U.S. Marines provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

U.S. Marines provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps)

(Tribune News Service) — Damon Gossett has memories of Afghans, many of them children, begging him to allow their families through the gates.

Gossett and the other U.S. Marines in his platoon were tasked with keeping order and protecting Abbey Gate of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport during the mass evacuation of Afghanistan as the country fell into the control of the Taliban in 2021.

“Sometimes I just struggle with it; it’s hard to cope with some of that stuff,” Gossett, 22, said.

Since the end of his deployment, Gossett said he has been trying to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of those 12 days in Kabul. Two years later, that journey brought him to North Texas, where in October he met some of the Afghan families he protected — a chance to see the good that he did.

Gossett said he went to Afghanistan with the hopes of helping people get to safety. By the end of his deployment to the Middle East in October 2021, however, he said he was largely left questioning his purpose there.

The hardest part of being in Kabul, Gossett said, was having to kick people out and turning them away.

“You can’t do anything about it; you basically have to send them to their deaths,” he added.

Hero or monster?

Gossett, who lives in California, was less than a year old when his father was called to be part of the first U.S. troops who invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. To Gossett, it almost feels poetic that he, 20 years later, was called to the country in the final days of the U.S. military’s presence there.

The first couple days in Afghanistan were calmer than he had expected. Many Afghans greeted them like they were heroes, he said. Gossett met three sisters, all wearing the same green-colored dresses, and helped them and their family get to an area they could wait for the U.S. State Department to vet them. He learned that one of the younger sisters had been separated from her family and made it his personal mission to make sure the she was reunited with her parents.

The feeling of having helped the girl and her family became a major emotional pillar for Gossett.

He witnessed men stealing water from children, he watched a woman being dragged off the roadway as she screamed in desperation, he saw faces of the Afghans stripped of all hope as Gossett and other U.S. forces turned them away.

“It made me feel like a monster,” he said.

On Aug. 26, 2021, two days before Gossett was scheduled to leave Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked Abbey Gate — not far from where Gossett was positioned. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 13 American military service members and approximately 170 Afghan civilians, according to U.S. officials.

Even after he left Afghanistan and was waiting in Kuwait before his return to the U.S., Gossett had a hard time processing his experiences.

What helped him with his struggles was thinking of the family of the three girls he had helped to safety..

Blake Green, who has known Gossett since they were in training, said he remembered how the two spoke about their experiences guarding Abbey Gate. The two served in Afghanistan during the same time.

Green, who lives in Houston, said he thinks it’s important for military service members to take care of their mental health and to be open about some of the struggles they have.

“After we went back to Kuwait, we had the memorials for everyone that died, but everyone just quit talking about it; we just had to go on with life like nothing ever happened, and I think a lot of people really struggled with that,” Green said.

A miraculous escape

When terrorists attacked Abbey Gate, Ahmadshah Malakzai, 37, his wife and their teenage daughter had made it to the “green zone,” where his family would wait for a flight out of Afghanistan.

Malakzai said his family had been hiding in a water tank above their house in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan before he was able to escape to Kabul. His family was in a cramped hotel room in the capital when Justin Webb, a U.S. Marine he had helped as an interpreter, called him.

Webb, who lives in Dallas, told Malakzai he would figure out a way to bring his family to the U.S. Malakzai, his wife and his daughter are among the hundreds of Afghan families that live in North Texas.

“You know when someone is dying and needs oxygen?” Malakzai said. “It was a miracle.”

As Malakzai, with Webb’s instructions, approached Abbey Gate, he said he saw what looked like “millions of people” trying to escape the country. Webb had sent him a document to print out and told him to show it to U.S. military personnel at the gate.

He made his way toward the front of the crowd, holding up the document Webb had told him to present, and trudged through chest-high sewage water that bordered the airport perimeter.

That’s when one of the U.S. military service members pointed him out and pulled him and his family out of the sewage. Malakzai said he remembers turning around to get one last glimpse of his homeland as the doors of the cargo plane closed behind him.

Despite the challenges of adjusting to life in the U.S., Malakzai is grateful for a second chance at life and a future that his daughter can be hopeful for.

“The [U.S.] Marines, trust me, they were heroes for me, you know?” he said.

Meeting a hero

Gossett said his faith helped him after he returned to the U.S. after his deployment. He got married in 2022 and is training to be an electrician.

He, however, still had hopes of finding the trio he had helped in Kabul. In his search, he met Webb, who told him about the Afghan evacuee families he had been helping in North Texas.

“I kept on sending him pictures of all the families and I was like, ‘Hey, I know you lost friends and everything but look, this is what you did; these people are alive because of y’all,’” Webb said.

Webb arranged for Gossett to meet with the Afghan evacuee families, including Malakzai and his relatives in mid-October.

On Oct. 16, Gossett and his wife Ashley were invited to Meadowmere Park in Grapevine for a cookout prepared by the Afghan families. As he stood, watching the children play and walk toward Grapevine Lake holding their mother’s hands, Gossett said the meeting brought him healing.

Gossett doesn’t know if he’ll ever find the family of the girl he helped in Kabul, but he finds solace in seeing and meeting some of the people who escaped Afghanistan through Abbey Gate.

“This shows me that it wasn’t all for nothing,” Gossett said.

Gossett said he plans to keep up with Webb and the other families he met in North Texas. As a show of his appreciation, Malakzai gifted Gossett a traditional Afghan rug, one of few belongings he had left of his homeland.

Gossett plans to hang the rug in his home in California; it’ll be something to remind him the importance of the lives he saved.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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