A recent Fox News story incorrectly reported that the Defense Department stuck the family of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, who was killed in Afghanistan, with a $60,000 bill to transfer her from California to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, according to the fallen Marine’s family and the Pentagon.
Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee was one of 13 U.S. service members killed on Aug. 26, 2021, when a suicide bomber attacked Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate.
Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.) told Fox News that a non-profit organization helped Gee’s family pay a $60,000 bill after the Defense Department refused to pay to fly the fallen Marine from California to Arlington National Cemetery.
“It is an egregious injustice that grieving families were burdened to shoulder the financial strain of honoring their loved ones,” Mills told Fox News.
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However, Christy Shamblin, Gee’s mother-in-law, told Task & Purpose on Wednesday that the Defense Department did not tell Gee’s family that it would not pay the costs of moving her to Arlington National Cemetery.
“That never happened,” Shamblin said.
At the time, Gee’s family was working with the non-profit group Honoring Our Fallen, Shamblin said. When the group learned that it would cost $60,000 to fly Gee from Sacramento to Arlington National Cemetery, the group flew her in a private plane to the cemetery, she said.
Shamblin said she does not think Gee’s family ever asked the Defense Department to pay for the costs of moving Gee to Virginia to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I think that we got the information that that’s how much it was going to cost, and the private non-profit just stepped in and took over from there,” Shamblin. “I’m not even sure that it went to the point where they said ‘no.’ That may have been the next step in the process, but we just never got to that point.”
Still, Shamblin said she believes the Defense Department could have done more during the process of bringing Gee back from Afghanistan to California, noting that U.S. government agencies were slow to respond to her family at the time.
Laura Herzog, founder and CEO of Honoring Our Fallen Inc, told Task & Purpose that she personally secured an in-kind donation of a flight in a private aircraft to transport Gee to Arlington National Cemetery so that the fallen Marine would not have to be transported on a commercial airline.
“No monies were exchanged or expected to be paid by our organization or the family,” Herzog said on Wednesday. “This was a donation made by a veteran who donated this service to us to assist us in honoring Sgt. Gee. We are proud of our support to Sgt. Gee and her family. It takes a village and I am proud of our communities that came together to honor and support her sacrifice.”
Under DOD policy, when the remains of fallen military members are returned home, they are delivered to an initial location designated by family members, often a hometown. There, families, friends and communities often hold memorial services. If family members wish to see their service member buried elsewhere, such as in a national cemetery like Arlington, the family must pay to transport the members to that location. They can then request to be reimbursed for those expenses along with the rest of the funeral bill under a Defense Department policy.
Throughout the transfer of remains process for Gee, Marine Corps casualty assistance officers kept in direct communication with Gee’s family, and they continue to do so today, a Pentagon spokesperson told Task & Purpose.
“In the case of Sgt. Gee, the Marine Corps stayed consistent with its policy that all costs associated with internment be borne by the government,” the spokesperson said. “At this time, we have no record of any incurred charges or any pending requests for reimbursement associated with the transportation of Sgt. Gee’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery. The Marine Corps takes very seriously the transfer of remains of our Marines – they never leave a Marine behind, and they care for the families of their fallen Marines.”
On Thursday, Mills released a statement acknowledging that the Defense Department has been able to “provide clarification on this matter.”
Mills also said he understands that Gee’s loved ones were confused about the procedures to transfer her to Arlington amidst their grief, and he thanked Honoring Our Fallen for helping the family.
However, he called for Congress to make a change to the Defense Department’s policy to make sure the military pays for all funeral expenses of fallen service members up front.
“Regardless of who covered the costs in this instance, there should never be a situation where the DoD does not proactively make clear to the families their willingness to cover transportation for service members who have sacrificed their lives for our country,” Mills said. “No fallen service member’s family should ever have to question whether transportation will be paid for or if they will have to pay and be reimbursed at a later date.”
The Aug. 26, 2021 attack on Abbey Gate was one of the final tragedies of the U.S. military’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. The bomb went off as thousands of desperate people were trying to get into the airport to escape the Taliban. One hundred and seventy Afghans were killed.
The 82nd Airborne Division’s command sergeant major later told investigators that U.S. troops at Abbey Gate were in an exposed position, in part because so many other countries were using the gate for their own evacuation efforts without any sort of coordination.
In fact, a Marine one-star general wanted to close Abbey Gate on the night of Aug. 25, but the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division decided to keep it open until the morning of Aug. 27 so that the British could continue evacuating people, an investigation into the incident found.
Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who served as a Scout Sniper during the Afghanistan withdrawal, told lawmakers in March that he believes his team spotted the suicide bomber prior to the attack, but the Marines never received authorization to shoot the man, even after he appealed directly to his battalion commander.
“Plain and simple: We were ignored,” said Vargas-Andrews, who lost his right arm and left leg in the suicide bomber attack. “Our expertise was disregarded. No one was held accountable for our safety.”
In April, the Defense Department announced that the Islamic State group leader believed responsible for the Abbey Gate attack had been killed by the Taliban.
Gee’s fellow Marines described her as someone devoted to helping others. In September 2021, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Duncan McClain, who was assigned to the same battalion as Gee, eulogized her in an emotional speech that was shared on social media.
“God needed an angel for his war, and he took the best goddamn one,” McClain said.
During the Kabul evacuation, she worked multiple shifts so that she could be around Afghan families and children, Sgt. Landon Workman, of Combat Logistics Regiment 27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, said in an Aug. 30, 2021 Marine Corps news release.
Shortly before her death, Gee posted a picture on Instagram of her cradling a young baby. For the picture’s caption, she wrote, “I love my job.”
UPDATE: 07/27/2033; this story was updated after publication with a statement from Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.).
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