When Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum was killed last August in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, Jason Mower with the Wyoming Peace Officers Association (WPOA) did not want to just write a check to the McCollum family.
He knew what an immense sacrifice Rylee made for his family, country and home state of Wyoming, and Mower wanted the WPOA’s tribute to the McCollums to have a true Wyoming feel to it.
“He was a 20-year-old kid and his lifelong dream was to be a Marine,” Mower told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “So to be a Marine on your first deployment and to be killed in action that way, it’s just terrible.”
McCollum, a Jackson native, was one of 13 soldiers killed in Afghanistan in August 2021 as the U.S. military pulled out of the country after 20 years of fighting.
Over the last year, the WPOA has found numerous ways to honor the McCollum family for Rylee’s sacrifice, such as hosting Rylee’s widow, baby daughter, father and other family members during Military Appreciation Day at a University of Wyoming football game last year.
But on Friday night, the association’s tribute to Rylee will be an historic occasion when it hosts a presentation for the McCollums during Patriot Night at the Red Desert Roundup Rodeo in Rock Springs.
Mower said Rylee’s father, Jim McCollum, and his sister Cheyenne McCollum plan to be in attendance for the event on Friday.
Cody resident John Phelps, the father of late Wyoming Marine Chance Phelps (who was killed in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom), will present the McCollums with a hand-painted portrait he created of Rylee.
“John Phelps is a renowned Western artist, so I reached out to him last year and told him Rylee’s story and asked if he would be willing to do a portrait of him as an everlasting gift for the family,” Mower said. “I expected to pay money, but John got really choked up and said he would be honored to do it, as one Gold Star father to another.”
Phelps finished the portrait not too long ago and when Mower saw it, he said it was the first time he’d ever held something priceless in his hands.
Mower does not think there will be a dry eye in the entire rodeo stadium on Friday when the McCollums receive the portrait of Rylee. There will be some additional tributes during the presentation on Friday, but Mower could not reveal the details of what they would be.
“The rodeo crowd will definitely appreciate the magnitude of something like this, both Rylee’s sacrifice for his country and the way we’re trying to honor him and his family,” Mower said.
Rylee’s heroism has been praised in the months since his death. More than $1 million was raised through various fundraisers for Rylee’s widow and baby that was born about a month after his death.
He posthumously received a Congressional Gold Medal, along with his fellow soldiers killed in Afghanistan, last year.
The fallen Marine was also honored by the Wyoming House of Representatives earlier this year, with his father in attendance. Jim McCollum is currently running for the Wyoming Legislature in Teton County.