Abbey Gate

Marines at Abbey Gate.

Cobra

Capt. Jordan Carlson is about as straightforward as a person gets. “Cobra acquired three 44-person buses for the Marines to utilize for evacuee transport. I won’t relate how,” he told me.

Aside from building a fleet of an additional 20 vehicles, his company provided security for various sectors of the airport and responded to breaches in the perimeter of numerous civilians that jeopardized air operations. 

“We worked with the Red Devils (1/504 Airborne) and Geronimo (3/504 Airborne), setting up screen lines to dissuade civilians from finding ways through the perimeter walls or fences. It was tough to escort jumpers back outside the gate or over the wall, but that was our mission. One Afghan had a letter from a state governor that he thought gave him permission to leave. In my mind, I thought to myself, ‘Why did you do that?’ You gave false hope to this poor dude.”

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Engineers

I met Capt. Bob Zellmann when we were assigned to the Bastards about two years ago. Bob is the quiet, competent sort who just seems to get the job done — usually with a huge dip in his mouth.

“I’m never going to do my job as an engineer, am I?” he joked. It was January 2020, and we were at the Leadership Training Program at Fort Irwin, California, prepping for our National Training Center rotation the following summer. Bob had realized that as a combined arms battalion the likelihood of him actually doing engineer work was slim, but everyone quickly recognized his talent and ability. He became a capable battle desk officer-in-charge. 

His prediction was proven false shortly after we landed in Kabul. It was clear to all of us that the perimeter of HKIA was porous and insecure. Desperate Afghans found holes wherever they could, as illustrated by the thousands of civilians who had stormed the airfield hours prior. Capt. Zellmann and Staff Sgt. Alex Bodnar of Cobra Company — himself a prior engineer — became a two-man force to be reckoned with.

Bob’s small team scrounged enough wire, rebar, machinery, welding equipment, ties, tools, and other material, without support from the brigade, to get the job done. As it turned out, higher was about two days behind Bob the Builder.

“We knew that non-approved civilians could easily get in with little effort, but I was more concerned with the potential for a devastating vehicle-borne or suicide vest-IED,” recalled Bob. “Additionally, all that was between us and over 100 people in many places was a chain-link fence, and sometimes not even that.”

They worked under constant threat 8 to 12 hours each day. As I worked in the Tactical Operations Center adjacent units or the 82nd Airborne Brigade engineer would stop by. “You know where Capt. Zellmann is? We need his help.” 

While he was working near Pad 9 of HKIA, Anzio called in a possible IED at the flight line entry control point. It turned out that a pickup truck was abandoned by evacuees from a special Afghan military unit. In their rush to leave, they had left their vehicle, and inside was 100 pounds of C4 explosives with detonation cord and blasting caps. Capt. Zellmann coordinated with Explosive Ordnance Disposal to clear the site.

All told, Bob, Staff Sgt. Bodnar, and his rag-tag group of laborers (to include our Command Sgt. Maj. Travis Manzke wielding a welding torch and our plans officer Capt. Drews driving a forklift), identified, mitigated, and reinforced 22 breaches, executed five complex block obstacles, and prepped one hasty block. They emplaced over 700 meters of concertina wire and assisted 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions and the Marines. At their request, Bob oversaw the last line of obstacles in support of the parachute infantry regiments’ joint tactical exfiltration. 

As the team emplaced one of the blocks near an entry control point a Special Forces operator walked up. “Normally, the active-duty guys just roll a strand of C-wire across and call it a block, but this,” he told Bob. “This is a block.”

 

Hell at the Abbey Gate

Even though I was acting as executive officer (XO) forward, I stayed plugged into the intelligence community. Staff Sgt. Dustin Mongold, my noncommissioned officer in charge, constantly updated me on brigade info and chatter from the classified chat rooms.

Descriptions of vehicles and subjects were ubiquitous. We knew ISIS-K was attempting to derail the evacuee operations, run us out of town, and discredit and challenge the Taliban.

“We’re sharing intel with the Taliban on the ISIS-K threat,” Mongold said. Strange bedfellows.

Drone footage monitored all sectors. Human and signal collection efforts attempted to discern clarity from the murkiness. VBIED, SIED, rocket attacks, and complex ambushes were reported as imminent. It’s hard sometimes not to sound like Chicken Little. We knew the sky was falling…we just didn’t know when or where. As the U.S. and (ironically) Taliban shifted tactics to disrupt the threats, ISIS-K kept adapting. The game of chess was bound to result in a piece being removed from the board. The entire intelligence enterprise worked to assess and delay. We had to keep the gates of the airport open as much as possible. Every evacuee depended on it, but with it came great risk.

On August 26th, as troops operated to get people out, a suicide bomber detonated his charge at the Abbey Gate. The gate had been crowded with people, jostling for entrance. Narrow and canalizing, it was especially suited to the type of gruesome attacks carried out by the Islamic State. A sewage canal ran alongside it, and Afghans waded in the putrid water, disregarding its contents in the hope they could get inside and on a plane. The explosion was followed by gunfire from assailants near the entrance for Special Immigrant Visa holders and their families. ISIS-K had found a weakness and exploited it to devastating effect. In their quest for ideological purity, which even found them pitted against the Taliban, the monstrous network killed men, women, and children — among them Marines, a soldier, and a Navy corpsman. Scores of military and civilians were injured.

 

Capt. Cochran

Our hearts fell into our stomachs. Those of us who had deployed to combat before knew that getting blown up was the worst kind of war. There is nothing to shoot back at most of the time; there was simply unexpected carnage. We knew this was the first blow, and the threat would not diminish. A couple of days later, a U.S. drone strike on a VBIED stopped another catastrophe. Collateral damage appears to have unintentionally killed innocent bystanders. Did the preemptive attack save countless others? Arguably yes, but it was at a terrible cost. Like a ripple on a pond, the reverberations of hatred and violence spread out and corrupt 

our world.

In the face of that stands those who are the helpers. Capt. Rachel Cochran and Lt. Col. Timothy “Doc” Borden, Task Force Bastard medical providers, jumped into action along with two of their medics, Sgt. Sara Seck and Spc. Ali Hutter.

Capt. Cochran, a physician assistant with a disposition that expresses both grace and professionalism, had just a few days prior made rounds in a nearby evacuee compound with her medics. Rachel’s blonde hair was tucked under her helmet. A group of children, dark-haired and starry-eyed, gathered around her.

“Are you a girl?” one child asked through an interpreter.

“Yes.”

“And you’re a doctor?

“Yes.”

“I want to be a doctor, too!”

“You can be, and maybe you will,” replied Rachel. “Come to America and be whatever you want to be.”

Capt. Cochran was wearing all her gear that day – except for her cape.

On August 26th Rachel found herself at the hell of Abbey Gate. Arriving in a field ambulance, she surveyed the aftermath. Hundreds of injured Afghans walking through the gate amongst the dead and dying, soaked in sewage from the canal. Blood everywhere. 

 

GROUND ATTACK IMMINENT!

Out of nowhere, a siren sounded and an authoritative voice pierced the air, announcing that a ground attack was imminent. After an IED oftentimes an assault follows with coordinated small arms fire. A family of women and children cowered in shock. A woman with obvious head injuries; a young girl with burn marks on her chest; a toddler boy; another 12 or 13 year old who was screaming. Capt. Cochran threw herself over them, sheltering them from a possible follow-on attack with her body armor.

They triaged who they could, and raced across the airfield to the makeshift medical facility. Capt. Cochran adeptly administered aid alongside others to a four-year-old girl with bullet wounds. Doc Borden, Task Force Bastard surgeon, worked to save the life of a Marine with blast injuries. Both are employed in emergency rooms back home in Minnesota, and both exemplified the heroic virtues of first responders and emergency medical personnel that work every day to protect and save the lives of strangers.

As our providers and medics worked feverishly, Maj. Joe Genin, operations officer-in-charge, and I poured over sector maps at the Command Post. An urgent call came out over the radio net for Type O Negative blood. We yelled out across the hangar for volunteers. The men had just bedded down after a long overnight shift. Six Bastards popped up, eager to give blood and help whoever needed it. I quickly escorted them over to the makeshift medical facility. They were tired and worn out, but they wanted to be there for an Afghan civilian or service member in need. As I walked back to the battalion area, one of the 82nd Airborne operations sergeant majors smiled at me and said, “The land of 10,000 lakes and O Negative blood. They’re saving lives, sir.”

 

Holy Bastard

That’s the call sign for 1-194’s Chaplain, Chad Czischke. The 1/82 Brigade are known as the “Devils.” Between both Chaplains, a Devil and a Bastard, I guess I’m at a loss for words.

Chaplain Czischke is a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who lives across the Saint Croix River from Stillwater, Minnesota on the Wisconsin side. At the risk of alienating his soldiers, he claims to be a Packers fan. Regardless of his football foibles, he is laser-focused on the mental and spiritual wellness of the task force. 

“They stayed strong, most days with smiles,” he said. “I’m proud of them.”

He recalled how he went to visit the evacuees to deliver necessities like baby formula, diapers, and wipes along with food, toiletries, and goodies.

“We had bags of stuff. Most of them had nothing – just the clothes on their back. A suitcase if they were lucky.”

He encountered a young married couple with a baby. Chaplain thought he would just hand her the bag of items. Instead, she pulled out just a couple of things. “That’s all I need,” she said.

 

Concludes next week.

 

Capt. Charlie Anderson is the S2 for 1-194 AR (TF Bastard), and served as the XO Forward at HKIA. He is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield. From 1998-2006 he served as a military policeman, completing a combat tour in Iraq 2003-2004. After a 7-year break-in-service, he re-enlisted and completed State officer candidate school, branching military intelligence (MI). As a member of the Minnesota National Guard, his previous assignments include 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion (AS2) and 334 BEB MICO (XO). In his civilian life, he is a Commander with the Saint Paul Police Department and a local elected official. He resides in Marine on St Croix, Minnesota with his wife (Betsy) and four children (Thorin, Ingrid, Kjersten and Leif).

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