Families of Camp Pendleton-based Marines killed in a suicide bombing outside Afghanistan’s Kabul airport in August 2021 voiced their frustration Monday about what they said was a lack of answers from the military about the attack and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The seven Gold Star family members delivered testimony at a packed public forum hosted by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Bonsall, in the council chambers at Escondido City Hall, weeks before the second anniversary of the attack that killed a total of 13 U.S. troops.
Issa’s office said it was the first time the families had been offered an official platform to speak. Many of those who spoke lambasted the military and the Biden administration, saying they wanted a fuller account of what happened on Aug. 26, 2021, and why.
“I want the answers. I want the truth. I want to go to sleep knowing my son did not die in vain. I want to know that this failure will not happen again,” said Coral Briseno, mother of Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22.
Asked for comment about the concerns raised by the families, a Department of Defense spokesperson said, in part:
“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.”
The 13 slain service members at the heart of the hearing were among 183 people killed in a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands rushed to the airport, desperate to leave as the U.S. military withdrew following 20 years in Afghanistan.
In March, active-duty troops and veterans who’d witnessed the chaos at the airport testified in front of Congress, with one Marine describing the pullout as a “catastrophe” with “an inexcusable lack of accountability,” the Associated Press reported.
Eleven of the 13 troops were from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment assigned to Camp Pendleton. Only two of the fallen were older than age 23.
Monday’s speakers included Kelly Barnett, mother of Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, who she said had wanted to be a Marine even when he was 6 years old. She said he was a natural leader.
Hoover, 31, was on his fifth deployment — and his third to Afghanistan. Hoover’s mother said her son arrived in the country in mid-August — less than two weeks before the bombing — and said “his concern began the moment he landed and saw what he saw.”
“His words were ‘chaos, no communication, lack of leadership.’ He said he had never seen anything like it,” Barnett said.
In the aftermath, Barnett said, family and friends “were told lies, given incomplete reports, incorrect reports.”
She said had been informed her son died on impact, but witnesses told her a different story. She learned her son had “lived for a little while” after the blast, that he’d tied a tourniquet around his leg, and that he gave out his ammunition.
“I don’t understand the reasoning of that lie,” Barnett said. “It makes no sense.”
Among those killed was 23-year-old Sgt. Nicole Gee, who days before she died posted a photo of herself holding an infant in Afghanistan. She wrote, “I love my job,” in the Instagram post, which went viral after the attack and has more than 191,000 likes.
Her mother-in-law, Christy Shamblin, described Gee as “ambitious, driven, caring,” and talked about how much she loves the well-known photo.
“She’s in the middle of the most horrific conditions I’ve ever witnessed in my life and she’s proudly serving her country and loving her job and doing it 100 percent,” Shamblin said.
Shamblin, too, said she wanted more answers. “I live every single day knowing that these deaths were preventable.” She also said the suggestion that the withdrawal was a success is “the ultimate disrespect.”
“This was not a success,” Shamblin said.
During the forum, the congressman was flanked on the dais by mayors from Escondido, San Marcos, Vista and Santee — some cities inside and some outside his 48th Congressional District, which includes a large swath of East County and reaches into southwest Riverside County.
The congressman said the event was nonpartisan. He noted that the site of Monday’s forum was not far from Camp Pendleton. ”By doing it here, I think we made it more about the families and about what Gold Star Families face.”
He said the event, which was simulcast and recorded, will be a part of the official congressional record.
The families, he said, are expected to have a private ceremony Tuesday at Camp Pendleton.
Camp Pendleton-based Marines who were killed in the attack were:
Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas;
Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Roseville;
Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City, Utah;
Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio;
Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo.;
Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga;
Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco;
Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha, Neb.;
Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.;
Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.; and
Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo.
Also killed were:
Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.; and
Navy Corpsman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio.
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