by Beth Bailey
While the rest of the world passed the two-year-anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in relative quiet, on Aug. 29, 2023, the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was filling up with people who refused to accept the silence. Guests clad in tuxedos and evening gowns filed into the ballroom through a hallway filled with easels holding large photographs of the evening’s honorees: the 13 U.S. service members who died alongside 170 Afghans on Aug. 26, 2021 when an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside Abbey Gate in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA).
In recognition of those fallen heroes and their families, the evening’s guests had joined together to unite around a search for long-sought answers to lingering questions about the tragic end of our nearly 20-year campaign in Afghanistan. For many attendees, the preceding two years had been filled with roadblocks. Uniting under one roof seemed a symbolic new step forward. That it happened at all is a testament to small miracles of will, timing, and growing connectivity between disparate groups advocating for the humans left to struggle in the aftermath of the haphazard American departure from Afghanistan.
Finding the Path Forward
To the world, Aug. 30 2021 seemed like an ending. To service members trying to process events of the withdrawal and volunteers working to support Afghans left behind in the evacuation, there was no end in sight.
After personnel from the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, Navy SEALs, and U.S. Marine Corps departed Kabul, they were scattered to the wind. Most remained mum about their experiences at HKIA, per directions from their senior leaders. Matheu Langston, a lance corporal with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (1/8) during the withdrawal, told The Havok Journal that his fellow Marines were directed to “make [the Marines] look good” if they talked with the media. Ansel Rubin, a corporal with 1/8 in Kabul, remembered being told to “be very vague,” and “tell the media what you were doing [but] don’t tell them what you saw.”
Without raw accounts from the airfield, media reports did not represent the true nature of the chaotic withdrawal. U.S. Marine Mike Markland, at the time a corporal with 1/8, told The Havok Journal that he was irritated by seeing all “those photos [of Marines holding babies]. [He] wanted people to get just a glimpse of what actually went on.”
Markland had gathered 20 hours of GoPro footage during his weeks at HKIA. In the days after he left Kabul, Markland shut himself away to comb through his video and splice scenes into an eight-minute film. Markland knew he was “on the verge of something bigger than [him]self” when he released the watermarked video to his Facebook and Instagram accounts on Sep. 1, 2021.
Markland’s video opens to relatively calm moments of preparations. What follows are scenes of pandemonium as outnumbered Marines attempt to quell rowdy, surging crowds with non-lethal rounds, smoke grenades, and the butt of a rifle.
Markland worked to “capture everybody doing their jobs” as Marines carried bodies on litters, and managed open fractures and gunshot wounds. Markland felt that showing those moments was “important from a teaching standpoint…and also encapsulated this whole horror that was going on.”
Following the tumult, Markland showed Marines blowing off steam between grueling shifts, and unleashing their need for vengeance after the Abbey Gate bombing on airfield facilities and U.S. equipment destined to be left behind.
Markland closed with a tribute to the fallen, so Gold Star families and friends would see “their loved ones…are not forgotten.”
The video gave outsiders just enough insight to understand what other HKIA veterans strenuously attest: that if you were not at the airfield, you can never comprehend what troops experienced there.
From the moment Markland posted his film, news sites around the world seized on his footage. To protect himself from retribution, Markland’s platoon commander advised that he take down his post. Just 16 hours after putting it online, Markland removed the video, which already had momentum all its own.
Markland received adulation from service members who appreciated that he had opened a window to their experience. He also received pushback, especially from military leadership.
In late 2021, an other-than-honorable discharge loomed over Markland’s head as U.S. Central Command leaders initiated an investigation into the content of the video. Markland faced a laundry list of supposed offenses, including allegations he had videotaped in a combat zone, consumed alcohol (really an Afghan seltzer) in a combat zone, and possibly even committed war crimes. Though the investigation ended with Markland being found innocent of all charges, Markland realized through the ordeal that the individuals investigating him “had no idea what actually went on” at the airfield. He knew he wanted to “play a big part” in later efforts to ensure the world learned about HKIA.
While Markland was fighting military bureaucracy, evacuation volunteers were fighting the government to advocate for the rights of Afghans who still needed help.
U.S. military personnel had enabled the evacuation of an astounding 124,000 Afghans from Kabul during the noncombatant evacuation operations, but hundreds of thousands of Afghans with ties to the U.S. were left behind. Dozens of evacuation groups had sprung up in the months surrounding the U.S. withdrawal as volunteers sought ways to rescue those who remained.
Some allies, like interpreters and employees of U.S. or U.S.-funded institutions were eligible for pathways to citizenship through the special immigrant visa program. Others were eligible for refugee status through referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (URAP). Many groups, including special forces personnel who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. military personnel and women who defied cultural norms and the Taliban to join elite units in the Afghan National Army had no path to citizenship or safety. Those unprotected groups were among those especially targeted by the Taliban’s brutal reprisal campaign.
Evacuation groups tried to work fast to save the Afghans on their growing manifests, but they were stymied by slow-moving processing or outright non-responsiveness from the U.S. State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The systems in place were broken, though few recognized the extent of the government’s failures.
Years later, numbers would tell the story of what volunteers and Afghans had been up against. By August 2023, around 152,000 SIV applicants remained in Afghanistan. Only 114 of the 44,785 Afghans to apply for humanitarian parole received it. Of 26,932 Afghans referred and accepted into the USRAP, at least 73 percent had not been processed into the program.
By late 2021, evacuation organizations were just beginning to recognize that finding solutions for Afghans could be a multi-year rather than a multi-month endeavor. Many groups began to focus on outreach with U.S. leaders and the international community while they raised funds to provide food, rent, and safety for those left behind.
Timothy ‘Tito’ Torres, a U.S. Army Ranger since 2005, had been working on evacuation efforts with Air Force veteran Travis Peterson since August 2021. Peterson recognized that evacuation organizations would have greater power if they joined forces. In November 2021, he created the Moral Compass Federation, which would act as an umbrella group to enhance smaller groups’ ability to advocate for at-risk Afghans. Peterson brought Torres on to help with the project, which began to grow and evolve.
Evacuation volunteers were coalescing under the Moral Compass Federation as the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal arrived. By August 2022, numerous HKIA veterans had left the military. No longer hemmed in by the expectations of military leaders, they could talk about the traumas they experienced in Kabul. Some struggled under the heavy weight of losing friends and fellow service members. Others were plagued by the helplessness they felt while watching Taliban members execute Afghans at the airfield, and seeing adults and children get trampled to death or perish from asphyxiation, heat stroke or dehydration in the overwhelming crowds.
Many of these experiences had left HKIA veterans to grapple with moral injury –damage to the psyche that resulted from being forced to conduct or witness operations that ran contrary to their sense of right and wrong. Joe Laude, who had served with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in Kabul, experienced the phenomenon himself. He also had a vision to bring HKIA veterans together to heal their moral injury “through acts of community service, camaraderie, support in mental health, and humanitarian aid.” In early August 2022, Laude began rallying his fellow veterans under the banner of his new nonprofit organization, Operation Allies Refuge Foundation.
Ansel Rubin, who served as a corporal with 1/8 at the airfield, had trouble finding purpose after leaving the Marine Corps. “I could be surrounded by people that I went to high school with, or with old buddies, and I will still feel like the only person in that room,” he explained, telling The Havok Journal that he “can’t get those people to understand” the intensity of what he witnessed at HKIA. When he found OAR Foundation, Rubin found a community that understood him.
Not all HKIA veterans who needed assistance found OAR Foundation in time. U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division Spc. Connor McMurray felt overwhelmed by memories of his time at HKIA. On Aug. 30, 2022, one year since the U.S. had departed from Afghanistan, in a moment of utter desperation, McMurray ran his car off the road at 120 miles-per-hour. He survived the suicide attempt, but his determination to improve his mental state quickly waned. By the time McMurray left the Army, he was drinking heavily to manage his pain. After around a month of blacking out every day, McMurray found OAR Foundation. With the support he found there, he started using his story to help others.
After Markland left the Marine Corps in September 2022, he joined the efforts to spread awareness. Markland made his HKIA video public once more, and began interacting with other HKIA veterans online. While facing down difficult issues together, OAR Foundation members were forming a digital phalanx against the larger world, which failed to comprehend the horrors they had witnessed.
In March 2023, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hosted its first hearing on the withdrawal, hearing testimony from evacuation volunteers, government personnel, and veterans of HKIA. Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who had lost his left leg and right arm in the Abbey Gate bombing, gave damning testimony avowing he had had the possible suicide bomber in his sights, but never received authorization to engage him. Vargas-Andrews’ testimony set the nation abuzz. It also acted as a clarion call to other veterans that the time was right to share their stories. The groundswell helped OAR Foundation to continue its growth.
By 2023, Moral Compass Federation had likewise evolved. With Torres as the organization’s vice president and executive director, Moral Compass Federation was supporting around two-dozen nonprofit groups working in refugee resettlement, supporting allies left behind, and caring for veterans who had borne the Afghanistan battle.
OAR Foundation and Moral Compass Federation connected in early 2023. Laude’s goal of sharing HKIA veterans’ stories resonated with Torres, who had spoken with numerous veterans of the evacuation while writing his graduate thesis at Georgetown University in the months after the withdrawal. “A lot of [HKIA veterans] felt alone,” he lamented. “They felt like they couldn’t talk about it [and] their stories basically couldn’t be told.” Torres wanted to help OAR Foundation extend its ability to reach other veterans by bringing them into the Moral Compass Federation. Laude agreed.
Laude and Torres shared another common cause: resolving moral injury. The post-withdrawal period had been hard for evacuation volunteers. Whether volunteers came from a military or civilian background, they were all united by their unwavering dedication to a cause that could exhaust the most energetic of people. Some volunteers had liquidated retirement accounts or their children’s college funds to make sure Afghan allies had food and safe haven. Some had poured themselves into the effort so fully that they lost jobs, marriages, friendships, or relationships. Volunteers were burning out from the drain on their time, positivity, and resources. They were also experiencing moral injury as a result of feeling betrayed by the institutions they placed their trust in. Torres knew that action was needed to protect volunteers’ mental health. “If we don’t take care of the community, there’s no one coming to help us,” Torres explained.
For one of the groups’ first collaborations, Laude came to Torres with the concept of hosting an event to honor the Gold Star family members. Seeing an opportunity to bring together a variety of individuals united by their compassion for veterans, families of the fallen, and wartime allies, Torres signed on and went to the federation “to call in everything that we had.”
The result of the collaboration was ground-breaking as an unforgettable array of humans steeped in the fight for truth and accountability assembled at the National Press Club. Journalists and authors who had covered Afghanistan developments mingled with nonprofit professionals working for refugee rights or advocating for allies left behind. Gold Star family members talked with their sons’ and daughters’ brothers and sisters in arms, and mingled with the Congressional representatives who had joined them earlier in the afternoon for a three-hour roundtable to discuss the Abbey Gate bombing. Veterans of HKIA, including Markland, Laude, Rubin, and Langston met – many for the first time since finding OAR Foundation. Langston said he felt “like [he was] home again,” describing the closeness he shares with other HKIA veterans as something “you can’t really explain.”
Fervent discussions turned to hushed silence as Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) took the stage. The first speaker of the evening offered his thanks to the assembled Gold Star Families. McCaul made it clear that Gold Star family voices would help Representatives finally find long-missing details about the planning failures that enabled the chaos at HKIA, and what really took place there.
Torres used his address to introduce a new initiative for Moral Compass Federation: a focus on supporting moral recovery for federation members impacted by Afghanistan operations. Torres also offered thoughts on the chasm that seems to exist between veterans and the civilians who thank them for their service. Torres urged veterans to “turn [‘thank you for your service’] into an invitation” to tell caring civilians about a fallen service member.
Laude’s address was directed to his fellow HKIA veterans, a “very special community” that had been “tested and strengthened through adversity.” His gratitude to the Gold Star families scattered throughout the crowd was palpable as Laude recited the names of the 13 service members who “in their final moments…showed the depth of strength and security in their hearts” and “remind us that freedom isn’t just a concept.”
Conversation over broad varieties of Afghanistan-related efforts took over during dinner, but all talk ceased when the first keynote speakers came to the stage.
Former Navy SEAL and podcast host Shawn Ryan struck a chord with many HKIA veterans as he discussed the anger he felt in the wake of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. Ryan told the audience about how he had come to interview Vargas-Andrews on his podcast after witnessing his testimony before the House. Ryan said that “the rage started coming back again” when he watched Vargas-Andrews “try to cut his breakfast with his new mechanical hand,” and later “get out of his wheelchair and make his way up to the second story.” It was when Vargas-Andrews’ “truth came out” during filming that Ryan admitted that he truly went “to a dark place.” Regardless of that pain, Ryan told the assembly that he would continue his search for facts about the evacuation. The truth “is like a lion,” he said. “You don’t have to defend it…it’ll defend itself.”
The formal portion of the festivities concluded when CNN anchor and correspondent Jake Tapper gave a moving speech about the need for transparency regarding the country’s final days in Afghanistan – for the Gold Star families as well as for veterans and for the future of the country. Acknowledging the weight of the anniversary on the veterans assembled in the room, Tapper noted unequivocally that the ending of the war in Afghanistan was never a reflection on our service members’ efforts. “The moment you raised your hand, your mission was accomplished,” Tapper said.
The energy in the room was visible as attendees lingered to discuss each other’s participation in the work left to be done. It had a lasting impact on the evening’s architects. Torres said the gala had been “a highlight of [his] career,” while Laude said it gave him “the energy [he] need[s] to take on this next year.”
The event had highlighted the importance of the growing interconnectedness between organizations working to right the wrongs of the withdrawal. The sense of community and support would propel many onward into another year of working on their own subset of the greater post-withdrawal landscape.
For Gold Star family member Christy Shamblin, it was another opportunity to honor the positivity and work ethic of her beloved daughter-in-law, Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee, who was working as part of a Female Engagement Team when she perished in the Abbey Gate bombing. Shamblin told The Havok Journal that the gathering of those pursuing truth for the fallen was important to her family. She said that her family’s “hope with the investigations [into HKIA] is to find out why the warnings [about the presence of the suicide bomber] were ignored and make changes so our service members are safer and able to do the jobs they were trained to do.”
Through the gala and in the months since, Shamblin has learned more about Gee’s mission. At the National Press Club, she spoke with service members Gee worked alongside. Several weeks ago, Shamblin met a family of Afghans who escaped with the help of U.S. personnel at HKIA. Shamblin said that seeing the children “were happy to be able to run and laugh without being afraid” has “solidified [her] belief that Nicole would do the same thing again knowing the outcome.”
Beth Bailey (@BWBailey85) is a freelance contributor to Fox News Digital and The Washington Examiner. She is the cohost of The Afghanistan Project Podcast, which highlights the unique complications created by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.