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World War Z

By Ben Hofstetter, Cpt, 1/82ND

"If you have ever seen the section of the movie WWZ where Brad Pitt is in Israel then you know what HKIA was like. From the zombies climbing over each other to get over the walls, to the zombies chasing the planes as they’re trying to get off the runway; that scene might as well have been a documentary on HKIA.

A note as to why I’m telling this story. I’m out of the Army now. I have a great life and all the benefits of being a veteran living in Texas. My wife and I are closing on a house in a couple weeks with the VA loan, I have a job making double my Army pay and working half the hours; life is generally amazing for me right now. Every-Single-Day I think about the people we left in Afghanistan who are barely living if they weren’t already executed for trying to live. I think of my friend from IBOLC who occasionally messages me on whats-app desperate to try and get out of Kabul, but I can’t figure out how to help him. I think of my other Afghan friend from IBOLC who is here in the States now, but is working a minimum wage job at a packing factory to make ends meet, even though he has a master’s degree and used to have a high level job in the Afghan government. It’s miserable knowing how my life is on a phenomenally upward trajectory while I witnessed (and caused) so many lives to be annihilated one year ago. I sincerely hope someone reads this story and uses it as a reason to find a way to help the Afghan people in a way that I don’t know how; but maybe at a minimum, I hope that someone else who was at HKIA and is struggling a little bit knows that they aren’t the only one and this story helps them in some way.

We landed in HKIA on the night of 16AUG. We were re-fueling in Qatar when the airfield was overrun. One of our flight crew told us about the aircraft that had taken off with Afghan bodies in the wheel-well. We all laughed like that was a normal thing to hear, but it wasn’t. That air crew was amazing though, they had no idea what they were getting into either, but they had all volunteered as members of the N.G. to fly us in. Our pilot was wearing board shorts and flip-flops and told us about how he was a middle school teacher who left teaching summer school to come fly this mission because he didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

When we took off from Qatar to fly into HKIA we had zero idea what to expect on-ground. We didn’t have comms with anyone forward, and even the couple of us that had government cell phones couldn’t get ahold of anyone who had landed the day prior from the other Battalions. The last thing we saw was the news stories of the airfield being overrun, and even our pilots didn’t have any valid information other than someone giving approval for our flight to come in. Fortunately, all was calm when we landed and the ~100 of us moved to a hanger for a couple hours until morning.

We immediately realized that HKIA was the wild wild west. If it wasn’t bolted down it was up for the taking. That first night I raided hangers and connexes looking for things to make a TOC out of. Instead, we ended up finding boxes and boxes of people’s personal items that they had to leave behind while clearing out. It was surreal. The helicopter hangers looked like the rapture had happened. Half eaten lunches, coffee still in the pot, computers on (we destroyed those), it felt unreal. The connexes had everything you can think a civilian contractor would have on HKIA. Xboxes, hand-made suits, tons of very nice winter gear. I’m sure (and hope) some of the boys came home with some of the quality items.

That morning I had my first “this is fucked” moment on HKIA. My buddy and I went to another Battalions TOC to try and figure out what was happening. This TOC had access to all the RAID cameras and everything around HKIA. Literally within a minute of walking in we saw on one of the cameras a Taliban guy with an RPK fire into the air to get a group of 50-100 civilians to back away (I have no idea where on the perimeter this was). The civilians didn’t move, so he dumped the rest of his belt into the crowd. It was absolutely astonishing and happened so fast we didn’t know what to say or do. We literally just kind of laughed it off and kept getting the ground situation. Like I said, absolutely fucked, but in the moment we (or at least I) had no idea how to process that information / series of events, so I chose to ignore them and move on.

By the time we returned from that venture the boys had taught each other how to hot-wire cars and were “acquiring” anything with wheels. There was a fire truck, a cherry-picker truck, a box truck, and 5 or 6 Rangers parked out front of our Hanger. The vehicle list expanded over the weeks to include the airport baggage trucks and the airport stair trucks (Bluth family style) which we utilized as troop transports. We quickly lost the fire-truck unfortunately. There was a net-call for anyone who had been a fireman in a past life, and then the Brigade or Division took the trucks and used them like a mobile QRF that could spray people if they started to overwhelm the gates.

Later in the day we moved to a hanger on the south side of the airfield. We had defensive positions around the majority of the south of the airfield, wrapping around the east side to a little bit of the north [see graphics slide]. To the best of my memory, the only thing we didn’t control was Abbey gate, the Marines had that. I do want to annotate that those 14 days seemed like 1, so it’s entirely possible that we expanded into controlling that territory over a couple days and not automatically and I apologize to any other units that were on the line if I got that wrong. I also want to annotate that we were immediately jealous of the other Battalions bed-down locations. We had some concrete and an open hangar door for A/C. Red Devils lived in the “state department’s” Taj Mahal with cooks and rooms, and White Devils / Brigade had all the amenities of the north side of HKIA including personal CHUs and the DFAC.

That night (I think) I had my first real moral dilemma / decision to make. One of the platoons had been patrolling to the west of our TOC earlier in the day and found an armory that still had grenades and all the fun explosives you could think of. That night as they were patrolling by it one of the Paratroopers saw a woman run in and/or heard a baby crying (I don’t fully remember). They cordoned off the armory and the PSG came and grabbed me because I happened to be battle captain at the time. I distinctly remember me, him, and the 1SG discussing the pros/cons of the situation. We couldn’t leave them in there because kids with live explosives was bad (plus civilians on this side of the airfield). But we knew if we kicked them out of the gates they would likely be executed by the Taliban (by this point we knew the Taliban were executing some of the people who tried to leave Afghanistan but were kicked back out of the gates by us). So the moral dilemma was; do we remove them from the Armory and kick them out of the gates to be almost certainly killed? Or do we leave them in there and hope they don’t blow themselves up? In my recollection, we made some half-ass answer to the problem. Along the lines of “take them out of the armory, but we’ll let them hide out in one of the abandoned buildings until we leave the country.” Fully knowing this wasn’t viable even a little bit, but none of us were willing to have a family killed for trying to survive. Luckily, this story ended well. The family had come onto the airfield the day prior when everyone else overran. They actually had some form of documentation that seemed legit (we had no idea what we were looking for), so we took them over to the Marines on the north side and put them in line to get manifested. To my understanding, they did make it out, but it’s probably wishful thinking. [A note to any of the BCo boys who were involved in that story, if I misconstrued / misremembered any of it, please reach out to the B&B page and set the record straight.]

The next day we were told to establish a gate at the traffic circle in front of the international / domestic terminals onto HKIA. As with everything else on HKIA, this mission was accomplished entirely by rednecks who could drive a forklift [shoutout Comanche 9]. A couple of the dudes acquired a forklift from somewhere and started stacking abandoned cars into a semi-defensible wall. We slapped some C-wire around it and called it a gate. This was only in a small section in the traffic circle with C-wire leading in a path into the terminal [reference graphic 2]. For what we thought the mission was it was perfect. We ended up re-adjusting the whole thing while fighting in a Roman Legion line, only without the armor / riot gear.

As I remember the story, the State Department (the actual State Department, no sarcastic quotations) had flown an “expert” out from DC to support evacuating American citizens out of Afghanistan. We were supposedly at the terminal to meet individuals who were true American citizens, i.e. passports / drivers licenses, etc. This individuals brilliant plan was to text every registered phone number with the U.S. consult and tell them to come to the terminal at the same time. Obviously, this information was rapidly shared with other civilians and what was supposed to be ~100 people turned into a couple thousand in what felt like minutes.

We ended up putting two companies on-line using the center of the traffic circle where the “I <3 Kabul” sign is as a natural barrier and just standing in place all night while everyone figured out what to do. It was absolutely brutal. The Afghan Army guys that were there would intermittently whip/beat people to keep them in line. All the images from Abbey gate of babies being handed to the Marines was happening to us, except we literally didn’t have anything in between us and them. I vividly remember standing on that traffic circle with an Afghan teenager balling his eyes out in front of me for an hour desperately trying to figure out if he was going to be safe or not. And they all yelled about how if they turned back the Taliban would shoot them on site. Of course it didn’t help that there was about a Platoon’s worth of Taliban 30 feet away that were agreeing with the civilians.

During the middle of this a family somehow made it to the front of the crush that actually had U.S. passports with a home of record in California. I have no idea what they were doing in Kabul. I do know that a decision was made to pull them out of the mass of people and get them into the terminal, about a 50m walk through open space where everyone else could see them. The concern was this group of people could quickly turn into a riot that we would have no ability to control. Eventually the plan was made up to pull the family out and then use 5 or 6 Paratroopers to walk in a tight formation around them, in an attempt to hopefully keep the crowd from really noticing that they were being taken into the terminal while everyone else was stuck on the street. It was absolutely ridiculous, but I guess it worked because there wasn’t a riot.

Getting this family in the terminal is what broke the state department official who was running this op. Once we escorted the family inside, myself and one of the 1SGs went to find the individual to figure out what we were supposed to do now that we had some Americans secure. We found this person having the worst mental breakdown I’ve ever witnessed. Looking back, it’s completely understandable, though I still have zero respect for this person losing their shit at that time. We were out front literally fist-fighting because of their failed plan, and instead of working to solve the problem this individual had a breakdown and left the area. I personally don’t know anyone who ever saw them again, and we were on our own to figure it out from there.

Eventually it did get figured out, but I honestly have no idea how. My Battalion Commander made some calls and pulled some magic, and we started cycling all the people out of the street, into the terminal, and eventually up to the north side for manifesting. I think the most important thing to note in this is we had absolutely zero idea what we were looking for in terms of paperwork or anything else that would authorize these people to come onto HKIA. I honestly have no idea if we were even checking this initial group for anything of the sort. It’s almost unforgivable to me how we were thrown into creating that gate without even a hint of an idea of what we were supposed to look for. I distinctly remember googling the term “SIV” to try and figure out what it was because the first time I had heard the term was when an Afghan civilian told me he had one. Every time I see a report of how many known terrorists made it out of HKIA I just assume the actual number is 5 or 10x the reported number because we had zero support in identification. I know there was another layer of security at the manifest site, but they were so overwhelmed it makes total sense to me that people were sneaking through. Plus, if my experience was anything to go off of, then the people who were manifesting the Afghans probably had zero idea what they were doing either.

Somewhere in the night or next day it was decided that we could run that gate indefinitely. We rolled one company off to go secure the airfield and one (CCo) stayed on to run the gate with a small Battalion TAC to interface with the Taliban and whoever else showed up. I think we ran that gate for the next ten days, though I’m sure I’m off on the timeline. We also had a company from Red Devils take over the international terminal and we jointly worked the gate for the majority of the time there. All I know for certain is I getting an hour or two of sleep and eating every once and a while the whole time we were there.

The gate eventually turned into the NATO / International gate. We worked with every other nation on HKIA to get their citizens through. Ambassadors, Generals, SOF, all of them were trying to get their people through South Gate because it wasn’t as hectic as Abbey or North Gates. We developed a relatively organized system where the leads gave us the license plate for the truck or bus their people were in that were stuck at the Taliban checkpoint up the road. Myself or whoever else was on duty at the time would go negotiate with the Taliban to get that vic through. Sometimes it was quick, most of the time it was an hours long process with threats and gun pointing. But generally we did some good I think. We had two amazing interpreters with us who had answered a Division wide MILPER asking for anyone with language experience to deploy. One of the interpreters was a Lieutenant in another Brigade who grew up just a couple streets down from where we were in Kabul. His insight into negotiating with the Taliban was truly invaluable and he very directly saved a lot of lives several times over.

I definitely remember some of the dumb stuff about that place, like the water supply was shut off to the terminal so all the toilets overflowed and dudes were shitting wherever they could. I remember at one point someone showing me a hidden toilet they had found exploring, it felt like that room in Harry Potter where whatever he wishes for shows up when he needs it most.

I also remember the not funny parts. For instance, we had just gotten a group of civilians in and we were searching them in the parking lot before shuttling them to the manifest area. While these people were in the parking lot, a huge Russian contingent with between 10-20 cars/busses came through the gate. I stopped the lead car as it came through the gate and made it follow me with the rest of the convoy as I ground guided it around the people being searched (a fairly normal thing to do). The guy in the passenger seat of the lead car was pissed and kept trying to get around me, but I cut him off each time. And then one time he did get around me for a second and he bounced a little kid off the front bumper of his car. Luckily he hadn’t really accelerated yet and the kid was fine. I naturally lost my shit at him. The passenger ended up pulling his pistol and pointing it at me out his window, and I put my rifle barrel in his throat (I was at the window). I can honestly say I’ve never been more scared than that before. Luckily it was over in a few seconds, I don’t even know if anyone else really saw it. It’s one of those situations that I’m sure we both think we won, but I’m writing this story now and he’s probably dead in Ukraine so I’m going to assume I was the winner in the end.

Another story from that period that has pissed me off for roughly 350 days is the Catholic Bishop in Kabul. As I said above, we had a system were whoever was the leader for a nation or group would bring us where their people were at the Taliban checkpoint. We had an ordered list of who we were fighting for and in what order, basically based off of arrival time at the checkpoint (they weren’t getting food or water at the checkpoint so it actually mattered). One night the Italian SOF commander informed me and my buddy that he was bringing people through. I remember telling him to get fucked because I was working on bringing someone else through at the time. Next thing I know the pope-mobile is driving into the gate. I mean straight bullet proof glass with this Bishop sitting inside. I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school and all of it, but I will never set foot in a Catholic church again. This dude is cutting corners and riding around in a bullet proof car while others are stuck at a checkpoint without food and water for days? And whatever his Catholic congregation in Kabul is either converting to Islam or being executed? I was, and am, irate about that. It’s outrageous to me that whoever that guy was is a “religious” leader.

All throughout this time random small groups of civilians would sneak through the Taliban checkpoints and try and beg their way into the gate. If they had something even remotely resembling a paper we’d figure out how to let them in, but more often than not they didn’t. I didn’t personally see anyone be executed by the Taliban, but usually in these instances where we couldn’t bring people through, the Taliban would grab them and take them around a corner. We’d here gunshots. Sometimes one per person, sometime just a mag dump. And we’d hear stories from other people about the Taliban executions happening all over the city. We’d get the texts from people stuck in the Taliban checkpoints where they were told by their neighbors that the Taliban had showed up and burned down their house or done something worse. So, I think they were executing those people and not just fucking with us, and they were hiding it so that we didn’t have a reason to kill them. But I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again.

I’ll wrap up that section of the story by saying that we think we brought between 5,000 and 7,000 people through that gate. I have no idea if that’s accurate, and I doubt there’s anyway to figure it out even if we wanted too. It’s a lot smaller of a number than came through Abbey and North gates, but I like to think we played a part in giving some people a better life than they would have had otherwise. We handed full control of South Gate over to Red Devils at some point before Abbey Gate went off, I think the day before but I’m not certain.

When the s-vest went off at Abbey gate we were hours away from taking it over. In fact, we had a small team doing a recon there when it happened. I remember sitting in our TOC area enjoying the fact that I didn’t have much to do but monitor a couple radios when the bombing happened. I remember thinking “oh shit that was super close” and then my buddy came on the radio. All I could make out was “s-vest. casualties.” It sounded like he was choking real bad (he was, on CS gas). We immediately sent our PA and medic PSG down to Abbey in the ambulance. To my understanding they saved 3 or 4 Marines lives by being first on scene with the FLS and with an actual doctor.

It was the worst for I don’t know how long, 10 or 15 minutes maybe? Just wondering if your boys are alive or not. Then someone put out a net call for all the litters we could find to bring them to Abbey. I had the keys to one of the Rangers, so me and my company XO grabbed litters from the medics and made the two minute drive over there. The first thing I saw when we got there was my buddy who was in Abbey when it went off out front and alive. He told me GMO didn’t have any casualties, but there were a ton in there. Then we ran the litters into Abbey and we saw another one of my boys / a C.O. come running out, and we asked him if he knew where they needed the litters. “fucking everywhere bro.” We rounded the corner and saw the CCP that had been set up, definitely still sticks with me. Then we got into Abbey gate proper. The Marine casualties had been moved to the CCP by the time we got there, but there were civilians everywhere. The first guy I saw had a collapsed lung. The medic was trying to reinflate it, but his chest looked like it was coming out his back. We dropped a litter off with him and the Marines that were working on him and kept running forward, eventually dropping the litters off and getting out of the Marines way. I will say that on that run I distinctly remember Marines shooting out and rounds impacting the walls above me. I will also absolutely grant that I was beyond sensory overload at that point and I was probably misinterpreting what I was seeing, but in my mind the Marines were in a gun fight there regardless of what the report said.

I’ll wrap this up with our exfil. The day we were leaving was fairly calm. The boys balled up a couple fence jumpers, but that was routine at that point. My buddy and I drove around HKIA in a tricked out range rover and acquired sodas that we dropped off at all the BPs. No idea if it helped morale, but it certainly helped mine. [sad story about that range rover; it had a “email for servicing” sticker on the back. The name was very American, so we thought it would be funny to email them and make sure they new we were going to destroy the truck and not let the Taliban have it. Two days later, while we were safe in Kuwait, I received an email in broken English pleading for help getting out of Kabul. I laughed about it with my boys and then went and cried in a random porta-shitter because we accidently gave that poor dude hope that he would get out of Kabul because we emailed him.]

Our exfil plan kind of glossed over the “what happens if they decide to kill us all” potential. The plan seemed so easy (and in reality was). Get into final BPs, wait for the C-17s to land, break down in 3 chalks, get counted onto the aircraft, 1 aircraft per Battalion. In reality we “held” HKIA on that final day/night with ~15 platoons from the three line Battalions from 1/82. That whole damn place was held by three half strength Battalions. Somehow, we’re alive. I assume there was a LOT of money involved to make that happen. If the Taliban decided that we weren’t getting out, there was about as close to nothing that we could do about it as possible. I think that’s why we didn’t talk about it. If we were overrun I’m sure the o-plan was to drop a thermobaric or something else nasty and “avenge” us, but who knows. Maybe we really did just trust the Taliban that much.

Fortunately, we all survived that exfil. It felt hairy for a bit. The little birds went out and did some gun runs just east of us (we were the farthest east), and the AC-130s were green lasering people approaching our aircraft. We all got our hearts broken one last time as we were getting ready to load the aircraft. A couple different groups of civilians were getting close-ish to the plane and we had to send some folks to go ball them up. Nothing like seeing someone get zip-tied to a fence or a truck or whatever before leaving their country forever to really seal in the flavor. I’m sure the Taliban treated them well once they found them.

I think being on HKIA has somewhat dramatically changed the trajectory of my life. My REFRAD was submitted and approved well before we went, so I was getting out of the Army regardless. My plan had been for months to leverage my TS and get a job working in the government tech industry for Google or AWS. After HKIA I decided I would never work for the government again. The amount of fraud, waste, and abuse that went into that mission was disgusting; both in human lives and wasted tax payer dollars. It honestly pisses me off way more now to see my tax money get pulled out of my check at the end of every month. For what? So we can drone strike some 90 year old dude in Kabul that we should have killed 20 years ago? Is that really a victory?

I’ll leave it with this. I’m glad I wrote this document, regardless of if it all gets published or not. I hope this story ends up having meaning to somebody, but my fear is that the whole HKIA event will just be another fall of Saigon. Everyone kind of knows it happened, no one really knows."

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