US troops reflect on helping thousands of Afghans 'to a better life, to freedom'

·3-min read

The chaos of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was harrowing for those on the ground.

For two weeks there was a desperate scramble for the exit, desperation that turned deadly when a suicide bomber targeted some of the most vulnerable people in the world - and the military personnel trying to help them.

Trying to process thousands of people for evacuation in those conditions was not something anyone had trained for.

Families waiting for days in the insufferable heat with babies, children, the elderly. Yet somehow 122,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan in just a fortnight.

Nearly half of those evacuees came to America's sprawling Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

It has been an emotional two weeks for Brigadier General Gerald Donohue, who is in charge of the evacuation effort.

"Think about the magnitude of what we've done - shepherded through this installation more than 55,000 people to a better life, to freedom.

"That has not been repeated elsewhere in the course of human history that I'm aware of.

"It's extraordinary. So right now I'm anchored to that."

When asked how he kept morale high among his troops after the defeat by the Taliban and the terrorist attack at Kabul's airport, he got emotional.

"First off my team, we have one element here, it's called Air Medical Evacuation.

"So they rushed to Kabul to help bring those who were injured to the treatment they need.

"So we were proud to be a part of that as well."

The last soldiers to leave Afghan soil also arrived at Al Udeid Air Base.

The C17s sitting on the tarmac are testament to the scale and speed of the evacuations.

But for a number of days the processing hangars at the airbase could not keep up with the number of people being evacuated to safety. Afghan arrivals had to wait for hours in the blistering heat to find out their fate.

Inside one of those hangars was the human cost of military withdrawal.

Hundreds of families are now refugees - and some of the very last to get a flight out. They may be referred to as the lucky ones but nothing about this feels lucky.

Lying or sitting on camp beds, they waited in a painstaking line to be screened by US customs and border officials.

Some children were sleeping nestled with their parents, others were peering through the metal barriers at the strange environment around them. I can't imagine what they're thinking.

Infantry soldier Lt Col Matt Strand said that caring for these families has been the most rewarding job he has had in the military.

No one was prepared to discuss how they felt handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban after 20 years of war. It was quite clear that wasn't something they were prepared - or allowed - to discuss.

It has clearly been a tough and emotional two weeks for the US military - dealing with a humanitarian crisis, a terrorist attack, and defeat after 20 years of war.

But any failure lays squarely with politicians. The military has worked tirelessly to clear up the fallout.

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