Witnesses to the End

The Marines at Abbey Gate were racing against time. The crowd at the gate didn’t know it, but the Marines had been told to close it at 6 p.m.

That left just 30 minutes for Capt. Geoff Ball, 33, commander of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines’ Ghost Company, to pluck out a few more people with that elusive combination of affiliation and luck that would get them onto a plane out of Afghanistan. Just 30 more minutes for Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, to grab another child out of the sewage canal where hundreds jostled. Just 30 minutes for Capt. Andres Rodriguez, 31, to scan the crowd for men who fit the descriptions in dozens of text messages from people in the United States trying to save their interpreters.

The plan for the final “retrograde” of the American war in Afghanistan was clear: On Aug. 26, the British troops stationed at the nearby Baron Hotel would fall back. A few hours later, the 82nd Airborne would take up the Marines’ forward positions, allowing Ghost Company to fold into the terminal. And, finally, the 82nd Airborne would fall back to the airport, to waiting planes, ending America’s longest war.

The Afghans, who had been on their feet for hours, were passing out in the heat from dehydration. They had been coming by bus, car and foot for 10 straight days, assembling near the jersey barriers, or standing knee-deep in the foul-smelling canal near Abbey Gate, a main entryway to the airport.

Corporal Lopez saw a little girl getting crushed and plunged into the mass of people to get her. At around 5:45 p.m., Ghost Company’s Maxton “Doc” Soviak, a 22-year-old Navy corpsman, got a call that someone had fainted next to the jersey barrier; he and another medic went to help.

As it turned out, the Marines at Abbey Gate didn’t have 30 minutes left; they had 18. A suicide bomber detonated at 5:48 p.m.

Scores of people were killed in the suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport in August.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

More than 100,000 Marines served in Afghanistan over the 20-year war; 474 of them died. They fought in Marja in 2010, only to see the Taliban re-establish themselves there weeks later. They stepped on roadside bombs in Helmand Province. They sometimes committed crimes or crossed the line, including urinating on dead combatants and burning Qurans. Some of the 170 Afghans who died after the suicide bomb went off at Kabul airport may have been killed by American troops, including Marines, who in the chaos believed they were returning fire.

But the Marines at Abbey Gate were also witnesses to the end of America’s longest war. During the frenzied last days of August, these Marines were left to determine who would be evacuated from Afghanistan, and who would be left behind. Young men and women just out of their teens became visa officers, forced to make Solomonic decisions that would determine the path of life of thousands of men, women and children.

“War is young men dying and old men talking,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. The final act of the Afghanistan war was certainly that — negotiated by old men in Doha, Qatar, under the direction of two septuagenarian American presidents.

But it was the young who faced the fallout in what would become the largest noncombatant evacuation ever conducted by the U.S. military. Of the 13 American service members — 11 of them Marines — killed in the suicide bombing on Aug. 26, five were 20 years old, and seven more were in their early 20s. One was 31. Their platoonmates, young men and women themselves, are still sifting through the emotional repercussions of those extraordinary last 10 days.

Captain BallCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Ghost Company

Capt. Geoff Ball, call sign “Ghost Six,” joined the Marine Corps because, he says, “it didn’t feel right having other guys go out and fight, while I just sit at home and benefit from their sacrifice without doing anything myself.” After growing up in Littleton, Colo., he got a B.A. in international relations from George Washington University, and was commissioned in 2012. He said goodbye to his pregnant wife and deployed to Jordan with Ghost Company in April, his green seabag filled with 40 books, including Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

On the night of Aug. 12, Captain Ball, called “Six” by his Marines, was on a training exercise in Jordan when he received a text from his gunnery sergeant. “Look at the news right now,” it said. The Taliban had captured Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities. The U.S. military had withdrawn from Afghanistan, so President Biden ordered 3,000 troops to Kabul to evacuate Americans. Soon that number would be 5,800. Captain Ball returned to base to the news that Ghost Company of the “2/1,” as the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines is known, should be ready to deploy in 96 hours.

Ghost Company evolved from 2/1’s Ghost Battalion, which earned its name, according to Marine Corps legend, through a history of rapid helicopter assaults in Vietnam that left frustrated North Vietnamese commanders in their wake. Senior commanders often gave the toughest missions to the Ghosts of 2/1.

On Aug. 18, 110 Marines of Ghost Company landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport on a tarmac that had been cleared after a tragic melee two days earlier, when people surged onto an American warplane’s wings and fell from the sky after it took off. The Marines had seen the news reports and half-expected to see refugees running to their plane when it landed.

The tarmac in the middle of the night was “intense, but controlled,” Captain Ball recalled in an interview with The New York Times at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where Ghost Company and 2/1 are based. There was rifle fire just outside the airport, and tracers and flares were going up. Troops from other NATO countries, evacuating their own civilians, occupied almost every part of the sprawling airport. When it came time to sleep, service members found space wherever they could, including in one case on a treadmill.

This was the first time in Afghanistan for Captain Ball, and he would not see the country beyond the airport.

On Aug. 19, Ghost Company received orders to open Abbey Gate. The Marines hadn’t brought any transportation to get around the airport complex, so they hot-wired a blue bus nearby. They called it Big Blue. They also took a motorized baggage cart and called it Casper, because, Ghost Company. Altogether, Ghost Company commandeered 10 vehicles to use at the airport.

Arriving at Abbey Gate around midday, the Marines saw thousands of desperate people pressed together. Many had been there for days, under the stern watch of Taliban fighters standing on cars, rifles in their arms. People were yelling and holding up whatever documentation they thought would help get them through: yellowed letters of appreciation from an Army colonel in Kandahar, completion certificates for courses taken with American troops.

When the Marines arrived at Abbey Gate, thousands of desperate people were pressed together outside the airport. Credit…Agence France-Presse, via Maxar Technologies

But before the Marines could start looking at any of this documentation, they had to impose some kind of order. That meant working with British forces and other troops to clear a path from Abbey Gate all the way to the Baron Hotel, where the Afghans were backed up. And that meant pushing through the crowd, which sparked a panic that led to a stampede.

Marines got swept up in the crowd, and it started to look like there was going to be another surge onto the airport runway. Captain Ball turned to First Lt. Sam Farmer and yelled, “Get your platoon, get them into the crowd and push them back!”

The 41 Marines of Ghost Company’s 1st Platoon tried to provide a barrier. For the next 45 minutes, the Marines were in a shoving match with the crowd. The people in front were being pushed by the Marines, but they were also being pushed by people behind them.

“You are smashed in there so badly that your arms are stuck above your head,” Captain Ball said. Cpl. Xavier Cardona and Lance Cpl. Jordan Houston saw one of their platoonmates fall; he was quickly engulfed, then trampled. The two young men pushed forward, picked up their fellow Marine and dragged him back to Abbey Gate.

Captain Ball pulled back and looked out over the scene. “It was layers — civilians, then Marines, then another layer of civilians, then Marines,” he said. “And we’re just pushing each other; it’s like we don’t know what to do.”

Captain Ball started wading back into the crowd, and Cpl. Wyatt Wilson, 23, pulled him back. “No you don’t, Six,” he said, before moving into the crowd himself. Captain Ball climbed atop a vehicle to see. There was no pressure release for the crowd, he realized. To impose order, the Marines needed to let some people into Abbey Gate.

Once the British troops and the Marines let in around 300 Afghans, corralling them to one side, there was a little space to maneuver. But thousands of people remained, pushing and crying, while the Marines tried to hold their lines. By 5 p.m., as the sun was starting to dip, it became clear that there still was no pathway to the gate that wasn’t thronged with people.

Afghans waiting to gain access to the international airport in Kabul in August.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Gunnery Sgt. Brett Tate, a Marine with 2/1’s Fox Company, came up with a plan: just talk to the Afghans. Captain Ball sent the order down the ranks, then asked an interpreter to relay the message to the Afghans. But the interpreter told him that “you have to talk. They have to hear you.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I need you to move backwards,” Captain Ball yelled. “Then we can start processing you tomorrow.” But people had been guarding their precious spots at the gate for days. A few of them shifted. Captain Ball kept talking. A few more moved. As Captain Ball walked into the crowd, still talking, Corporal Lopez put his hand on his flak jacket. “Grab the Six,” he said. Soon two other Marines were holding onto Captain Ball as well.

“I was pretty nervous to be walking into that crowd,” Captain Ball said. “But once they grabbed me, the fear left.” Slowly, the Marines walked the crowd backward.

For 12 more hours, the Marines worked to clear the path. Late into the night, a British major told Captain Ball that they had to tell the Taliban what they were doing. Before he knew it, Captain Ball was walking to a dark alley behind the Baron Hotel to meet Taliban fighters. “I realize I need to look confident,” he said. He tried his best and let the British major do the talking. Soon, the Taliban fighters were moving cars out of the way to help the Marines and the British. They worked through the night.

At dawn on Aug. 20, Abbey Gate opened. It had been the most intense 20 hours most of the Ghost Company Marines had ever experienced. And it was only the first day.

Captain RodriguezCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The Lost and the Missing

The Marines were under orders: Anyone in the crowd with one of four golden tickets — American passport, green card, special immigrant visa, yellow badge from the American Embassy — or who fit some special nebulous exception that the Biden administration was calling “vulnerable Afghans” could be allowed into the airport. But those criteria didn’t cover most of the people clamoring to get in, and there were so many people that the Marines often couldn’t find the ones who had golden tickets anyway. On top of that, the Marines were inundated with phone calls and text messages from senators in Washington, D.C.; Afghan War veterans in California; news organizations; and nonprofit groups, all trying to get vulnerable Afghans through the gate.

Captain Rodriguez had arrived from Kuwait two days earlier than Captain Ball, with his own 2/1 company. They had thrown their sleeping bags in a room next to the chow hall used by Turkish troops.

Second-generation Cuban American on his dad’s side and second-generation Mexican American on his mom’s side, Captain Rodriguez followed his father, who had been a Navy reservist, into the military. He got his B.S. in human resources management at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and then ended up at Marine Corps basic school in Quantico at the same time as Captain Ball, in 2013. This was his first time in Afghanistan as well. And, like Captain Ball, he had left a pregnant wife at home.

In Kabul, Captain Rodriguez found himself on a mission to rescue 32 Afghan female athletes. Jeff Phaneuf, a former Marine in Princeton, N.J., working with an American organization that was trying to evacuate the athletes, had gotten the captain’s cellphone number.

The athletes were in separate groups en route to the airport or already at Abbey Gate. Captain Rodriguez pushed into the crowd to find them.

It was like a game of telephone with higher stakes. “It was as simple as, ‘What are they wearing?” he recalled of his texts with Mr. Phaneuf. “Then he would relate to me, ‘They’re 200 meters from the canal. They’re wearing this,’ and then, ‘They’re in the canal, they’re wearing that.’ ” And thus, over the course of four hours, Captain Rodriguez found the athletes.

Nearby, other Marines were doing the same thing.

Back in Virginia, Lt. Col. Justin Bellman had been trying to get his former interpreter, Walid, through Abbey Gate for 60 hours. During one melee, Walid’s son had fallen and lost a shoe. Finally, an unfamiliar number showed up on Colonel Bellman’s cellphone while he stood at a bus stop. The caller identified himself as a Marine.

“Did you give a sign with your phone number on it to an Afghan at Abbey Gate?” the voice asked. “Can you vouch for him?”

His voice shaking, Colonel Bellman said yes.

“I’ve got eyes on him,” the Marine said. “We’re gonna pull him in.”

Forty-five minutes later, Colonel Bellman’s phone rang again. This time, it was Walid. “My son,” he said, “will be coming to America with one shoe.”

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

Captain Rodriguez, meanwhile, was on a new mission, to find a country willing to take a brother and sister, ages 8 and 10. They had arrived at Abbey Gate by themselves and ended up in the sewage canal. A Marine pulled them out and called Captain Rodriguez. She showed him the children tucked into a corner outside the gate, under some netting. The girl looked stoic, her arm around her little brother, who looked numb, Captain Rodriguez recalled. Through an interpreter, the girl said their parents had been killed.

Captain Rodriguez was not about to send the two back to the sewage canal. He thought about his wife’s pregnancy — she was in her 8th month — as he searched for someone to take the children. He went first to State Department officials. They said the United States was not taking in unaccompanied children. The Norwegians said they were full. The Italians said no.

Captain Rodriguez searched for a country to take two children traveling alone who ended up in the sewage canal outside the airport. Credit…Akhter Gulfam/EPA, via Shutterstock

It was the next day now, and the siblings had been in Marine Corps custody for more than 12 hours. They ate a couple of MREs and slept on the concrete under blankets.

Deliverance came around noon. “Can you take two children?” Capt. Rodriguez asked the Finnish ambassador, who gave a thumbs-up. Captain Rodriguez, his eyes watering, hugged the two children and watched them disappear with the Finns.

Deadline Draws Near

Corporal Lopez had joined the Marine Corps just three months after he graduated from La Quinta High School in Westminster, Calif., in 2017. Both of his parents worked for the Riverside County sheriff’s office, and once he got through basic training, he joined an elite Marine antiterrorism team before ending up in Ghost Company. At the Kabul airport, Corporal Lopez was all over the place, especially when children were involved.

At one point, he made it his mission to get an orphaned boy to safety. But the airport orphanage that was being run by the Norwegians was two and a half miles away, and Corporal Lopez couldn’t find a vehicle. So he put the boy on his shoulders and walked.

The boy didn’t have shoes when they started out. By the time the two arrived, Corporal Lopez had found him a pair.

But for every success, there were 10 failures, people who didn’t make the State Department criteria and were sent back out. And most of the people who were rejected were sent back out through Abbey Gate, where it was often left to Ghost Company to deliver the bad news.

“It is very hard to look at a family that doesn’t have the proper documentation, and then put them back into a sewage canal,” Captain Ball said. “You’re looking at someone who believes that if they don’t get out through this airport that they will be killed by the Taliban.”

At first, Captain Ball tried to spend time with the rejected families. “Listen, let me give you some very hard news right now,” he told one group. “I’m going to have to kick you out. There’s nothing you can tell me right now that’s going to change this situation. So I’m going to let you sit here for the next 15 minutes, and you need to start figuring out your plan for what you’re going to do next in life.”

But as the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline drew nearer, Captain Ball realized he didn’t have time to talk to each person who was turned away.

Afghans gathering on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul in August.Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I saw everything from calm acceptance to hysteria,” he said. One woman, in particular, is still on his mind: She was miming, for him, the Taliban cutting off her nose and her ears. And there was nothing he could do.

Ghost Company had half a day off on Aug. 22, and Captain Ball slept for 13 hours straight. That was followed by some light work at the passenger terminal, where they were given a break from the Abbey Gate heartache and got to see little children getting on planes with their families. The next day, it was back to Abbey Gate for the final push. It had been quietly decided that the gate would close on Aug. 26.

The Afghans knew they were up against a deadline, though they didn’t know the date. “The closer we get to the 31st, the more agitated the crowd is,” Captain Ball said.

All day on Aug. 26, he was walking along the jersey barrier. Ghost Company’s entire 1st platoon was out there, standing next to the canal or backed up against the wall or fetching people from the crowd. Hundreds of people, all day, were getting crushed against the jersey barrier. But they kept coming. All day, they kept coming.

As he spoke of the moments leading up to 5:48 p.m. when the bomb went off, Captain Ball started using present and future tenses, as if to create some emotional distance for himself. “The suicide bomber will set up along the canal, directly across from us,” Captain Ball said. “He’s got a bomb that produces fragmentation ball bearings; it’s directional in the sense that he’s able to spray directly into my Marines.”

He never saw the bomber. Around 75 feet away, he just saw the flash and heard the boom. He probably passed out, because the next thing he remembered is yelling, “Get security! Get security!” He couldn’t focus, and then a CS gas canister carried by a downed Marine was punctured by shrapnel and exploded, and he couldn’t breathe. Some of Captain Ball’s Marines dragged him back to Abbey Gate, and he cleared the tear gas from his lungs and eyes and ran back to help.

A survivor of the bombing at Abbey Gate is taken to a hospital.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The scene was hellish. He heard gunfire, and saw Marines dragging their wounded. In recalling what happened, Captain Ball seemed to be insisting that people understand what his Marines did. “Corporal Wyatt Wilson, one of the most severely wounded Marines, is going to take shrapnel from his ankle, all the way up the side of his body through his jaw,” he said, then pauses to gather himself. “He’s going to get thrown by the blast, and he is going to land near another wounded Marine, in the CS gas, with injuries that are so severe, he is pulse-less when he gets to the airport’s trauma facility later.”

“In 30 minutes he is going to have his chest cut open, his heart massaged and tied off” by a military doctor, Captain Ball continued, with effort. But before all that, Corporal Wilson tried to make sure others got help. He dragged the wounded Marine, 19-year-old Corporal Kelsee Lainhart, to the fence, 65 feet away. “He is going to wave help away, deny treatment himself, and be like, take this Marine, and then he’s going to crawl his way to the casualty collection point all the way back, so others can go save others.”

Nine of Captain Ball’s Ghost Company troops were killed, including Corporal Lopez, who had snatched the little girl from the sewage canal just before the bombing; and Petty Officer Soviak, the Navy corpsman who was treating someone who had fainted near the gate. Corporal Wilson and 13 more injured were flown out for treatment. All of the Ghost Company Marines killed and wounded came from 1st Platoon, the ones who, on that first day, fought so hard to open Abbey Gate.

President Biden watched as U.S. service members who were killed by the explosion arrived at Dover Air Force Base in August.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

After the bombing, the surviving members of Ghost Company tried to get through each day. They found jobs for themselves in the passenger terminal at the airport — anything to stay occupied. They flew out of Kabul on Aug. 28, short 23 people. At a company memorial on Sept. 8, Captain Ball spoke.

“The whole world was watching,” the Marine captain told his troops. “But the Marines at Abbey Gate, we pulled in 33,000 people, more than any other gate. We stayed open when other gates closed. We should take pride in that.”

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