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A Marine who helped lead Afghanistan evacuations reflects on those left behind

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's pick up the story of Lieutenant Colonel Chris Richardella, Marine Corps commander, still serving, still active duty. Last August he was one of the officers in charge of security for Kabul Airport as Afghanistan fell apart around him and the airfield he and his troops were protecting became the only way out for Afghans and Americans desperate to flee. Yesterday on the program, we heard what it was like to experience firsthand the chaos of August 15, 2021, the day the Taliban took over Kabul. It wasn't until a few days later, Richardella told me, that his phone began to buzz.

CHRIS RICHARDELLA: I started receiving a lot of emails. I started receiving a lot of text messages, many of these people - some top former officials, some with a lot more rank under their collar or retired at this point, reaching out to me. How they got my name and number, I don't know. Many peers of mine reaching out - hey; you need to look for this guy. This is his name. This is how many people he has. These are his family members. And it just became constant - I mean, all day, every day, people reaching out to you, asking for help. You know, about 3 to 5,000 people in a gate trying to get just a small family through was very tough. I did do some of those missions. I would call them to help out in the middle of the night, where we would open a side door to a gate, bring family in after we had coordinated with that family and the people back here on how to signal, where to link up, when to come in. We'd bring them in, and we'd take them to the bird immediately to evacuate.

KELLY: Do you remember anybody in particular, an individual or a family who you were able to help?

RICHARDELLA: Not by name, but I can picture them right now as we speak.

KELLY: Describe them to me.

RICHARDELLA: Yeah. There was a family, a gentleman who was an interpreter. My friends reached out to me, told me this is a good guy, and he had all the necessary paperwork. He just couldn't get to the gate. And he had his family with him. So middle of the night, many of these people had been outside the gate, just trying to get in for five days or so with no food, no water.

KELLY: Yeah.

RICHARDELLA: Very tough situation. I brought the family in. I took a picture with them to send back to my friends just to verify that everything was good. And I drove them with - I don't know - 10 people in a five-passenger SUV. They're all sitting on top of each other, some sobbing, some elated, and drove them straight to where they were going to be processed into the system and then put them directly on the bird. That was very gratifying. It was very tough, very unrealistic to do for absolutely everyone. They just happened to be able to get to that point in the gate that I needed them to get to so that we could grab them and bring them in.

KELLY: Anyone who haunts you, who you couldn't get out?

RICHARDELLA: That's a good question because I think this is what Marines struggle with. The combat aspect of this mission was not hard. This is what Marines trained for. I think what people struggled with the most, both while we were there for the evacuation and even when we returned - because we were all sons and daughters. We're all brothers and sisters. We all have families. And this is what you were dealing with - was this just absolute crisis of humanity and looking in these people's eyes and them looking at you as their only way out because they truly believed they were going to die.

And as we, you know, watched women having babies in front of us or handing their babies over the gate because they knew they couldn't get in, some people dying right in front of us from just absolute heat exhaustion and whatever medical condition they may have had, and then bringing families who - more often than not, because they were usually large - 10, 20, 30 people - families would be separated quite often as you're coming through a very narrow portion in the gate. And all - you know, all the families coming through these crowds that were very violent were breaking people apart. And you bring kids in, and they're crying for their parents who aren't there, or you bring a mother in who's losing it because her son couldn't get through.

Looking at these people, hearing the screams, the cries, being clawed at and looking at these people in their eyes - and I think what was even tougher is that not all of these people were qualified to get onto our aircraft to be evacuated. So some of those people that we brought onto the base we then had to escort off the base. And after you tell someone once they're finally in the base in your bubble of security and then they don't clear because they don't have the right paperwork or whatever it may be and then you have to then take them off the base, that was very tough. Marines really struggled with that.

KELLY: Yeah. You told me how you train and prepare for every possible scenario going into a situation like this, and you're describing a situation that one couldn't possibly prepare for as a military officer, as a human being.

RICHARDELLA: No. There's no way you could ever think through that scenario. In fact, when we were training, you know, we trained every single day to do evacuation operations. You know, we had other Marines in our unit, you know, play the evacuees. But once you get on the ground and you induce that panic and that chaos and that friction, it's quite a different story. And there's no organization. There's no discipline. And it's quite chaotic.

KELLY: You left Kabul on August 30. Is that right?

RICHARDELLA: Yes.

KELLY: What was that like, flying out and knowing this was how 20 years of war was going to end?

RICHARDELLA: A mixed bag of emotions, to be honest with you. We had received a rocket attack on the base that morning, so we were on high alert. But to know that this was how it was going to end - you know, the previous deployment I had done there, the many friends that I had seen, many different units deploy over there over the years really kind of defines the - my generation, my career in a lot of ways for a guy like me.

KELLY: Sure.

RICHARDELLA: It's very tough to see it come to a close as it did.

KELLY: I wonder if, on that day, you got a little closer to understanding what an older generation of American service members and veterans might have felt. I'm thinking of my dad's generation, who fought in Vietnam. And then many of them had the rest of their lives to wonder, you know, if they had fought a war that some would see - that could be seen as a waste.

RICHARDELLA: I share that sentiment. I felt closer to that generation in that moment than I ever have in my entire life. But as I would tell any one of those Vietnam veterans, who I'd thank for their service more strenuously now having a shared experience with them, as I would tell my Marines who look back on their experience a year ago, they did well given the circumstances. They saved lives. They helped good people. They hurt bad people. And they executed in an outstanding manner and kept their honor clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERALDIC'S "TOGETHERNESS")

KELLY: That was Lieutenant Colonel Chris Richardella, who was leading a battalion of Marines in charge of security at Kabul airport when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year. Colonel Richardella, thank you.

RICHARDELLA: Thank you very much, ma'am.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERALDIC'S "TOGETHERNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Karen Zamora
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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