‘We were in shock’ — Loved ones remember Marine killed in Abbey Gate bombing one year ago
Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee put herself in harms way to help evacuate Afghans.
There are some moments that continue to reverberate long after they’ve passed. One event that happened last year, on Aug. 26, is still being processed by many. That Thursday in Kabul, Afghanistan, at around 1736 local time, Abdul Rahman Al-Logari, waited in line to be searched at Abbey Gate, outside Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). Prior to getting frisked, he detonated his 25-pound explosive vest, killing 13 U.S. service members, more than 170 Afghans, and injuring scores of others. The violence of that day continues to ripple through time and through the lives of those left behind.
One of the service members killed was Marine Sgt. Nicole Leeann Gee, who stood roughly 20 feet from Al-Logari. Fragments launched from the suicide IED took her life. The effects of the blast transcended time zones.
Unlike time, grief cannot be measured. There is no unit of capacity, and it affects everyone differently. The fact that this is how we will remember the way America’s longest war ended will most certainly make the grieving process much harder for loved ones – like husband Jarod Gee, sister, Misty Fuoco, aunt Cheryl Juels, and Jarod’s mother Christy Shamblin.
Nicole Herrera met Jarod Gee while they were students at Oakmont High School. The couple married on Aug. 16, 2016, right before Jarod reported to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Compelled to serve, help others, and not to be outdone by her husband, Gee earned the title of Marine herself on Jan. 5, 2018. After all the follow-on training, the couple were stationed together at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Gee was attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit for a seven-month deployment in early 2021. The MEU was assigned to support the noncombatant evacuation operation, or NEO, at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). Gee arrived at HKIA on Aug. 15, 2021. She spent the remaining 11 days of her life evacuating and helping anyone in need, often without any rest.
Just over 7,300 miles away in Lincoln, California, her husband Jarod was on a family vacation with his mother, Christy Shamblin, stepbrother, and stepfather. According to Shamblin, Jarod knew there was something wrong in between card games at Thunder Valley Casino. He saw the news on a big screen of an explosion in Afghanistan. “He kept repeating, ‘I don’t feel right,’” Shamblin said.
“She [Gee] was pretty good communicating with us, she would let us know as soon as she could that she was alright.”
The family of four ate dinner, then went to their hotel room.
“What is your location?” A monotone voice asked at the other end of a cell phone call. Perhaps there were some introductory pleasantries exchanged, but that memory doesn’t exist in Shamblin’s mind. She handed her phone off to Jarod, who’d also woken up after it rang. At the time, he was on leave from active duty, but the Marine Corps needed to get ahold of him. The Corps dispatched a pair of Casualty Assistance Calls Officers (CACO) to meet them at the casino. The family was instructed to stay put.
On Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, at 9 a.m. Jarod received another phone call. This time he was asked for his room number and if he could meet the Marines in the lobby. One CACO was a staff sergeant, the other a sergeant. Both were dressed in the Service “A” uniform. Jarod and Shamblin were escorted to a conference room off of the main lobby. The two CACOs started the process of notification; the first was positive identification of the next of kin. The CACOs asked them to sit, Shamblin and her son declined.
“Jarod had to give his social security number, ‘what’s your rank, your status, your unit. Are you the legal dependent of Sgt. Nicole Leeann Gee?’” Shamblin recalled.
Once he answered the questions to their satisfaction, the CACOs informed them that Gee had been killed in action.
“Nicole is one of the 13? Do you mean Nicole?” Shamblin remembered she had to ask five or six times. “It didn’t seem real.” Jarod signed all the requisite paperwork. The CACOs made the travel arrangements to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
“It was pretty quick,” Shamblin recalls regarding the CACO visit. “I don’t even think we cried. We were in shock.”
Jarod and his mother went back to their hotel room, broke the news to the others, and drove to Misty Fuoco’s home nearby in Lincoln to tell her face-to-face that she would not see her sister alive again.
Shamblin remembers the car ride. Although they’d made the familiar drive as recently as the night before, she still plugged the Fuoco family address into the GPS. The female digital navigation voice filled the otherwise silent car. Jarod was in the passenger seat. Shamblin was driving. Both faced forward. “Arrived.”
Misty answered the door with a huge smile, the same way she greets all her family, regardless of how much time has passed between visits. Shamblin grabbed Misty’s two sons to leave Jarod alone with his sister-in-law. Jarod whispered into Misty’s ear that Gee was no longer with them, that she had been killed in action. They held each other up for a moment before collapsing to the floor.
Jarod stayed at the Fuoco residence while Shamblin returned to the hotel to pack. The CACOs returned to pick them up at 0430 on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Another quiet car ride. This time to the Sacramento airport to catch their flight to Dover.
“I almost wasn’t allowed on the flight. The military spelled my name wrong and purchased the ticket with the wrong name,” Shamblin said. Thankfully, an understanding TSA agent waved her through.
They weren’t the only family having trouble getting to Dover. “One of the families were completely denied entrance because of TSA,” Shamblin said. Coral Briseño, the mother of another Marine killed in the IED attack — Cpl. Humberto Sanchez — missed her flight due to confusion over her last name. “The Indianapolis Colts football team offered their plane to fly her to Dover,” so she took it, Shamblin said.
The experience, they say, was disorganized. Normally Gold Star Families stay at the Fisher House Campus to watch the dignified transfer of their loved ones. But this wasn’t a normal transfer: 13 different families, each assigned CACOs and Chaplains, seemed like it was too much for the Fisher House. Instead, the families stayed at a hotel an hour and a half away by bus.
“We wanted you [13 Gold Star Families] to all be together, which is why we didn’t put you up at the Fisher House,” Shamblin was told. “It’s bullshit, it’s because there were too many military people [attached].”
It was a cool and cloudy Sunday morning. The Blue Bird buses arrived at 0700 right outside of the hotel to pick up the families.
“All I put in my suitcase was flip flops and random items. Nothing warm. I threw in a black dress,” Shamblin adds. Who thinks about packing lists and necessary items when taking a trip like this?
“Jarod was stoic. He didn’t say anything. He was on a mission to take care of his wife.”
When the families arrived at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs facility, they waited. And waited. For almost two hours. The first person to greet the families was the Fisher House Chaplain. “He was one of the few people that impressed me that day,” Shamblin said. The next person she remembers meeting was Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Troy Black. “I actually met his wife first [Stacie Black], because she beelined straight to us, because she was a female Marine [retired 1stSgt]. She told me ‘Nicole’s sacrifice and service paved the way for future female Marines, to accomplish more.’” It was the first time the family thought of Gee in that light, a trailblazer for women serving in combat roles and those aspiring to be like her.
The rest of the visitors and guests that greeted the families were a blur of blue suits with flag lapel pins. Shamblin doesn’t remember them all. “Some of them come up to talk to you and you can see – they believe that this is an acceptable loss. They’re sorry they have to be in front of me. They’re not sorry that my [loved one] is dead.” The same platitudes and insincerities that people offer those who’ve worn a uniform, like “thank you for your service,” to the “thoughts and prayers” said for victims of mass shootings.
Some things do stick out in Shamblin’s memories, like when U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held court to inform some families that they’d successfully targeted and struck those responsible for the bombing. “It was bizarre, and he was so proud, like your government has taken care of this. It wasn’t even necessary. It didn’t change anything.”
A month later, the Pentagon acknowledged the strike had killed an innocent Afghan citizen once employed by the U.S. government, along with several members of his family.
It is customary that White House officials ask the families of the fallen if they want to be excluded from meeting the president. Shamblin asked her son. “He told me, we will be accepting the condolences from my commander-in-chief, and Nicole’s commander-in-chief, and you will be respectful.” Shamblin said they shook hands and accepted his condolences, but she believed he didn’t care. “He said the same thing to every family: ‘When we lost Beau… we know how you feel,’” It wasn’t personal, she noticed staffers behind the President coaching him.
After the families all shook hands and met with the president, they filed into the buses and made their way to the airfield. The buses parked between the C-17 and the media to give the families some privacy. There were chairs set up on the tarmac, but no one sat down. Across the tarmac, opposite the families, the president and his staff lined up. Shamblin noticed none of the bodies had come down the ramp yet when the president first checked his watch. The families felt disrespected.
Shamblin remembers how secure she felt, Nicole’s flag-draped coffin being carried by her peers. The armed guards on the tarmac, and snipers on top of the hangar bays providing overwatch. “I’ve never been in that position before, and it hits me how much our veterans go through. The average person has no idea.”
Gee’s transfer was very quiet. Jarod and Shamblin held hands and leaned on one another. Jarod never sighed, never spoke. He was the perfect Marine, Shamblin said.
Thirteen dignified transfers later, the families climbed back into the two Blue Bird buses and returned to the hotel. Family members were either silent or weeping on the bus.
On Feb. 4, 2022, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) uploaded case 21-0545, titled AR 15-6 Investigation Abbey Gate on the CENTCOM FOIA Library website. The entire investigative file is over 900 MBs in size and 2,005 pages long. It is heavily redacted with over 950 blank pages.
On that same day, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., then the commander of CENTCOM, held a press briefing at the Pentagon on the results of the Islamic State – Khorasan Province, known as ISIS-K, bombing investigation into the attack that killed Gee, along with ten of her fellow Marines, one Army Special Forces soldier, and one Navy corpsman.
McKenzie called the work of the investigative team comprehensive, credible, and definitive. He stated the team searched for the facts and interviewed more than 100 people. “The volume of evidence collected… the analysis of experts, the findings of fact, and the conclusions of the team based upon that evidence gives a compelling and truthful examination of the event.
“During the course of our investigation, we found no evidence that post-blast, U.S. service members killed other U.S. service members or Afghans,” Gen. McKenzie claimed. “The disturbing lethality of this device was confirmed by the 58 U.S. service members who were killed and wounded, despite the universal wear of body armor and helmets that did not stop ball bearings that impacted them but could not prevent catastrophic injuries to areas not covered.”
The investigation dismisses or contradicts several witness statements from troops on the ground whose names are redacted. One eyewitness account from a field grade officer noted enemy gunmen in dominant overwatch positions from adjacent buildings; this threat was quickly neutralized, according to the report. In other words, the gunmen were killed. Marine Maj. Ben Sutphen in an interview with CBS News stated there was a gunman nearby and that a corporal returned fire and killed him.
Gee’s aunt Cheryl Juels said she doesn’t trust the investigation. A few days prior to the release of the investigation documents and the pentagon press briefing, defense officials held meetings with the families of the fallen. Some of these interactions were held in person, others were via Zoom.
“One of the last videos we received from Nicole was how it was total lawlessness,” Juels said. They didn’t have any vehicles so they hotwired a truck to get from one gate to the next. “It seemed an insane position to be in, where U.S. military members have to hotwire vehicles for transportation.”
There were more concerns for Juels and the rest of the Gee family. “The Taliban serving as security was terrifying to me. It made no sense. An enemy we’ve been fighting for 20 years, we let them surround these young kids with guns.”
Juels received more videos of semiautomatic and automatic gunfire that took place in the days leading up to the explosion. “You start looking at the videos at the time when they weren’t scrubbed, there was a lot going on there.”
Gee was not the only one who documented the experience on a smartphone. But her phone was not returned to the family. Juels said defense officials told her it wasn’t returned because it was either destroyed in the attack, or there was human tissue on it and was destroyed afterward, in accordance with protocol. When the Gee family asked for the SIM card to at least be returned, they were told no, according to Juels. Most of the 13 Gold Star family members were told the same thing. If a smartphone was returned, all the memory was erased.
“They used children as shields, they put them against the razor wire so they wouldn’t get cut,” Juels said of male Afghans who tried to reach the gate and gain entry to the airport.
Witnessing this type of abuse affected Gee. She loved kids, and so instead of doing nothing, she volunteered at night to assist the women and children board the planes. “She just wanted to be with children, she just wanted to help them,” Juels said, her voice cracking when recalling this anecdote. “She volunteered all night. Even her leaders couldn’t get rid of her. They tried to force her to rest.” But she would not.
They heard gunshots every day. There were beheadings and beatings, and they were surrounded by Taliban armed with M4 carbines, Gee had told Juels. But nothing deterred Gee from her mission.
Marine field grade officers flew out to northern California to brief Gee’s father, Richard Herrera on the findings of the investigation. Juels tagged along. “They had a whole slide show, they presented us.”
“They don’t want to say that the Taliban was shooting at us, because they allowed the Taliban to surround us. They don’t want to say that the Marines shot back because they don’t want to admit it was a complex attack.” All Juels wanted was the truth.
“I just want to know what happened to her. I didn’t get the truth. We deserve it.”
Juels said she felt like it was more about damage control than anything else. “I feel it was disrespectful for the kids that made it out and came home. That all of their accounts were washed away.” As if what they’d said didn’t happen or was dismissed because of the fog of war. The same kids who were praised by officials for their heroic and brave actions during the final days of the war were then silenced about what they observed.
One bomb with disturbing lethality. One narrative to control and silence.
Good days and bad days
The Oakmont High School softball field in Roseville, California is where Gee once played. The Oakmont Vikings softball team felt it would be fitting to honor Gee before a home game against the Antelope Titans. The ceremony occurred just over six months after Gee and twelve other US service members were killed, the same length of time that research suggests is when most people’s symptoms of grief peak.
The initial crowd of 30 spectators more than doubled in size by the end of the ceremony, which included the singing of the National Anthem by an Oakmont student. In attendance were the Herrera and Gee families. After Taps, the honor guard marched off and the family took their place on the mound. The bugler was given a microphone to address the crowd. Heavy with emotion, he admitted that these ceremonies don’t get easier with time, before dedicating two plaques. One will hang in the school’s library. The other will stay with Fuoco, Gee’s older sister.
After the ceremony, when the Titan’s first batter approached the plate, Fuoco walked toward the bleachers designated for the home team. She sat next to her brother-in-law and her uncle, Toby, who was still visibly reeling from the loss of his niece. “There are good days, and there are bad days,” Toby said, his eyes swelling, as his wife sat next to him.
Fuoco wore a long-sleeved gray shirt, jeans, and black boots. Her blond hair was in a bun like her sister wore while in uniform. Local television crews pined for interviews. She was pulled between family and media. She wasn’t watching the game; she didn’t notice that the Titans failed to get on base or that the Vikings scored two runs in the first inning.
Later that night, she put her two toddlers to bed, and talked with her husband. She sat down on a couch alone and tried to unwind. She wondered what her sister would say or think of all this – the plaque, the ceremony, the banners, the words, the game. “She was my emotional support,” Fuoco said. “We were both that to each other. There was nothing about me she didn’t know and vice versa. If I needed encouragement or needed a pep talk, she was there.”
But Gee, and 12 other service members won’t be there for their respective families, not anymore, because of a flawed evacuation, the result of incompetent leadership, and the events of a tragic violent day in August 2021.
Francisco Martínezcuello is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps with a tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing focuses on the environment, science, and military affairs/veterans issues. Publications and more can be found on his website: www.themotorcyclewriter.com