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The Kabul Airlift Was A Feat Of Logistics And Stamina, Marred By Chaos And Violence

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Speaking to reporters today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin marked the end of America's longest war and heralded the massive airlift that evacuated thousands from Kabul. Well, that airlift was a feat of logistics and stamina, but it was also an effort marred by chaos and violence. Amidst all that, an unofficial coalition formed to try to help Afghans get out. NPR's Quil Lawrence tells us more.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: To understand this story, you need to know the name Chesty Puller. He's a legend in the U.S. Marine Corps from World War II and Korea. Most Afghans have no idea who he was, but every U.S. Marine guarding the gates at Kabul Airport last week - they know that name. And they perked up when they saw an Afghan family carrying cardboard signs, walking toward them. Gus Biggio served with the Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan.

GUS BIGGIO: The word had gotten passed down from the battalion leadership down to the point man on the ground, saying, you know, look out for a guy who's going to be holding this sign. It's going to say Chesty Puller and November 10, 1775, the birthday of our Marine Corps.

LAWRENCE: That Afghan and his wife and six kids holding up signs saying Chesty Puller - he had risked his life to help Biggio and the Marines in Helmand back in 2009. Now, with the collapse of the Afghan government, there was almost no official process for rescuing Afghan allies. Biggio was just one part of a huge informal network of veterans and former diplomats working with troops on the ground to get Afghans out.

BEN OWEN: So, like I said, I got brought in really on the data side, but very quickly, we were able to start finding some of these families.

LAWRENCE: Ben Owen is an Army vet - never been to Afghanistan - but he runs a data intelligence company. He got recruited by the network.

OWEN: So my role kind of spun from the data side more to a managing-families side. So I was communicating directly with families on the ground and trying to get them to the gates.

LAWRENCE: The gates of the airport. That was the choke point. One of the many families Owen worked with was the one carrying those Chesty Puller signs. But something went wrong.

OWEN: We got them, literally, within meters of the gate and could not get them in.

LAWRENCE: So this desperate family on the run from the Taliban headed back out into the crowd. They tried again two days later, on Thursday, August 26, back to the Abbey Gate with their Chesty Puller signs. And this time, it seemed to work, says Gus Biggio.

BIGGIO: My understanding is that a team of Marines essentially waded out into the crowd and that's - the best way to describe it is that they went in there, and they snatched them.

OWEN: We got them back to Abbey Gate. And at that point, you know, I went back to trying to deal with my other families because I had several at the time that I was trying to get out.

LAWRENCE: At that moment, Owen was on a video chat with a different family the network was trying to help. He was talking with them when a bomb went off. That was the day a suicide bomber killed over a hundred people, including 13 U.S. troops, at the Abbey Gate.

OWEN: It was a video call. So for a little while there, I mean, I was just in absolute shock at the loss of human life. But that was right there in the moment when the blast occurred, you know. About an hour later, I realized Chesty was still there when that happened.

LAWRENCE: The family with the Chesty Puller signs had been right at the gate when the bomb hit. It was another several hours before word came through that the Chesty Puller family, with their six kids, had made it through safely.

OWEN: When we found out they actually made it in, it was - I mean, I cried. I think a lot of us did.

LAWRENCE: But that other family, the ones on video chat when the bomb went off, they're alive, but still in Kabul. Owen says they're targeted by the Taliban. His network is still trying to get them out.

OWEN: It's killing me inside, but it's - my wife has spent hours on the phone with these women, crying and praying. And it's a surreal experience because we're Christian and they're Muslim, and we're on the other side of the world, and we've never met, but we're, you know, sending each other pictures of our kids. And I can't even describe the level of gratitude these people have. And we keep failing them. It doesn't make any sense.

LAWRENCE: The network Owen works with estimates they helped 1,000 Afghans escape, but he says the story now is about those still left behind.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.