The families of the 13 U.S. service members killed outside of Kabul’s airport during the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan came before Congress together for the first time this week to seek answers about their loved ones’ deaths, nearly two years after the tragic day occurred.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., held a congressional forum with the Gold Star families on Monday, where for nearly 90 minutes Americans heard emotional testimony about how the grieving families felt mislead and betrayed by their own government.
Several called out President Biden and his top Cabinet officials by name, calling on them to resign. A father of one fallen U.S. Marine called on the president to “be a grown a– man.”
A Defense Department official said of the testimony later on Monday, “The Department of Defense expresses our deepest condolences to the Gold Star Families who lost loved ones during the tragic bombing at Abbey Gate. We are forever grateful for their service, sacrifice, and committed efforts during the evacuation operations. We also commend the historic and monumental efforts of all our service men and women who served honorably during the withdrawal period from Afghanistan.”
But several family members criticized the Biden administration and some even accused officials of lying about the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
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‘We were told lies’
Kelly Barnett, mother of Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, addressed the panel first and spoke for nearly 15 minutes, describing her pride in her hero Marine son, who had wanted to join the Corps from the age of 6.
Barnett broke down when describing her son’s fifth and final deployment to Afghanistan in 2021. She said they were made to “clean up the airport” on the way out, to not “leave it dirty for the Taliban.”
She also accused Biden officials of lying to her about her son’s death – saying she was told he died immediately only for eyewitnesses to tell her he “lived for a little while.”
“We were told lies, given incomplete reports, incorrect reports, total disrespect,” Barnett said. “I was told to my face he died on impact. That’s not true. The only reason that I know this is because witnesses told me the truth. I was lied to and basically told to shut up.”
A picture of Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover sits on the steps of the Utah State Capitol as family members arrive for a memorial service on Aug. 29, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
‘No illusion anyone will be prosecuted’
Another Gold Star mother who is seeking answers for the death of her son, Cpl. Hunter Lopez, said she was not surprised at how difficult it was for her to get to the bottom of what happened.
“Our system is quick to identify those at fault in faraway countries but yet we are challenged to evaluate ourselves,” she said.
“I have no illusion that anyone will be prosecuted or terminated for ignoring intelligence or making bad decisions, not even for lying to all our Gold Star families,” Alicia Lopez said. “This outcome is sad, but it is what we have to come to expect from a system that would prefer to hold secrets for decades and beyond until someone finally has the decency to unseal classified information that would bring solace to grieving families.”
Lopez added later, “My request is that those mistakes are owned up to, that my family and the other Gold Star families here … that we are made aware of who is accountable. We do not want a partial truth or a truth told in a book release or when information is declassified 20, 30 or 40 years from now.”
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Hundreds salute Cpl. Hunter Lopez, who died in the Afghanistan airport attack, at Riverside National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater in California on Sept. 18, 2021.
Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui’s father, Steve Nikoui, accused Biden of using his Marine son “as a pawn so we can meet his Sept. 11th deadline and get the optics he wanted” with regard to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago.
“My life and that of my family’s has been on pause since the early morning of Aug. 26, 2021,” the emotional father said. “The difference between the minutes of my life before that and the minutes that passed after that day are contrasted drastically.”
Closing out his remarks, Steve Nikoui told an anecdote of a game he and Kareem shared when he would return to his base.
“I would be [at] the other end of the house far away, and I would wait to hear the door creak because of the hinge, the front door. And as soon as I heard that, I would yell as loud as I could his name, Kareem. And this was to pay homage to every father-son movie ever made. … I’d be like, ‘Avenge me!’ And, you know, and I would come and look at him, and he’d have the biggest smile,” Nikou said.
“And now all I hear is him in his soft voice, ‘Avenge me.’”
‘I started shaking’
Gold Star mom Cheryl Rex described having a visceral reaction to President Biden’s comments over her son’s death at the transfer ceremony when she received the body of her son, Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola.
“Myself and the other families of our 13, we’re waiting for the [plane’s] arrival to the United States when Joe Biden, our elected president, entered the room. When he approached me, his words to me were, ‘My wife, Jill, and I know how you feel. We lost our son as well and brought him home in a flag-draped coffin.’ My heart beat faster,” Rex said.
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“I started shaking, knowing that their son died from cancer, and they were able to be by his side,” she said.
Rex said she began “wondering how someone could honestly, I’m sorry, be so heartless to say he knew how I felt a little over 24 hours after learning of my son’s death.”
“After this encounter, I have never had any personal correspondence nor has my son been honored or his name spoken by this commander in chief or his administration,” she said.
A U.S. military aircraft takes off from then-Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Associated Press)
‘A knife in the heart’
“I can’t even begin to piece together the words that would convey to you the devastation that her murder has brought to our family,” Christy Shamblin, the mother-in-law of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, told officials at the forum.
“When your child is murdered, you feel like there is no justice, and you question your very existence,” she said.
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Shamblin had to pause at times during her testimony as she was overcome with emotion. Her tearful declaration that her daughter was a “bada– Marine” earned an encouraging round of applause.
But among her most emotionally charged statements came a reaction to Biden officials lauding the evacuation as a success.
“When our leaders, including the secretary of defense and our commander in chief, called this evacuation a success, as if there should be celebration, it is like a knife in the heart for our families and for the people [who] came back,” Shamblin said. “I live [every] single day knowing that these deaths were preventable. My daughter could be with us today.”