‘I will not relent’: Gold Star families, House lawmakers search for answers about deadly Afghanistan withdrawal
Stars and Stripes August 30, 2023
WASHINGTON — Family members of the 13 service members who died in the final days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan gathered Tuesday on Capitol Hill to support Republican-led efforts to investigate the military’s chaotic withdrawal from the country.
Portraits of the fallen troops provided the backdrop for an emotional roundtable discussion centered on the terrorist attack at Abbey Gate outside Kabul's international airport two years ago that also killed 170 Afghan civilians attempting to flee the Taliban.
“We find ourselves here in the nation's capital, to fight for answers, answers that you would think would come naturally to Gold Star families,” said Herman Lopez, the father of deceased Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez. “The process of getting to the complete truth has begun but needs to continue. It needs to continue without divisiveness, without challenge.”
House Republicans are leading investigations into the factors that led to the deadly bombing and the rapid collapse of security as U.S. forces departed Afghanistan after a 20-year war. The roundtable Tuesday was hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which began holding hearings in March on what went wrong.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the committee, said the panel will continue its probe later this week with an interview of Ambassador Dan Smith, who led a review of the State Department’s role in the withdrawal.
The committee also will soon speak with Marine Lt. Col. Brad Whited, the commanding officer of Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine sniper who was gravely injured in the airport attack. Vargas-Andrews told lawmakers in March that he had spotted the suspected suicide bomber in the crowd but was prevented from taking action.
“I will not relent in this investigation,” McCaul said. “I will fight with every fiber of my being and leave no stone unturned until we have the full picture of how the hell this happened.”
As the roundtable discussion began, McCaul read a statement on his phone from Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who expressed regret for how the U.S. mission in Afghanistan ended.
“I trust the Army, Navy and Marine Corps did the best they could in briefing the families who had loved ones killed at Abbey Gate,” McCaul said Milley wrote. “I believe the briefers gave every piece of information that they could. If there were issues with that, we need to take whatever corrective action is necessary, and our hearts go out to those families.”
President Joe Biden has repeatedly defended his decision to withdraw troops from a war that he called unwinnable and faulted the administration of former President Donald Trump for negotiating the terms of the botched exit. Milley and other top military leaders said they had advised against pulling all U.S. troops from the country.
The family members of the fallen service members said they felt ignored by the Biden administration and detected a “tone of indifference” in letters that they received from the White House commemorating the second anniversary of the Abbey Gate bombing.
“These kids need to be honored at the White House in the Rose Garden by this administration,” said Steve Nikoui, father of deceased Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui. “Because denying their service and their sacrifice doesn't lessen or waive the mistakes made, but it divides us and weakens us on the world stage.”
Mark Schmitz, the father of deceased Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, angrily recounted the lack of dismissals or other punishment among senior officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon.
“Two years have gone by and where are we?” he asked. “Everyone who held a key position in the military still has that position or has been promoted.”
Several relatives wondered aloud why the U.S. chose to evacuate from Hamid Karzai International Airport instead of the larger Bagram airfield, an American base that also had a hospital. A soldier testifying before a subpanel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month told lawmakers that the Abbey Gate bombing would not have occurred if the U.S. conducted its withdrawal from Bagram.
“In his note, Gen. Milley mentions that he apologizes for any lack of information provided during these briefings that we all had in our homes. The issue is not the briefing. The issue is not the lack of information during those briefings,” Lopez said. “It is a disregard of intelligence. It is the disregard of planning. That's what you should be apologizing for.”
The Gold Star families said they wanted to see accountability from those involved in the pullout and public acknowledgment of the pain that they have lived with for the past two years.
“I’m often asked what accountability looks like,” Schmitz said. “Simply put, most important to me, is that the history books are written accurately and honestly and truthfully about what happened to our fallen 13 and the fall of Kabul.”