On grim Afghan anniversary, Gold Star families still seek justice, closure from airport attack

On grim Afghan anniversary, Gold Star families still seek justice, closure from airport attack

The last message Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darrin Taylor Hoover sent to his family back home in Utah was meant to provide a measure of comfort and reassurance to his loved ones. It was Aug. 25, 2021, and he was helping to keep order at Kabul’s main airport during the chaos and confusion of the final U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It said, ‘I’m safe, Mama. I love you,’” his mother, Kelly Barnett, recalled Tuesday during a roundtable organized by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, marking the two-year anniversary of the troubled American pullout and the Aug. 26, 2021 bombing that killed her son and a dozen other U.S. service members.

The session was part of a push by the new House Republican majority to probe the endgame of the 20-year American military mission in Afghanistan and how President Biden and his top security aides managed the final days as the U.S.-backed government in Kabul melted away in the face of advancing Taliban fighters. The deadly explosion at Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate, blamed on an Islamic State suicide bomber who slipped in among the crush of Afghans trying to enter the airport, has served as a final punctuation mark for perhaps the darkest week of Mr. Biden’s presidency.

In addition to the 13 U.S. military deaths, some 170 Afghan civilians were killed and dozens of American troops were injured. One of the last days of the American mission in Afghanistan turned out to be one of the bloodiest as well.

The parents and relatives of some of the troops lost in that final retreat who gathered in a congressional hearing room Tuesday put a human face on the tragedy and on the lingering ghosts that still haunt the survivors.

Ms. Barnett told committee Chairman Mike McCaul, Texas Republican, and a handful of other lawmakers that the chaplain of her son’s unit joined them for the short commute to their assignment at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate. He offered a prayer because of information that a terrorist was somewhere in the crush of Afghans hoping to flee the country following the swift collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

“They knew there was a bomber in the crowd. These brave men and women did their job and they knew they were in imminent danger,” Ms. Barnett said. “Why was the Taliban entrusted with my son’s security? We fought these people for 20 years and we were supposed to rely on them for the security of our men and women?”

Hermann Lopez recently began re-reading text messages sent by his son in the days leading up to the fatal bombing attack. Cpl. Hunter Lopez told his family that he looked forward to helping with the evacuation in Kabul and being with his fellow Marines. He observed that women and children in Afghanistan were treated poorly by their new Taliban rulers and how U.S. troops often shared food and water with the crowds hoping to push their way onto the airport grounds.

“He also told me of the struggles they were having with their equipment — having to hot-wire vehicles just to get from one part of the airport to the other,” Mr. Lopez said. “But they stayed strong and they pushed forward with the mission.”

Cpl. Lopez was upset that U.S. troops at the airport were ordered to work side by side with the Taliban fighters. 

“We all knew that the Taliban was our enemy. This was something that was foreign to Hunter and to the other Marines,” Mr. Lopez said. 

‘Disaster of epic proportions’

Mr. McCall, who has sparred repeatedly with the administration seeking more information on how the withdrawal was conducted, said history will record the Biden administration’s pullout from Afghanistan as a “disaster of epic proportions,” and one that could have been prevented. He said a Marine Corps sniper at the airport identified the bomber before the attack and was ready to engage but wasn’t given clearance to fire.

“It could have been prevented. We want to find out why permission was denied,” Mr. McCall said. “When you make mistakes, you own it. Admit the mistakes and rectify the problem. This cannot ever happen again.”

The State Department and the Pentagon warned the White House that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would result in increased violence and threaten the safety of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Now, two years later, the American people still have yet to receive straight answers from the Biden administration, Mr. McCall said.

“They want to sweep what happened under the rug. They know they bear the brunt of the blame and they want to escape any accountability,” he said. “This was a disgraceful surrender to the Taliban.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee often spoke about how proud she was to be assigned to the airport as part of what the service called a “Female Engagement Team.” Their job was to help evacuate Afghan women and children. She told family members that mothers were tossing their children over the razor wire to the American troops to secure a seat on packed departing planes because they knew they would have a better life in the United States.

“They carried out this humanitarian evacuation in the worst of circumstances,” Christy Shamblin, Sgt. Gee’s mother-in-law, testified. 

During the hearing, Mr. McCall said he received a message about the Abbey Gate Gold Star families from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Milley said the Defense Department owes them transparency, honesty, and accountability.

“I trust the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps did the best they could in briefing the families who had loved ones killed at Abbey Gate. I believe the briefers gave every piece of information that they could,” Gen. Milley said. “If there were issues with that, we need to take whatever corrective action is necessary. And, our hearts go out to those families.”

Ms. Barnett said she is tired of hearing what she says are distortions and excuses from the White House about the terrorist attack that killed her son and 12 other U.S. troops.

“They knew this was going to happen but they were too busy shaking hands with the Taliban,” she said. “I want justice [but] the justice I crave will never be had in this life.”