollum, Rylee loved competition and overcoming obstacles.
“Winning was always the goal, but Rylee knew, probably better than most, that sometimes the greatest challenges are the ones we fight within ourselves,” his father said. “He always found a way to win those battles and become stronger.”
That determination led him to early mornings and late nights practicing the moves that didn’t come so easy to him.
Once that work was done, his perseverance led him to almost make the top-five at the state championships in Casper, where he wore a wrestling singlet depicting brown and white horses galloping in front of the snowy Tetons in the land he called home.
But his work ethic and love for wrestling weren’t the only things that stood out to Rylee’s coaches, mentors and family.
There was his ease of making other people laugh and his smirk when he had a trick up his sleeve.
But more pronounced was Rylee’s immovable dream, from before the first time he set foot on a wrestling mat, to become a U.S. Marine.
There’s a hint of that dream in a picture of Rylee as a toddler crouching in the weeds next to a dog with a camouflage hat, gray shirt, no pants and a toy rifle.
There was a bit more than a hint of that ambition when, from a young age, he began building his knowledge about what it took to be a Marine.
“He knew everything about every gun and tank and plane,” his sister Roice McCollum said. “And he spent all his time reading magazines and learning all about it.”
His knowledge about the Marines blossomed, as did his enthusiasm, which he spread to the people around him.
Arlotta remembers Rylee as a 6-year-old on the way back from a wrestling tournament in Casper when Rylee turned to him and, “without a shadow of a doubt, said, ‘I’m going to be a Marine.’”
Blue Collar Restaurant Group owner Joe Rice, a former Marine who employed Rylee, recalled Rylee asking him about what it took to be a Marine.
Tyler Davis, who coached Rylee since 2013 and later employed him, remembers Rylee talking about his desire to serve his country. In Davis’ eyes that was a pretty good deal for the Marines.
“He was probably exactly who the Marines were looking for,” he said.
And his sister recalled Rylee’s lifelong ambition, from when he picked up the toy rifle to the day he realized his dream.
“His passion was always the military,” Roice said. “The day he turned 18, as soon as he got to school, he went and signed himself up.”
But to enlist in the military he had to graduate high school. And for Rylee, going to school didn’t always come easy. He was smart, and he didn’t have to study much to do well, Summit Innovations School Counselor Pam Coleman said, but he sometimes struggled through emotional hardships that made it challenging for him to get up for school.
“He just needed to attend school to finish school,” she said. “And when you’re feeling low and other stuff is going on in your life, that can be hard, especially for a teen.”
Coleman recalled Rylee asking her why he had to go to school. Among other things, she reminded him that it was necessary to achieve his goal of becoming a Marine.
She teamed up with his father, a Marine recruiter and Rylee to get Rylee across the stage with his diploma and into the Marines. For her part, Coleman would call him when he wasn’t at school and encourage him to keep attending school when he did show up.
Through the team’s hard work, Rylee graduated in 2019.
During Rylee’s graduation, Coleman gave a speech beginning with her memories of Rylee as a young boy, waiting in the school’s front office lobby as his older sister, Cheyenne McCollum, finished school.
“Today Rylee is far from that little boy. He is now a grown adult, waiting to start his basic training for the United States Marine Corps. We are very proud of you,” she said in 2019. “You are a very strong individual. You are strong in mind and body, you possess focus, determination, assertiveness, intelligence and fortitude.”
Not long after graduating from Summit Innovations School in 2019, Rylee was off to Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego.
Rylee flourished, his father said.
“I think his life needed, and he thrived, on the structure and rigidity,” he said. “Steel sharpens steel, and he was with some of the nation’s best.”
Just as when he was a wrestler, Rylee woke up early, trained hard, pushed himself to the limit and inspired his peers to do the same. He found the schedule and lifestyle he was looking for.
And he wanted to spread what helped him thrive to others. In December 2019, McCollum returned to Summit Innovations School to talk about his experience in the Marines, Coleman said. Joining the Corps helped him get his life together, he told high school seniors, and he wanted to help others who were going through tough times.
“He said that he owed that to people [because] he had a lot of help from others in the same way,” Coleman said.
According to Coleman, Rylee told the high school seniors one other thing: He was happier in the Marines than he had ever been before.
It might have helped that he found something — somebody — else in San Diego. It started with a glance toward Gigi Crayton and ended with a pick-up line outside a jewelry store where she worked.
“That kid had skills,” his father Jim told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know where he got them, but they worked.”
And, as the couple’s photos and videos depict, the relationship worked, too.
There’s the video of them singing along to “My Girl” by the Temptations, which ends with Rylee giving Gigi a peck on the cheek.
There’s another video of them smiling, giggling and telling each other back-and-forth, “You’re my favorite.”
What began with a steady pick-up line led to a February wedding, and then a long-distance relationship as Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum was stationed in Jordan and then Afghanistan.
His mission in Afghanistan was to guard the Hamid Karzai International Airport as more than 100,000 Afghans and thousands of Americans evacuated to safety while the Taliban gained control of the country.
By the account of a fellow Marine, who would later send a note to Gigi, Rylee excelled in his duty.
“He handled all of the madness better than any of us. He helped so many people,” the Marine said.
But, in a story well told — from local outlets to The New York Times and Washington Post, under the headlines “He was a baby on 9/11. Now he’s one of the last casualties of America’s longest war” and “Young dad-to-be was among 13 US troops killed in Afghanistan” — Rylee didn’t make it home alive.
Days later many of those same outlets reported on the last military plane leaving Afghanistan, and of Rylee’s remains in Dover. They noted Rylee as a reminder of the human toll of war, and as one of the last of the 2,461 United States troops to die in Afghanistan.
The national significance of Rylee’s death is clear. But to his community, friends, coaches, family and wife, he was a loved one who was a friend, fellow wrestler, mentee, husband, child, brother and soon-to-be father to a baby due in three weeks.
“i lost my best friend,” his wife wrote on Facebook, “and nothing will ever make that hurt less. He would’ve been the best dad. i wish he could see how much of an impact he made on this world.”
Arlotta, who trained Rylee how to wrestle, will think of Rylee as somebody who never left his loved ones behind.
“I’m going to remember him for his compassion. He had a very small circle of people that he genuinely loved and trusted,” Arlotta said. “But if he did, he would die for you. That’s who he was.”
His father noted Rylee had a tough time letting people into his life, but once they were in, they were taken care of.
“Rylee loved doing things for other people… even in times when he had nothing, to make sure someone else knew that he cared about them,” he said.
Davis, who coached and employed Rylee, will remember him as a fighter — physically through his wrestling matches and mentally and emotionally through his hardships.
Rice, who employed Rylee and who is now helping the Marines take care of his family, will remember him as a tough kid.
Sen. John Barrasso will remember Rylee as a Wyomingite who put his country first.
“Rylee wasted no time answering the call to serve our country, joining the Marines right out of high school,” Barrasso said in a statement. “As Rylee’s dad once said, he was ‘full-blooded red, white and blue.’”
His sister Roice will remember Rylee as the kid who ran around with a toy rifle while wearing a diaper and cowboy boots.
Coleman, who counseled Rylee, will remember him for his smile that sometimes bordered on a smirk, his toughness and his authenticity.
His father Jim will remember Rylee as a beautiful soul who loved the people around him, especially his wife.
“Rylee loved Gigi,” he said. “You could see it in his eyes and in the way he spoke to, and of, her. He loved that they were going to be parents together, and he loved looking toward their lives both in and out of the Marine Corps.”
Town residents and visitors will remember the day Rylee’s family passed through town between hundreds of local residents, visitors, Marines, veterans, sheriff’s deputies and police officers, all waving American flags and saluting the family.
His child, due in less than three weeks, will know his father as one of the heroes who died while helping thousands of Afghans escape through the Kabul airport to countries where they could live freely.
And his wife, Gigi, will remember Rylee’s sly pickup line, the love they had for one another and the note shared by a Marine who was with Rylee in Afghanistan, which included the following words: “Although I don’t remember our last words, I do remember the last time I saw his face and he was smiling.”