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Bearing Witness: Radio Operator's Memories of Kabul

By Travis Brignone, Weapons Company, Jaeger Comm, 2nd Battalion 1st Marines

I was in Weapons company, 2nd battalion, 1st Marines. I was the senior line and FSCC Radio Operator for the company for deployment. We were on the way back from Jordan doing joint training when I first remember hearing that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. We weren’t told anything from command to start with, just footage on Instagram that was being passed around the battalion like wildfire. By the 10th, rumors were spreading faster than the footage was. “we’re going to re-invade”, “We’re allies with the Taliban now!”, “the army’s dealing with it”, nothing could have prepared us for the reality. I don’t think I mentally accepted the fact that we were going until my XO told me he wanted every radio in the company programmed and gave me NATO JOC nets to put in them. The 24-hour warning came soon after, I remember hearing the company rushing around and the CP tent busier than I had ever seen it while I sat there programming radios late into the night. We got the 12-hour warning, and the other Company ROs came to op-check their radios, we were on plus 12 for over a day. I had avoided cigarettes my entire life but the next night when my Sgt offered me one, I had my first dart. I don’t think my nerves had ever been so shot, little did I know it was just going to get worse.

On the evening of the 16th, we put our kits on and staged for the buses. Ammo was passed out and we started loading 180 rounds of green tip, there were some excited comments and bravado in the beginning but by the time everyone was ready to load onto the buses it was silent. A couple of videos of Echo company taking the airport came out and we started to realize just how messy this was going to be. We were on the plane by the morning of the 17th, the air in that plane was electric. Not many words were said but you could practically taste the anticipation and nerves in the air. Once we landed, before the plane stopped moving, 1stSgt gave the order to go condition 2. Without a clue as to what had been happening on the ground for the last couple of hours, we had no idea what to expect. Imagine our surprise when the door came down and two Airforce gals were standing there holding their helmets ready to walk us to our staging area. We set up shop in the dining facility that first day, I handed out the radios, and one by one the Platoons started pushing out to the gate. I spent that entire first night coordinating with the Battalion S-6 and JOC making sure the comm was good with the Company.

Early in the morning of the 19th, my XO told me and my buddy Billy we were being attached to the Shock Trauma Platoon (STP) as ROs / Security. By that afternoon we started setting up shop in a building right next to East Gate. The guys at Abby gate were having trouble talking to the JOC on the other side of the airport so I got up onto the roof to jerry-rig an OE to relay for them. Lying on the roof, almost done with the antenna, I heard a very distinct sound. I remember thinking to myself, I know that sound, where do I know that sound from? It wasn’t until the second round passed well over my head (I’m pretty sure it was just intimidation) that I realized it was the sound you hear when pulling pits. I don’t remember how I got off that roof, but I was back on the ground before I remembered to breathe again. I guess it was a first-time thing cause hearing pop shots overhead didn’t even phase me by the time we left. A holding area for refugees was set up next to East Gate and the STP was right smack in the middle of it. Billy and I worked out a schedule where one of us would sit 12 hours of radio watch, then swap out and stand guard 10 hours outside the STP door to stop refugees from forcing their way in for food, water, and medical supplies. We would get two hours of sleep before taking over radio watch and doing the whole thing over again. We kept this up till we left. In the room with the radios, we took a Sharpie and started mapping out the airport and what was happening on the walls. It was a desperate attempt to have some kind of control and grasp of the situation.

Outside the building was absolute chaos. We would have hundreds of refugees in the holding area with sometimes as few as a dozen Marines to keep watch of them, 1/8 were the ones manning East Gate and the holding area. Multiple times a day the refugees would hear a rumor that they weren’t going to get on a plane or that they were going to get kicked out of the gate, then all hell would break loose. The women and children would start screaming and wailing and the men would start to riot. Once a riot broke out it was Objective: Survive. It was usually all the 1/8 guys could do to keep the crowd in the holding area as undermanned as it was, let alone stop the riot. More often than not that left Billy or myself isolated in the center of the raging crowd trying to stop them from rushing the STP. Say what you want about us guys who were there and the things we did, but if you let yourself get dragged into that crowd, you were as good as a dead man. I saw rioting crowds trample women and children to death more than once, and we had rifles with rounds in them. Once it got so bad, I had to get inside the STP, and Billy, two Corpsman, and I had to brace the door closed before the 1/8 guys were able to subdue the crowd with CS gas.

When the refugees weren’t rioting, it was the most heartbreaking site I have ever seen. These people had turned into frightened cattle, and I don’t blame them. For most of them, it was an all too real reality that if they didn’t make it onto a plane the Taliban would brutally kill them and their families, or worse. Mothers begging for water for their children, small boys looking after their toddler siblings because their parents had left without them, and wives trying to explain to their children that their father wasn’t coming without having to tell them that the Taliban had killed him. I saw girls no older than 15 get rushed away because they were going into labor. Mothers holding the lifeless bodies of a small child that had been trampled during a riot. “Fathers” trying to sell us their daughters so that they could get on a plane themselves. One of the most scarring experiences was when mothers who knew they wouldn’t make it through the gate threw their infants over the wall, hoping, praying, that they would survive and have a better life, any life. I don’t remember any of them surviving long after the fall. I’m still haunted by the faces of two young sisters, the oldest couldn’t have been much older than 8. Their parents had gotten on a plane without them with all the papers. We held them for a day or so trying to get ahold of a DOS guy to take them to the area for children to get on a plane, in the meantime there was a nice woman that took care of them while in our holding area. I came out the next day on my guard shift, immediately looking for the lady we left them with to give the girls food and water. I couldn’t find them and when I asked, I got multiple reports that the lady hadn’t had the correct papers and someone said they saw her, and the girls taken back out of the gate, as good as any death sentence.

Every day. Every day we walked outside and saw the worst of humanity. I had brought a small tub of pre-workout thanks to my Platoon Sgts advice. It didn’t take long for us to resort to snorting small amounts of it just to stay awake. Billy and I made it through three cartons in those two weeks, anything to cope with what we had to see every day. We closed East Gate on the 23rd or 24th, we used the holding area to hold overflow from Abby Gate after that. On the 26th I remember hearing Sgt Vargas-Andrews with the STA team over the net. I remember hearing the bomber's description half a dozen times. I remember feeling the entire building shake. My heart was in my stomach, I instantly knew what had happened. Abby was having problems reaching the JOC all day, I knew I was going to have to relay. The time between the blast and hearing the mass casualty call over the radio felt like an eternity. To this day I’m not sure who called it over but the moment they did I jumped on my radio, acknowledged the original, and started to rip my transmission to the JOC. Those words are etched into my brain. “BREAK BREAK BREAK, MASS CAS MASS CASS MASS CAS, ABBY GATE PROPER, IED. I NEED EVERY FUCKING VIC THAT CAN CARRY A BODY HERE NOW!” The rest is a blur. I remember getting a response from the JOC, I remember Billy coming over our internal radio from outside, “That was a fucking bomb…...”. I remember busting into the main room of the STP and telling the Docs to get ready because a bomb had just gone off. I remember seeing STA fly past the STP in a truck, and then the bodies started rolling in. Billy was triaging with a couple of Corpsman outside while I was jumping between the radio, carrying litters, and applying tourniquets. I remember the inside of the STP smelt like copper. I remember my boots slipping on blood. I remember Billy coming in to let me know Rylee didn’t make it. I remember that at some point the bodies and wounded were just gone.

I stood outside the STP for over an hour staring at a boot that had been ripped off, covered in blood. I didn’t know who it belonged to. I still don’t. but I stared at that boot for an hour, I don’t remember being sad or angry… just, confused. Unsure if it all had actually happened. We tore down the STP shortly after. The gate was closed, it was over. We all consolidated back at the dining facility; I don’t think anyone slept that night. I heard grown men cry that night. Men I looked up to, men I thought were harder than steel, the men that had told us war stories from real combat quietly sobbed. Hearing those men cry, only made me cry harder. I don’t know if I was sleep deprivation or my brain blocking out my memories but that’s all I remember from that day, maybe it’s for the better. We lined up along the road, and not a word was spoken. Marines and Soldiers shoulder to shoulder, and we watched. We watched as they passed by slowly. 13 metal caskets covered by 13 of the most vibrant, heart-wrenching American flags I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if anyone still had tears in their eyes to shed, I didn’t. Under those flags were fathers-to-be, best friends, boot camp buddies, and our brothers and sisters. I was close to a few; I knew them all 10 from 2/1.

The silence was deafening, a silence that settled onto our souls. I will never forget that silence, the sun gleaming off the caskets as they passed, the ache in my head from wanting to cry but not having any tears left, or the way we didn’t say a word when it was over. I just walked back with Billy, packed our gear, and got ready to leave. It’s been two years since that day when I’m writing this. I still don’t know why STA wasn’t allowed to take out the bomber. I still don’t know why we weren’t sent reinforcements. I still don’t know why we just left with our tails between our legs. I still don’t know what happened to those two girls. I still don’t know whose boot that was. The nightmares are fading though, talking through them helped. I can walk in a crowd without panicking now. I’m slowly learning to not blame and hate myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same, but I’m better. Just a little bit, every day.

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