More than two years after paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division acquired a Toyota Land Cruiser with a mounted anti-aircraft gun during the chaotic days of the Afghanistan evacuation, the vehicle is finally at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. It will be displayed at the Division’s on-base museum.

Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue – the 82nd Airborne Division’s commanding officer during the evacuation – has described the truck as “emblematic of the grit, discipline, and extreme competence” that his paratroopers showed during the evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Towards the end of the U.S. military’s evacuation efforts in Kabul, Donahue requested that the Land Cruiser ultimately be displayed outside the 82d Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Liberty.

“This truck will sit at the 82nd Airborne Museum so that our Paratroopers, their families and future generations to come will know that when faced with a mission of unprecedented scope and complexity, the Paratroopers rose to meet this challenge,” Donahue said in October 2021.

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But after the Toyota was flown out of Kabul, it spent years in storage at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. It took even more ingenuity from soldiers to complete the vehicle’s journey to Fort Liberty.

The truck’s yearslong odyssey to Fort Liberty began in August 2021 during the tumultuous final days of the Afghanistan War.

When paratroopers with the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment deployed to Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation, much of their equipment including heavy vehicles had not yet arrived in Kabul.

Some paratroopers took the initiative and traded two cans of tobacco dip to acquire the Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with a Russian-made 14.5 mm ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun from the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

Toyota gun truck
Army Reserve Capt. Brandon Walp in Kuwait driving a Toyota Land Cruiser that U.S. troops acquired in August 2021 to guard Hamid Karzai International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Brandon Walp)

Army Pfc. Alsajjad Al Lami, who was born in Iraq, knew how to use the anti-aircraft gun because he had served in the Iraqi military for six months before coming to the United States.  He showed his fellow paratroopers how to use the weapon so that they could use the gun truck to protect the airport. For his ingenuity, Al Lami was later promoted to specialist by Army Gen. James McConville, then serving as the service’s chief of staff.

When Donahue learned how the paratroopers had acquired the Toyota, he directed that it be flown out of Kabul if there was enough space on one of the planes leaving the airport.

An October 2021 story from the blog RedState, claimed that Donahue had ordered between 50 and 100 evacuees off a C-17 to make room for the Toyota. Officials with the 82nd Airborne denied that story.

“No personnel were removed from any aircraft departing HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] to make room for the Taliban Hilux,”  division spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Lea told Task & Purpose at the time. “In fact, aircraft space was not an issue at all in terms of getting American citizens, Afghan SIVs [Special Immigrant Visas], or at-risk Afghans out of HKIA in the final days of the evacuation mission.” 

But getting out of Afghanistan was only half the battle. Once at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, its journey nearly ended.

“Once everyone was leaving Ali Al Salem, there was some conflict over it being a war trophy and it coming to the States, and how it was going to be handled, and so forth; so, it pretty much got left behind at Ali Al Salem,” said Army Reserve Capt. Max Schneider, who served as the movement control team commander at the base from February to November 2022.

Eventually, the Toyota was placed into a 20-foot storage container and essentially forgotten, Schneider told Task & Purpose.

When Schneider discovered where the Land Cruiser was, he reached out to an aide for a general with the 82nd Airborne Division to arrange the truck’s transportation to Fort Liberty, he said, adding that the Toyota is a “key piece of military history” that will allow service members who deployed to Afghanistan to reflect on their experiences.

As Schneider worked to get the truck ready to be cleared by customs, he and other soldiers cleaned up the Toyota, which showed indications that it had been involved in a battle at some point.

“There’s bullet holes in the driver’s side door through the front windshield and the pillar, and there’s like staining in the seats, so it seems as if someone was shot,” Schneider said.

The long process of getting the Toyota from Kuwait to Fort Liberty extended beyond Schneider’s deployment. He passed the baton to his replacement, Army Reserve Capt. Brandon Walp, who arrived at Ali Al Salem in November 2022.

Toyota gun truck
An American paratrooper who was born in Iraq showed his fellow soldiers how to use the Russian-made 14.5 mm ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun mounted on this Toyota Land Cruiser during the evacuation from Kabul in 2021. (Courtesy photo)

“Now, I didn’t know this thing existed,” Walp told Task & Purpose. “I had no prior knowledge of it. I’m not even certain that I had even seen it on the news when Kabul actually fell. So, this was all kind of bestowed upon on me as, ‘Hey, it’s now your responsibility.’”

Walp worked through his command to coordinate with the “big wigs” at the 82nd Airborne Division, but it ultimately fell to Walp’s replacement to complete all the necessary steps so that the Toyota could finally leave for Fort Liberty in the fall.

He said he is gratified to have played a role in helping get the mission to transport the Land Cruiser to Fort Bragg over the finish line.

“I know that the Army likes its bragging rights, and it likes its history,” Walp said. “So, if I can say, ‘Hey, I have a piece of the museum that I helped establish.’ As a guy who loves history, that is my own special right to say: ‘I have done that. I helped with that.’”

On Oct. 11, the Land Cruiser arrived at the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Liberty, where it is expected to be part of a display that opens next year, said John W. Aarsen, the museum’s director.

Currently, the Toyota is in a museum storage area, Aarsen told Task & Purpose.

“The machine guns were demilitarized in Kuwait before it left the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] area of operation,” Aarsen said.  “The museum did not require that, but many had concerns as it shipped to us.” 

The museum has scheduled the gun truck to be included in the expanded 82nd Airborne Division Gallery, he said. Though on base, the museum is accessible to the public. American citizens without a Defense Department identification can get a pass for the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Liberty’s All-American Access Control Point.

To Walp, the gun truck is an example of how soldiers will always find a way to carry out their tasks, even if they need to take an indirect route to accomplish the mission.

“I think it really shines a light on soldiers’ ingenuity just to get the job done,” Walp said. “Soldiers find a way. For a soldier to somehow trade two cans of dip to acquire an asset like an anti-aircraft technical to help protect his fellow soldiers against what was going on during the fall of Kabul, it just shows: ‘We can get stuff done no matter what.’”

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