Family members of the 13 US service members killed two years ago in the Abbey Gate bombing during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan demanded accountability and answers from the Biden administration on Tuesday in emotional testimony about the withdrawal and their losses.
“Jared, David, Nicole, Taylor, Ryan, Hunter, Riley, Dylan, Kareem, Johnanny, Humberto, Max, and Daegan are not just casualties of war,” Jaclyn Schmitz, the mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, said at a roundtable on Tuesday convened by House Foreign Affairs Republican Chairman Mike McCaul. “They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, that were pawns in some agenda, and we deserve some information and collaboration from all political parties. It may not be easy, or on your specific schedule or docket, but neither was any of this, for all of us, until it was.”
Parents of several of the 13 killed, seated around the table, gave personal accounts of who their children were before the suicide bombing on August 26, 2021, which killed 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and one soldier along with more than 170 Afghan civilians. The bombing came days into a frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan, in which US service members and allied military members were working to evacuate civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. It was the deadliest day for US troops in Afghanistan in roughly a decade.
The families on Tuesday demanded that President Joe Biden say their fallen sons’ and daughters’ names, and “accept accountability” for the withdrawal.
The roundtable was held just days after the two-year anniversary of the bombing. Congress is currently on August recess.
The families’ comments come months after the Biden administration released a summary of findings from an administration-wide after-action review on the withdrawal.
The summary largely placed the blame for difficulties experienced during the withdrawal on the Trump administration, and acknowledged some lessons learned regarding evacuations. The State Department’s after-action review, however, offered a sharper rebuke of decisions made by the Biden administration that resulted in the chaotic withdrawal.
The Defense Department has not released an unclassified version of its after-action review but did release the official investigation by US Central Command into the Abbey Gate bombing that included sworn testimony from more than 100 witnesses.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement on Tuesday that the Defense Department is “forever grateful” for the service and sacrifice of the 13 service members killed in the “tragic bombing at Abbey Gate.”
The statement also said that CENTCOM’s investigation was a “comprehensive, credible, and definitive investigation” into the attack, and that the bombing “was not preventable without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees, and the leaders on the ground followed the proper measures and procedures.”
The US withdrawal became a focus for Republicans in Congress after taking the majority in the House in 2022. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has held multiple hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal, and McCaul vowed Tuesday to “not relent from this investigation.”
Democrat Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, who was also present at the roundtable on Tuesday, extended her condolences to the families on Tuesday, saying it is “a fact that the end” of the war in Afghanistan “was devastatingly heartbreaking.”
“A tragic terrorist bomb, tearing away so many civilians there, as well as our service members, your loved ones,” Dean said. “Still, it was necessary to bring this war to a close. We know that it was a series of decisions over multiple administrations that brought this war to an end. A very tragic end.”
Throughout their statements on Tuesday, family members claimed they have been lied to by military and Biden administration officials, who they said have shirked responsibility for the withdrawal. They also demanded further investigation into what happened during the withdrawal and one father demanded investigations of Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“What happened in Kabul was preventable, avoidable, and should never have happened,” the mother of Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, Shana Chappel, said in a letter read Tuesday by Republican Rep. Brian Mast. “When you know you’re guilty of doing something wrong, you don’t talk about it, and if you get caught you blame someone else. That’s exactly what Biden has done for two years.”
During the roundtable, McCaul read a statement aloud from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, saying “[w]e owe those Gold Star families everything.”
“We owe them transparency, we owe them honesty, we owe them accountability if appropriate. We owe them the truth about what happened to their loved ones,” Milley said, according to the statement provided to CNN.
“This is a personal thing for all of us in uniform,” he said. “We don’t like what happened in Afghanistan. We don’t like the outcome of Afghanistan. We owe it to the families to take care of them. Their sacrifices were not in vain.”
Multiple parents, however, said they do not think they’ve yet learned the full truth of what happened to their sons or daughters. Several pointed to previous testimony from a Marine who was deployed on the same mission and injured in the Abbey Gate bombing, Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews.
Vargas-Andrews previously told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he and other Marines believed they saw the man who would ultimately detonate the bomb at Abbey Gate, and after asking for permission to shoot, never received an answer.
“Plain and simple, we were ignored,” Vargas-Andrews said in March. “Our expertise was disregarded. No one was held accountable for our safety.”
“How can it just be acceptable that our snipers cannot get an immediate and straight answer from their commanding officer at such a crucial moment?” the father of Lance Cpl. Schmitz, Mark Schmitz, said at Tuesday’s roundtable.
The families ultimately called for whatever change would ensure no other families endure what they have.
“The United States of America will again be called on to evacuate and to rescue vulnerable groups of people,” the mother-in-law of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, Christy Shamblin, said. “Please help us make positive changes so that we don’t have to watch another parent walk through the hell that we are walking.”