Cpl. Wyatt J. Wilson watched the flood of Afghans seeking refuge bottlenecked outside Abbey Gate at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in the hot, late August 2021 days leading up to the end of America’s longest war.
He and his fellow Marines scanned the perimeter, pushing back those who didn’t clear security, sometimes taking babies handed over barbed wire into the safe zone.
Maj. Benjamin F. Sutphen had been running nonstop starting in March 2021 to put plans together, move equipment and people out of Afghanistan as the withdrawal at the end of the month fast approached.
Another 2,000 Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response 21.2 conducted around-the-clock operations along with troops from each of the other services.
Thousands needed help as the clock ticked.
Then, on Aug. 26, 2021, a coordinated bombing attack at Abbey Gate brought tragedy to the task force.
Kabul had fallen 11 days before. But the Taliban, who controlled the city, were allowing the Americans to leave.
It was Islamic State terrorists who triggered two suicide bomb devices.
A later investigation would show that a 20-pound bomb exploded near Wilson and Sutphen, spraying the crowd with 5 mm ball bearings.
The blast threw Wilson, a G Company team leader with 2nd Battalion,
1st Marine Regiment, into the air and pelted him with shrapnel. The ball bearings and debris struck and wounded Sutphen too.
Despite their wounds and grisly scenes of fellow Marines and Afghans dead and dying in piles around them, they both recovered and kept helping.
Wilson dragged a critically wounded Marine to safety, which “undoubtedly saved the life” of that Marine as he refused care for his own “life-threatening wounds,” according to official documents.
Also wounded, Sutphen coordinated evacuation of the injured and directed security as chaos ripped through the bloody scene.
The major, also with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, later told CBS News that, given the mission, there was little that could have been done differently.
“The mission was evacuating people,” Stuphen said. “We have to keep that road open. There was not a lot we could change about that situation. It was the mission, and we executed it.”
In all, 13 U.S. troops died — 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman and one Army staff sergeant. The blast killed as many as 170 Afghans. The Abbey Gate bombing ranks as one of the highest losses of U.S. military members in the Afghanistan War in a single incident alongside the 2011 Extortion 17 mission, when enemy forces shot down a CH-47D Chinook helicopter and killed 29 U.S. troops.
President Joe Biden signed a bill into law in December 2021 awarding the Abbey Gate fallen the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously for their sacrifice.
The same day as the attack, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger directly acknowledged the tragic incident while speaking at a Navy Cross ceremony at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for a Marine Raider being honored for 2020 actions against ISIS in Iraq.
“Freedom comes at a cost,” Berger said. “The next hours … will be chaotic, will be tough for those units, for those families, I think the best we can do from where we sit in North Carolina is send them our prayers.”
In separate statements, both Berger and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black offered condolences.
“Though their loss was in great service to our Nation, I join every Marine and Sailor who vows to carry on their legacy and remember their sacrifice,” Black wrote.
Berger wrote, “These fallen heroes answered the call to go into harm’s way to do the honorable work of helping others. We are proud of their service and deeply saddened by their loss.”
Wilson and Sutphen both received Bronze Star Medals with combat “V” awards, for their actions in Afghanistan. Those are the highest known awards presented related to the withdrawal.
Thirty-seven Marines and sailors in the operation received Purple Hearts and 313 received Combat Action Ribbons in connection with Operation Allies Refuge, Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesman Maj. Jordan Cochran shared in an email.
Officials credit the operation with evacuating as many as 124,000 U.S. citizens, Afghans and citizens of other nations, helping them escape brutal Taliban rule. The airport’s Abbey Gate alone flowed 33,000 evacuees through its position.
At a Sept. 8, 2021, memorial ceremony for troops lost in the Abbey Gate attack, Capt. Geoff Ball, then-commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment’s Ghost Company, saw that even with the terrible loss, the Marines executed their mission.
“The whole world was watching,” Ball said, according to a New York Times report. “But the Marines at Abbey Gate, we pulled in 33,000 people, more than any other gate. We stayed open when other gates closed. We should take pride in that.”
Some of the wounded only recently returned home.
Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews completed treatment for his injuries at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Maryland in July, returning home to California, as reported by Stars and Stripes.
Nearly a year later, tributes for the fallen Marines continue. The Cowboy State Daily, a Wyoming-based news outlet, recently reported that the late Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, a native of Jackson, Wyoming, was to be honored in a memorial presentation at a local rodeo night on July 29.
As Afghans arrived in the United States, Marines and other services opened locations on military bases to house and process the refugees. Dubbed “Operation Allies Welcome,” the move saw more than 75,000 Afghans, most of which were housed at eight separate installations.
At Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, an estimated 1,000 Department of Defense personnel, many of them Marines, housed and coordinated care, monitoring and security for more than 3,755 Afghan evacuees, according to official reports.
The base saw Afghans arrive as the military withdrawal concluded. The last evacuees left Quantico in late December 2021.
Even at the 20-year war’s bitter end, both at home and abroad, Marines shepherded Afghans to safety, even at the cost of losing their own.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media