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Families of U.S. troops killed in Kabul airport bombing question whether Pentagon distorted investigation findings

Shana Chappell visits the grave of her son Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui in Riverside, Calif. He was one of 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul in August. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

As the sun faded on another anxious, adrenalized day, Kareem Nikoui, a 20-year-old U.S. Marine from Southern California, balanced on top of a concrete traffic barrier and scanned the crowd. Thousands of Afghans had packed into the fetid, open-air corridor outside Kabul’s airport, desperate to flee Taliban rule and undeterred by warnings of a suicide bomber in the area.

Nearly 8,000 miles away, Nikoui’s mother, Shana Chappell, had a sinking feeling. She was aware the hastily orchestrated evacuation was growing increasingly perilous and worried about how her son would process the reality that thousands would be left behind.

It was Aug. 26. At 5:36 p.m. local time, the bomber struck, detonating a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings. Nikoui, standing barely 30 feet away, was killed, along with 12 other U.S. service members and an estimated 170 Afghans.

The attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate was not preventable, the Pentagon determined, though critics of commanders’ decision-making have said the entry point was especially vulnerable and questioned why it was left open. The Americans were due to close the gate for the final time within a matter of minutes.

“All those Marines who were there will tell you that they felt scared,” Chappell said. “They were surrounded by the freaking Taliban. They were out in the wide open, and they were sitting ducks.”

For Chappell and some of the other families of those killed that day, the release this month of a U.S. military investigation examining the attack has caused them to question whether Defense Department officials distorted its findings. In interviews, they castigated the Biden administration for placing their loved ones — most, like Nikoui, barely 20 years old — into such a dangerous situation and said that the Marines who survived the explosion told them they endured a firefight afterward — claims the Pentagon has dismissed.

The release of a 2,000-page investigative report — first obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request — has revealed stark new detail about the operation, providing the fullest account yet of what happened during the 17-day sprint to exit Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Documents reveal U.S. military’s frustration with White House, diplomats over Afghanistan evacuation

Among the documents are sworn witness statements from senior U.S. military commanders, who told investigators that they believe administration officials lacked a sense of urgency as the likelihood of a total Taliban takeover became increasingly evident and failed to heed their warnings to prepare for an evacuation weeks before Kabul fell. In response to those assertions, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has said there was no effort in Washington to slow-roll the final withdrawal and that the White House coordinated closely with senior defense officials.

President Biden on Aug. 26 spoke about terrorist attacks in Kabul that killed multiple U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The airlift succeeded in getting 124,000 people to safety. It has been celebrated as a historic achievement by the U.S. military, even as the full scope of the danger and misery involved have become apparent.

Inside the Afghanistan airlift: Split-second decisions, relentless chaos drove historic military mission

Administration officials have defended their decision-making, saying it was unclear the Afghan government would collapse so completely and so abruptly. Once the capital fell on Aug. 15, more than 5,000 U.S. troops were rushed to the airport to bolster a skeleton force of roughly 600 who had remained in Kabul to protect American diplomats. Senior U.S. officials then reached an uneasy arrangement with the Taliban for militant fighters to provide external security at the airport. In exchange, the U.S. military agreed to be gone no later than Aug. 31.

Killed in the attack were 11 U.S. Marines: Nikoui, a lance corporal; Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, 20; Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23; Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, 31; Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22; Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, 20; Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20; Cpl. Daegan Page, 23; Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25; Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22; and Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20. Hospitalman Maxton Soviak, 22, a Navy corpsman deployed with the Marines, and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, also died.

The 13 U.S. service members killed in the Kabul airport attack

Pentagon officials estimate that 45 additional U.S. troops were wounded, with some suffering brain injuries that surfaced later. The attack, they said, was perpetrated by the Islamic State-Khorasan, an affiliate of the terrorist group based in Syria and Iraq that also has been at war with the Taliban.

President Biden has praised the service members involved and called those killed heroes, while maintaining that after 20 years and 2,461 U.S. military deaths, it was time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. A deal that former president Donald Trump made with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 2021 left few alternatives, Biden noted.

“They were part of the bravest, most capable, and the most selfless military on the face of the Earth,” Biden said of the personnel involved in the evacuation hours after the attack. “And they were part of, simply, what I call the backbone of America. They’re the spine of America, the best the country has to offer.”

Kabul airport attack involved a single bomb with ‘disturbing lethality,’ Pentagon inquiry finds

On Feb. 4, U.S. military officials announced at the Pentagon that, after an extensive investigation, they had determined that a single suicide bomb with “disturbing lethality” caused the staggering loss of life.

But according to their full report, survivors of the attack described a more complex situation. In witness statements, Marines recalled coming under and returning gunfire, sprinting to the blast site to treat survivors with tourniquets and clotting agents, and struggling to find enough refrigerated storage for all of the remains.

One reconnaissance Marine with 15 years of military service said that, after the explosion, he heard “snaps and cracks of rounds all around him” and observed what appeared to be people suffering from gunshot wounds. Like all but a few witnesses, this individual’s name was redacted from the report.

Another Marine recalled shooting numerous times.

“I went in and saw a lot of Marines shooting by the Jersey barrier,” the Marine said. “There was a lot of smoke. I couldn’t see where they were firing. They grabbed me and I started firing my weapon as well. I don’t know what I was firing at.”

A Marine scout sniper who was in a nearby tower said he saw a child suffering from what he surmised were gunshot wounds, because of the size of the injuries. He recalled beginning to treat the child, only to discover a much larger fatal exit wound.

“I can say for sure that we could have been hit,” he told investigators. “Three shots hit the tower. One was in line with my head.”

‘From the White House down,’ pleas for help disrupted Afghan evacuation, top U.S. commander says

Chappell, who lives about 100 miles from Camp Pendleton in Norco, Calif., said that her son’s Marine friends have visited her frequently and believe they were attacked with small-arms fire after the bombing.

“I talked to one kid personally, face-to-face at my son’s burial,” she said. “That’s how I found out about gunfire. He showed me his scar and told me had been shot.”

Mark Schmitz, whose son was killed in the blast, said in an email that he saw “MAJOR conflicting reports” in the investigation and asked the military to turn over metal fragments found in his son so he could have them privately analyzed. Military officials told them the fragments had been discarded, he said.

The parents of Hoover — Darin Hoover Sr. and Kelly Barnett — said in an interview that they have concerns about gunfire, but believe their son was killed in the blast and that investigators did their best to assess what had happened. But they remain deeply frustrated, they said.

“They were put in an untenable situation,” Hoover said of the military personnel sent to Kabul. “Yes, it was a humanitarian effort on their part. And they did the absolute best that they could do given the circumstances. However, they should not have been put in those circumstances in the first place.”

Other families have taken an apolitical tone.

“What we have learned of his last hours does not change that he is gone forever,” Soviak’s family posted Feb. 4 on a Facebook page established in his memory. “Our family is standing together and we choose to remember Maxton not as a victim, we choose to remember him for the hero he is. Remember his name.”

Biden says he is ‘rejecting’ critical accounts from U.S. commanders about the Afghanistan evacuation

Marine Col. C.J. Douglas, who investigated the reports of gunfire, said during the Pentagon news conference that there is “no proof that any U.S. or Afghan person was injured or killed by gunfire.” The confusion, he said, likely stemmed from “the fog of war and disorientation due to blast effects.”

“Plainly put,” Douglas said, “the blast created instant chaos and sensory overload.”

Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said analysis by certified medical examiners and explosives experts determined that the “majority of casualties” attributed to the bomb came from ball bearings, primarily five millimeters in diameter each. The ball bearings caused entry and exit wounds “similar to rifle gunshots caused by 5.56 mm bullets,” and prompted doctors to classify some injuries as gunshot wounds that were not, he said.

“As a point of fact, no bullets were found in any of the 58 service members that were killed or wounded, nor in any of the dozens of Afghans treated by military medical facilities at HKIA,” Urban said, using the military’s shorthand for Kabul’s airport. “Also, we are unaware of any bullets being removed from any of the estimated nearly 240 killed and wounded examined and operated on at Afghan hospitals.”

At the Feb. 4 briefing, military officials said they interviewed no Afghans during the review. Investigators assessed that British troops fired 25 to 35 warning shots over the heads of the crowd, and that one Marine fired less than a magazine holding 30 rounds of ammunition, Urban said.

One Marine officer told investigators that, after the blast, he observed Taliban foot soldiers sitting in lawn chairs and laughing at the Americans. They did not appear to know the explosion was going to happen, he said.

The officer said the shooting was “short-lived” and that his Marines “may have believed they were being fired on and fired at the Taliban.”

Surviving U.S. troops said they were able to remove all of the American casualties from the blast site within minutes, packing them into a bus and other vehicles that had been left behind at the airport and rushing them to operating rooms and other forms of care. But the chaos continued for hours.

An Air Force medical officer based at the airport told investigators that his team received their first patient 12 minutes after the explosion. One service member had no pulse, and a surgeon cracked the person’s chest, initiated a cardiac massage and performed emergency surgery.

“That was a good save,” the medical officer recalled.

Wounded survivors flew out around dawn the next morning. U.S. troops searched the airport to find enough U.S. flags to cover each set of human remains before a ceremony that afternoon to see them off.

“Normally, you iron the flag, but in this situation it wasn’t possible,” said a mortuary affairs soldier. “We didn’t have a table but had an iron. I tried my best to make it look as nice as possible.”

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that “we grieve alongside these Gold Star families,” while backing the inquiry’s principal conclusions.

“We do not pretend to understand the depths of their grief, but we respect their concerns and their unique perspectives about the loss of their loved ones,” he said. “To that end, we stand by the investigation’s finding that the attack on Abbey Gate could not have been prevented and that the decision made by commanders on the ground to keep the gate open was consistent with their mission of trying to evacuate as many people as possible.”

Rick Herrera, Gee’s father, called the operation a “blunder” carried out without enough time to prepare. His daughter had followed her husband, Jarod Gee, into the Marine Corps. A straight-A student in high school, she had sent him pictures of her guiding Afghans onto planes, but never mentioned that she also took shifts searching women entering the airport at Abbey Gate.

Herrera, a self-described “die-hard Republican” from Roseville, Calif., said he has not talked with senior administration officials about the death of his daughter. During a visit to Washington to bury her at Arlington National Cemetery, he and several other family members visited Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.), who phoned Trump on a golf course so he could offer condolences.

Trump, Herrera said, offered to pay for their stay and meals at Trump International Hotel in Washington. A hotel manager followed up later to say he had talked to Trump and that the bill was covered, Herrera said. Another person familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the former president’s private conversation, confirmed hearing the phone call. Trump’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Barnett, Hoover’s mother, said she hopes that Biden and the senior military commanders in charge of the operation will acknowledge it was poorly planned and carried out with “total disregard for the lives of our service members.”

She said that while her son considered the mission to be mismanaged, he wanted to help and told his commanding officer that he saw his sisters and nieces in the women and children they were evacuating.

Cheryl Merola, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., said that her son Dylan had joined the military just a few years earlier and was wrapping up a deployment in Jordan when his unit was reassigned to assist in the evacuation. The families of the U.S. troops killed speak frequently, she said, and many struggle to understand how relatively inexperienced Marines could be assigned such a dangerous, weighty task.

“It’s hard to call the operation a success,” she said, “when you got 13 kids killed.”