WASHINGTON – Heartbroken families of the 13 American troops killed in an ISIS-K attack during the August 2021 evacuation from Kabul ripped President Biden for ignoring the warnings of diplomatic and military officials against ending the US war in Afghanistan too soon.
The families of nine of the 13 fallen service members aired their palpable grief and furious frustration over the loss of their loved ones before the House Foreign Affair Committee on Tuesday.
“What I still struggle with most is how this was all avoidable, and [with] the continued lack of information, help and accountability and justice from the government,” said Jaclyn Schmitz, whose son Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz died in the attack.
The families spoke two years to the day they received their troops’ bodies at Dover Air Force Base during what the military calls a “dignified transfer” of their remains.
Most, like Schmitz, requested accountability — for Biden and his administration to take responsibility for their actions instead of calling the evacuation mission “a success” for having moved more than 120,000 people out of the crumbling country as it fell to the Taliban.
“We want answers. We need answers. And we expect those answers,” said Darin Hoover, whose son Staff Sgt. Darin “Taylor” Hoover died in the blast.
“I want to know why this current administration is unable to take responsibility for their actions in the days, the weeks and the months leading up to this fatal fateful day.”
Paula Knauss Selph, whose son Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Christian Knauss was among those killed, also called out the Biden administration’s apparent dodging of accountability, skewering them for blaming the chaos on the decisions of former President Donald Trump.
“President Biden and his executive Cabinet must accept responsibility publicly for the chaotic withdrawal at the end of the 20-year war,” she said. “Several presidents preceded Mr. Biden in this 20-year war, but none of them are to be held accountable for the withdrawal. That is he and he alone. That is his burden.”
Steve Nikoui, father of late Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, said that he felt the State Department and White House had failed to learn lessons from the 2021 withdrawal, adding that he “would like all other evacuations of this type to be held from the Defense Department instead.”
“To be honest with you, I think if [the Biden administration] had to do it again, they’d do it the exact same way,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve changed or we would change their chain of thoughts.”
Two years later, questions remain
Meanwhile, lawmakers, such as Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), called for an independent investigation into the lead-up and aftermath of the fatal Kabul blast.
“I apologize on behalf of our government, especially the executive branch for it, not being candid with you and for engaging in what I consider to be a gross cover-up,” Smith told the families. “There needs to be a truly independent investigation into all of the very valid questions you have asked and my colleagues have put forward in there with regards to our concerns as well.”
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) accused Biden of seeking to “execute a political operation to win political points instead of a military operation to win a fight,” criticizing his initial decision to select Sept. 11, 2021 – the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – as the withdrawal deadline. That date was later moved up to Aug. 30, 2021, in response to criticism.
“We know for a fact that there was a failing to apply any common sense to any level of planning that you could say took place. They operated on a mentality to count on the best possible circumstances, not calculate for the worst-case scenario at all,” he said.
“He used our military as pawns for politics.”
In addition to criticizing Biden’s decisions, the Gold Star families accused his administration of withholding the facts behind how and why their sons, daughters, husbands and wives died in the Aug. 26, 2021 blast.
“I would like to know why the red flags were ignored: the dissent cables, the sniper requests, the air support requests,” said Christy Shamblin, whose daughter-in-law Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee died in the blast. “I think to have transparency in all of it is really important to me.”
Schmitz said her “family was lied to” about the events leading up to the ISIS-K attack, calling out testimony by Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who told the committee in March that “the suicide bomber had been identified well before the blast, but Marines were instructed to stand down.
“We were pitched a well-executed defense and evacuation, and [they] ultimately spit in our face by referencing the evacuation as an ‘extraordinary success,’” she said. “Is losing 13 of our servicemen and women successful? Is success ending a 20-year war where veterans feel they fought for nothing?”
Some, such as Herman Lopez — father of Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez — said the Pentagon had not returned some of the troops’ belongings — including cellphones that held photos of the troops’ final moments that family members long to see.
“There’s some debate on whether someone Hunter’s property was ever recovered, and it was mentioned earlier that there’s some SD cards and digital media that’s perhaps missing from several families,” Lopez said.
“I’ve always been curious as to why those items weren’t returned to us.”
Honoring the fallen
Some of the families called for a ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden to honor the fallen heroes, accusing Biden of failing to speak the names of the 13. The Post was also unable to find records of Biden speaking their names in person.
“They need to have 13 of these pictures in the Rose Garden at the White House and be honored by this administration. Period,” said Nikoui.
While the president has listed the fallen 11 Marines, one soldier and one sailor in official White House statements and has referenced the “13 troops,” the families alleged that he has not read off each individual name in a public address.
He failed to do so even during his remarks to the nation on the day of the attack, according to transcripts. At the time, that decision was in line with the Pentagon’s policy not to release the names of those killed in action until 48 hours after next-of-kin notification. But even as recently as Saturday, Biden failed to list their names in a White House statement marking the two-year anniversary of their deaths.
“Today, Jill and I remember and mourn these 13 brave American service members and the more than 100 innocent Afghan civilians who were killed in the horrific terrorist attack at Abbey Gate,” he wrote in the statement.
In a poignant moment during the hearing, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) through tears asked each of the families’ representatives to state their loved ones’ names and list a few of their attributes, since Biden had not.
“Sgt. Nicole Gee was an encourager for life,” said Christy Shamblin, her mother-in-law.
“Staff Sgt. Darin ‘Taylor’ Hoover — fearless leader and great protector,” said his father, Darin Hoover. Kelly Barnett, his mother, also called him a “champion of people, lover of humans.”
“Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Christian Knauss: Brave, influencer, full of joy,” said his mother, Paula Knauss Selph.
“Hunter Lopez, United States Marine Corps corporal, noble warrior,” said his father, Herman Lopez. Alicia Lopez, his mother, called him a “Jedi warrior.”
“Lance Cpl. Dylan Ryan Merola: lovable, strong Marine, honorable,” said his mother, Cheryl Rex.
“[Lance Cpl.] Kareem M. Nikoui, born-again Christian,” said his father, Steve Nikoui.
“Daegan William Tyler Page: Huge heart, tough outer shell,” said his father, Greg Page.
“Cpl. Humberto ‘Burt’ Sanchez. He was a great defender,” said his mother, Coral Briseno.
“Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz: passionate warrior, honorable,” said his father, Mark Schmitz. Jaclyn Schmitz, his mother, added that he “was humble and dedicated.”
Also killed in the blast were Navy Petty Officer Third Class Maxton W. Soviak, and Marines Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza and Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, though their families were not present on the panel.