Two bomb attacks Thursday outside the international airport in Kabul, which killed 13 U.S. service members and numerous civilians, resurrected the trauma of the 20-year war for Afghanistan veterans and their families even as it added victims.
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Alan Mcalister, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a squad leader, said he hadn't heard from one of his best friends serving in Kabul since early Thursday.
“We are used to being the ones in combat (while) our family members are back waiting,” Mcalister said. “Now we are getting a taste of what it's like to sit and wait for information to come in, and it's a whole different fear."
Joe Chenelly, national executive director of American Veterans, or AMVETS, is a Marine who served in Afghanistan before leaving the Corps in 2006. “It's unfathomable, what's been happening,” he told USA TODAY. “So preventable, too."
Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the attack is "why we were pushing for all of this work to start a long time ago."
Latest from Afghanistan:Biden says, 'We will not forgive' after 12 US service members killed in Kabul
'Can't just wash our hands of it'
Butler, a Navy veteran who was deployed in 2003 in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said the mission to evacuate Americans and allies must continue despite the attacks.
“We can’t just wash our hands of it and walk away,” he said. "We expected an attack to come, (but) I did not expect the casualties to be this high. … The longer we're there, the more dangerous it is, the more time that our enemies have to prepare an attack.”
The dual explosions outside Hamid Karzai International Airport occurred as withdrawing U.S. forces rush to evacuate thousands of civilians after the Taliban took Kabul on Aug. 15.
U.S. officials initially said 11 Marines and one Navy corpsman, often referred to as a medic, died in the blasts. Another service member died hours later.
The attack injured 18 U.S. service members, said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command. At least 60 Afghans were killed and more than 140 were injured.
The attack followed numerous warnings, and U.S. authorities said they suspect a terrorist group called ISIS-K, a self-proclaimed affiliate of the Islamic State and a sworn enemy of the Taliban.
Veteran: US shouldn't depend on Taliban
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin offered condolences to family members and friends of those killed. "Terrorists took their lives at the very moment these troops were trying to save the lives of others," he said in a written statement. "We mourn their loss. We will treat their wounds. And we will support their families in what will most assuredly be devastating grief.
"But we will not be dissuaded from the task at hand," he said. "To do anything less – especially now – would dishonor the purpose and sacrifice these men and women have rendered."
The attacks occurred six days after President Joe Biden issued a statement declaring that the U.S. government is "in constant contact with the Taliban, working to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport. ... We’ve made clear to the Taliban that any attack – any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response."
Chenelly criticized the reliance on a 20-year enemy for security. “It's clear that we should not be depending on the Taliban to keep us American Marines, any Americans or any allies safe. And that clearly was happening today, and has been for a while.”
Biden said Thursday that when it comes to the Taliban, "it's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of mutual self-interest." The president said there was no evidence of "collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today."
First U.S. military death in Afghanistan in 18 months
No U.S. forces had been killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, when an Afghan soldier turned on American soldiers.
Within weeks of that incident, President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban in which the United States would leave Afghanistan if Taliban fighters didn't attack American troops.
Leading up to Thursday's attack, U.S. forces used Twitter to tout their evacuation efforts, posting photographs of Marines helping Afghans and others flee. A post Aug. 20 by Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, which pictured service members protecting the airport, said, "This is what we do. Semper Fidelis."
For some Americans, Thursday's deaths magnified a sense of mission failure as U.S. forces abandon the country to Taliban forces after working for two decades to build a democracy.
Shea Wilkes, a U.S. Army veteran who handled processing of wounded and slain soldiers and their property in Kandahar in 2008 and 2009, said he has mixed feelings about the U.S. withdrawal.
"I saw a lot of harsh stuff, you know, people who got blown up," he said. "You think about whether it was all in vain. It's been a pretty emotional run."
Black and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger sought to address that issue in an Aug. 18 letter to troops, raising the question: "Was it all worth it?"
They wrote, "We both believe – without a doubt – that your service was meaningful, powerful and important. ... You fought to defend your country, your family and your neighbors."
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, extended condolences to the loved ones of those killed in the attacks. They're “experiencing an unimaginable pain. But they should know that their loved ones saved countless lives in the evacuation efforts,” Takano said.
“To all veterans struggling with today’s difficult news: Know that you are not alone and that there are resources available if you need them,” he said.
Veterans who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. They can reach someone by text at 838255 or chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; The Associated Press