• The San Juan Daily Star

Witnesses to the end

A victim of the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate, outside the airport, during the U.S. military evacuation in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2021.

By Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt

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 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 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 in to the airport, to waiting planes, ending America’s longest war.

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

Lopez saw a little girl getting crushed and plunged into the mass of people to get her. About 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; they had 18. A suicide bomber detonated at 5:48 p.m.

More than 100,000 Marines served in Afghanistan over the 20-year war; 474 of them died. 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.

It was those young people 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 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.

Ball 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.” After growing up in Littleton, Colorado, he got a bachelor’s degree 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.

On the night of Aug. 12, Ball 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 Joe Biden ordered 3,000 troops to Kabul to evacuate Americans. Soon that number would be 5,800. 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.

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 half-expected to see refugees running to their plane.

The tarmac at night was “intense, but controlled,” Ball recalled in an interview with The New York Times at Camp Pendleton, California. There was rifle fire outside the airport, and tracers and flares were going up. Troops from other NATO countries occupied almost every part of the airport.

On Aug. 19, Ghost Company received orders to open Abbey Gate.

Arriving around midday, the Marines saw thousands of desperate people pressed together. Many had been there for days, under the watch of Taliban fighters. People were yelling and holding up whatever documentation they thought would help get them through.

But before the Marines could start looking at documentation, they had to impose order. That meant working with British forces and other troops to clear a path from Abbey Gate 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.

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.

“You are smashed in there so badly that your arms are stuck above your head,” Ball said.

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, there was a little space to maneuver. But by 5 p.m., there still was no pathway to the gate.

Gunnery Sgt. Brett Tate, a Marine with 2/1’s Fox Company, came up with a plan: Just talk to the Afghans.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I need you to move backwards,” Ball yelled. “Then we can start processing you tomorrow.” A few of them shifted. Ball kept talking. A few more moved. Ball walked into the crowd, still talking.

Slowly, the Marines walked the crowd backward.

For 12 more hours, the Marines worked to clear the path. Late at night, a British major and Ball met with Taliban fighters to tell them what they were doing. Soon, the Taliban fighters were moving cars out of the way.

At dawn on Aug. 20, Abbey Gate opened.

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 exception that the Biden administration was calling “vulnerable Afghans” could be allowed into the airport. On top of that, the Marines were inundated with phone calls and text messages from senators in Washington; Afghan War veterans in California; news organizations; and nonprofits, all trying to get vulnerable Afghans through the gate.

Rodriguez had arrived from Kuwait two days earlier than Ball, with his own 2/1 company.

Second-generation Cuban American on his dad’s side and second-generation Mexican American on his mom’s side, Rodriguez followed his father, who had been a Navy reservist, into the military. He got his bachelor’s in human resources management at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and then ended up at Marine Corps basic school in Quantico, Virginia, at the same time as Ball, in 2013.

In Kabul, Rodriguez found himself on a mission to rescue 32 Afghan female athletes. Jeff Phaneuf, a former Marine in Princeton, New Jersey, 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. 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 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, Rodriguez found the athletes.

Ghost Company had half a day off on Aug. 22, and Ball slept for 13 hours straight. The next day, it was back to Abbey Gate. It had been decided that the gate would close on Aug. 26.

The Afghans knew they were up against a deadline. “The closer we get to the 31st, the more agitated the crowd is,” Ball said.

All day on Aug. 26, he was walking along the jersey barrier. Ghost Company’s 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 were getting crushed against the jersey barrier.

As he spoke of the moments leading up to 5:48 p.m. when the bomb went off, 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,” 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.”

Around 75 feet away, he 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 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.

Nine of Ball’s Ghost Company troops were killed, including Lopez, who had snatched the girl from the sewage canal just before the bombing; and Soviak, the Navy corpsman who was treating someone who had fainted near the gate. All of the Ghost Company Marines killed and wounded came from 1st Platoon.

The surviving members of Ghost Company flew out of Kabul on Aug. 28, short 23 people. At a company memorial on Sept. 8, 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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