Service members and veterans who helped evacuate Afghans in August 2021 testified in harrowing detail about their experiences Wednesday during the first hearing of the GOP-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee's investigation into the Biden administration's chaotic exit from America's longest war.
Among the witnesses was Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a still-serving Marine Corps sniper, who previously told The Washington Post he believes he identified the suicide bomber who killed 13 U.S. troops outside the Kabul airport but was denied approval to shoot him before the attack. On Wednesday, Vargas-Andrews, fighting to talk through tears, recounted the attack, which left him with an amputated leg and arm.
"Plain and simple, we were ignored," Vargas-Andrews said about his and others' efforts to get approval to shoot the person they suspected to be the suicide bomber. "My body was overwhelmed from the trauma of the blast. My abdomen had been ripped open. Every inch of my exposed body except for my face took ball bearings and shrapnel."
Also testifying Wednesday was Aidan Gunderson, a former Army specialist who served as a medic deployed to the Hamid Karzai International Airport during the Afghanistan withdrawal. He described seeing "blood-saturated, dusty clothing and head scarves smolder[ing]" in the middle of the runway that "covered the dead bodies" of Afghans who fell from a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III after clinging to the landing gear while it was taking off.
After the suicide bombing on Aug. 26, 2021, Gunderson recalled that "an injured Marine with bloodsoaked pants squeeze my hand as tightly as he could and looked into my eyes, yelling, 'I don't want to die.'"
"I reassured him that he would be fine, but as they carried him inside, I did not know if he would survive," testified Gunderson, who noted he was born a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that sparked the war. "Departing on Aug. 31 on one of the last flights out of the country, I was relieved to be headed home, but I wondered how the horror I just witnessed changed me, how it would change us all. I can assure you that it has."
Wednesday's hearing served as an emotional public kickoff to an investigation Republicans had vowed would be a priority in their House majority.
Last year, while Republicans were in the minority, now-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, released an "interim" report that criticized President Joe Biden for the withdrawal. But the report was based largely on open-source information and lacked much new info. Now in the majority, Republicans are hoping to compel the Biden administration to deliver Congress long-sought documents about the withdrawal.
Ahead of the hearing, GOP committee staff said the session was intended to be a "reminder why this investigation is so important" by listening to service members and veterans personally involved in and affected by the evacuation.
In addition to Vargas-Andrews and Gunderson, the committee heard from three veterans who lead groups that worked from the United States to get their Afghan interpreters and other allies onto evacuation flights: Francis Hoang of Allied Airlift 21, David Scott Mann of Task Force Pineapple, and Peter Lucier of Team America Relief.
The Biden administration has cast the evacuation as a success since 120,000 people, including 76,000 Afghans, were airlifted out. But tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. military and so are eligible to immigrate to the U.S. were left behind, while the veterans who helped with the evacuation effort say they continue to suffer mental scars because of their experience. And the Aug. 26 suicide bombing that killed 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier -- as well as at least 170 Afghan civilians -- was one of the single deadliest days for U.S. forces of the entire war.
While several of the witnesses Wednesday asked lawmakers to avoid partisanship in the investigation, and several committee members said they agreed the topic was too important to be marred by partisanship, speeches from members during the session largely retread well-worn partisan talking points: Republicans blasting Biden for failing to plan for the collapse of Kabul, and Democrats blaming the Trump administration for negotiating the deal with the Taliban that set the stage for the withdrawal.
"It is often referred to like Schindler's List," McCaul said Wednesday about the evacuation. "If you're on the list, you made it out alive. If you weren't, you didn't. What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level and a stunning, stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration."
Committee ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., acknowledged that "mistakes were made along the way," but stressed that "evacuation did not happen in a vacuum," pointing to the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.
The veterans at Wednesday's hearing described the gut-wrenching messages they received from Afghans during and since the evacuation and the emotional price those messages have exacted on them.
Mann, a retired Army Green Beret, said a former Navy SEAL in Task Force Pineapple received one message on encrypted messaging app Signal that read: "My daughter has been trampled. I know we are going to miss our chance to escape, but she's unconscious and barely breathing. It's okay, my friend. Thank you for trying."
Mann, his voice cracking, also described a Green Beret veteran friend who died by suicide a few months ago after "the Afghan abandonment reactivated all the demons that he managed to put behind him from our time in Afghanistan together."
Meanwhile, Gunderson and Vargas-Andrews detailed the disorder and horror they witnessed on the ground in Kabul.
"We heard around-the-clock gunshots and screams," Gunderson said. "The gunfire was either the Taliban executing someone or a warning shot used for crowd control."
Vargas-Andrews said the Taliban routinely executed civilians in view of U.S. service members and that he and others "communicated the atrocities to our chain of command" but that "nothing came of it."
Vargas-Andrews also said he witnessed Afghans who were turned away from the airport try to "kill themselves on the razor wire" surrounding the airport because "they thought this was merciful compared to the Taliban torture they faced."
Vargas-Andrews said he has not been interviewed in any Pentagon investigations into the withdrawal.
"It makes me feel like my service is not valued to this country, by the government," he said.
Still, he recounted at least one instance he said makes him feel like his time in Kabul mattered. A young girl with a tear-stained face and her toddler brother had squeezed their way through the crowd holding a baby with a blue and purple face. Vargas-Andrews found a medic who resuscitated the baby while the girl tugged on his uniform begging for her father. While standing atop an SUV, Vargas-Andrews held the girl up and asked whether she saw her dad. After a few minutes, she pointed to a man in the crowd of hundreds carrying a family's-worth of luggage on his head, and the man started crying when he spotted her.
"I let the troops down there at the opening of the gate … know to help get this guy through," Vargas-Andrews said. "For me, that was a moment that my personal injury was worth it. And I know those three little kids have a life of freedom and opportunity now."
At the end of the hearing, McCaul asked others who were involved with the evacuation to submit their stories to the committee.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.