How a few good ‘Bastards’ from the Army National Guard helped secure the Kabul airport
“No one could’ve predicted how this unfolded. The entire situation was surreal.”
Note: All Afghan names are monikers. Sensitive or classified information has been omitted. All accounts are true to the knowledge of the author. For more information on ‘Task Force Bastard,’ click here.
It was mid-July when the 1st Combined Arms Battalion of the 194th Armor Regiment first sent soldiers to the Afghan capital in Kabul. Back in Kuwait Task Force 1-194, better known as ‘Task Force Bastard,’ was planning for contingencies if things went south at the embassy and airport, to include over-the-horizon support to aid in a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). Together with our counterparts at 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division we wanted to get the lay of the land. So signal officer Capt. Vince Struble, plans officer Capt. Andrew Hanson, and Charlie Company 1st Sgt. Christopher O’Shea went to Hamid Karzai International Airport. With the exception of a stray rocket attack by ISIS-Khorasan, Chris, Drew and Vince had a relatively uneventful week. The State Department seemed content with embassy operations, Kabul appeared relatively peaceful, and the Turkish coffees they enjoyed made it seem like they were on a temperate vacation from Task Force Bastard in the desert.
Several days later I met with my intelligence colleagues at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The situation in Afghanistan was worrisome. Among our chief concerns were the rate of districts falling to the Taliban and the Taliban’s superior use of information operations to drive a narrative of inevitable victory. We knew the Afghan National Army (ANA) was fragile, and Afghan air support was unreliable mostly due to maintenance and munitions constraints. ANA Special Operations Command (ANASOC), the most deadly counter to a Taliban advance, was being used for conventional operations after regular Army soldiers abandoned their posts or failed to engage with the enemy. ANASOC was fatigued and stretched too thin to sustain their current tempo.
At the time many of us thought Kabul, a city of four million, could hold out for at least two or three months, and possibly longer if the snows came and closed the mountain passes. Everyone in the room knew there was a real possibility of a rapid disintegration of the government based on what was happening across the country. Most of the districts and provincial capitals were taken without a shot being fired. “Power brokers and government officials are making deals. Logistics lines are being cut off. The northern alliance is broken. The big challenge for the Taliban, who above all want and need international legitimacy in the event of a takeover, will be to govern, and to deal with ISIS-K,” said my friend and Task Force Spartan Analytic Control Element (ACE) intelligence chief Maj. Ravneet Puri, himself a veteran of the war.
Puri then looked at me and said, “Charlie, the Bastards need to be ready.”
We can confirm that the US embassy in Kabul was targeted with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED), and a secondary one-way drone attack at Hamid Karzai has struck the air traffic control tower and fuel depot. We assess that ISIS-K is responsible. If I can direct your attention to the imagery…
As the intelligence officer, I briefed this fictitious scenario to command and staff during an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise, or EDRE, in July at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. As a part of our mission, we’d completed a number of EDREs since arriving in April and practiced a deliberate sequence of steps that would get us out the door in the event of a crisis. This process would not only ensure every soldier was ready but also that their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (to include our Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Abrams main battle tanks, if required) were staged to ship or fly anywhere in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory. Our activation for State Active Duty for Covid response and the riots and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd contributed to our experience with crowd control and difficult humanitarian and peace-keeping situations. We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.
‘No one will wait on us’
It’s a phrase we’d heard a hundred times from our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad. He drilled it into us as staff, and he’d mentored all the company commanders – armor, infantry, enablers, maintenance, medical, and support. Our efforts were all concentrated on the metrics of rapid and overwhelming response: managing facts and assumptions, assessing risk, and closely monitoring operational readiness.
When we received the order sending us to Kabul, years of training and a heightened readiness kicked into full action. Within six hours over 400 task force Soldiers were ready to load onto flights. We knew that when we arrived we would be tasked with securing vital sectors of Hamid Karzai International Airport and assisting with the evacuation of U.S. citizens, families, and allies under constant threat from both the Taliban and ISIS-K.
We met Lt. Col. Helgestad’s intent. No one had to wait on us.
The Minnesota National Guard did this alongside some of the most storied active-duty units in the military: the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit. Some in the 82nd couldn’t believe it. One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components.
Besides, we’ve got a lineage of our own, no less storied: The 194th Tank Battalion “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fighting valiantly on a doomed series of Philippine islands and the infamous death march with only half of the men surviving to return home to forests and fields of central Minnesota; the Red Bulls attacking in Africa and on the winter line in Italy during WWII for the first time since Carthaginian General Hannibal challenged Rome during the Second Punic War in ancient times; the 1/34th Armored Brigade Combat Team’s record-setting 22-month deployment to Iraq during the surge in 2007-2008, and the subsequent exit from Iraq in 2010-2011.
“You single-handedly changed my opinion of the National Guard,” commented the command sergeant major of the 1/82 Airborne Brigade. The only ones not surprised by our abilities were, well…us.
Leaving Ali al Salem airbase, we found ourselves packed like sardines aboard Air Force C-17 Globemaster planes. All of us were drenched with sweat from the heat and humidity. We chugged water, uncomfortably shifting or dozing off on the hard metal floors, many of us thinking about our families back home who had no idea what we were about to do. About 45 minutes from final descent into HKIA the infrared lights came on inside the hold. Magazines went into weapons. We clipped our night vision goggles onto our helmets, and none of us knew what to expect when the ramp went down.
What unit are you?
A short time later we cleared and occupied several open hangars on aprons of north HKIA that we would call home. These hangars, located in Pad 8, had previously housed aircraft and maintenance from the Department of State that had been abandoned days earlier as U.S. Embassy personnel scrambled to depart. Exhausted, we laid on the concrete and slept for a couple hours to the sound of gunfire and aircraft.
We’d made it to Kabul because we were ready. Meanwhile, elements of the 82nd and 10th Mountain wouldn’t. They were still stuck in Kuwait.
The following morning we met with Col. Theodore Kleisner, the brigade commander for 1/82 Airborne, Call Sign: Devil 6. He gave us the lowdown on the current tenuous situation and the importance and gravity of the moment. He looked at Lt. Col. Helgestad and asked us who we were. “Task Force Bastard, sir.” We briefly explained the history of our unit and our name. A smile came across Col. Kleisner’s face as he said, “The Devils and the Bastards. I think we’ll get along just fine.”
Holding the line
Orders and plans came quickly from higher headquarters as they began to create order out of chaos. Still reeling from the airfield overrun by civilians, we positioned our forces on the inner and outer perimeters of the airport. The scene was surreal. The entirety of the airport reminded me of a combination of a wild west ghost town and apocalyptic dystopia.
The State Department had hastily left Camp Alvarado, their now defunct headquarters within the airport. We found aircraft hangars and buildings full of parts and equipment. The abandoned dining facility was stocked with containers filled with dry goods, produce, and frozen meat. Housing units with room after room left as if their occupants might return at any moment. I entered one of the rooms as I met with my 82nd Airborne intelligence counterpart, and found a copy of Seth Jones’ appropriately titled book, “In the Graveyard of Empires.” On top of it was a notepad with a hastily written message:
“Soldier, Take what you need. We may or may not be back. Be safe and return home to your families. Good luck! – Pat”
I kept the book. I use the note as a bookmark.
Our forebears in the 194th Tank Battalion, or Battling Bastards of Bataan, were abandoned in the Philippines by the Army as they bravely fought the invading Japanese in 1941. A poem written by U.S. war correspondent Frank Hewlett memorialized their travails as they fought alone towards a hopeless end, ruefully reflecting they had “no planes, no artillery pieces.” Master Sgt. Aaron Rousselange and I, acting as operations sergeant major and executive officer respectively, joked with each other that we had the opposite problem. There were planes and artillery pieces everywhere. Weapons, equipment, ammunition and munitions worth millions were scattered or cached in containers, buildings, and vehicles. Our Soldiers worked feverishly to demilitarize the area. We didn’t want these items to fall to the enemy, and we didn’t want to hand the Taliban one of the propaganda victories they are known for. As the security situation decreased, we wondered if it was Bataan in reverse. Here we had millions of rounds of ammunition and thousands of weapons, yet we were destroying them all.
“Let’s hope we won’t need it,” said Aaron.
Who is shooting at us?
HHC (Hellcats), A Company (Anzio), B Company (Barbarians), and C Company (Cobra) deployed their troops in the sector. The soldiers occupied towers, conducted patrols, and stood up a Quick Reaction Force. We secured an entry control point that led into a previously held Afghan military area. Members of this unit had served in a special capacity for national security and were managed by unnamed US government agencies. These were not men who had given up – rather men whose country gave up on them. We co-manned the towers with some of them and heard their stories. They fought their way through Kabul, thwarting Taliban checkpoints, and streamed in through Apache Road with technical trucks and vehicle-mounted weapons filled with families, including infants. At least 20,000 made their way through our area of operations.
The men were stone-cold serious, wearing tiger stripe uniforms and proudly bearing the insignia of the fallen government. The women, some covered by hijabs, hovered over their children as they were escorted into the compound by their husbands or male relatives. Once inside, kids played with our soldiers, waving, saying hello, smiling and laughing as if the world outside the walls was but a faded memory. Some of the infants, gaunt and malnourished, looked up at us with eyes already filled with a lifetime of pain and desperation.
Some of the men in this group had lost their families to war. They were stoic; they remained to help others get out but vowed to create last stands at strongholds. They were prepared to die as a testament to the honor of their loved ones and as a bold but futile rejection of the Talibs. We asked them to wait until we left to put their plans into effect. We expected that we would never hear about their deeds.
As the Bastards manned the towers along the north perimeter wall, the constant gunfire became personal. Our soldiers soon realized you don’t hear the gunshot until the bullet has snapped or whizzed near you; the result is the heavy realization that death or injury will come without a sound. Intentional or not, some of the bullets were ricochets and the result of careless gunfire as the Taliban fired wildly into the air to disperse the crowds around the airport. Either way, we had many close calls at the airport both in the towers and near our hangars. One soldier’s night vision mount was shot off his helmet. Another soldier had stucco shrapnel fly into his face from a round a couple feet away as it smashed against the tower. Tracer rounds lit up the night.
We knew that we must act without hesitation at the threat of imminent death or bodily harm, but we also knew that a slight mistake could send a dizzying chain of events affecting the entire mission. Our snipers, likely taunted by the Taliban at checkpoints and hide positions in the area, were lazed more than once. The distance was assessed to be out of range, but a green laser on your chest, regardless of the likelihood that a trigger is pulled, is unnerving.
It was not lost on many of us who had already seen conflict that the Rules of Engagement were different. Weeks earlier our soldiers would’ve been justified to engage Taliban fighters, yet now some of those Taliban were manning checkpoints within range. While some Taliban actions outside the gate directed towards civilians or their posture towards us would’ve warranted deadly use of force under previous conditions, our restraint was necessary in order to make certain that we could get as many people into the airport as possible and get them out. Some of us had friends and fellow soldiers that had perished in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. Through gritted teeth, the Bastards held to their honor and distinguished themselves for their restraint while experiencing the memory of so many fallen brethren.
Can you help us?
Our previously skeptical active duty counterparts quickly spread the word that the Bastards from the National Guard seemed to know what they were doing. Not only were we tactically and operationally proficient, but we brought talents to the battlefield that aided the entire effort.
We arrived with no vehicles, and we needed them badly. Within hours we had tactically acquired utility terrain vehicles, forklifts, pickup trucks, passenger vans, and heavy machinery. Keys were largely absent, so other methods were employed to get the vehicles operational. Our salty and beloved sustainment chief, Master Sgt. Chris Strangstalien, built us a fleet and found ways to acquire items we would need to sustain ourselves throughout the mission.
Capt. Evan Hynek, the maintenance officer acting in a hasty supply role, kept our logistics flowing and assisted the brigade with procurement and transport to resupply points. Capt. Struble and his “dungeon masters” kept tactical communications up and enabled communications across echelons so well, his expertise was requested by the brigade to keep them up and running.
The clearest example of impact was that of one of our junior NCOs, Sgt. Mike Evans. Acting as our S1 (admin and personnel officer) he was able to get a massive airfield street sweeper working to clear foreign object debris (FOD) from the runways. A C-17 landing gear tire had blown and was stuck on the tarmac. Due to the influx of evacuees, rubbish was starting to impact air operations. Little things became big things. A popped tire on a C-17 leads to flight delays, which results in fewer people getting out. Debris getting sucked into jet engines can cause serious maintenance issues at best and a midair disaster at worst.
Sgt. Evans commandeered the sweeper and at the behest of the Airfield Control Group cleared the runways and tarmacs of foreign debris. Flight operations resumed. Evans’s efforts remedied a small problem with enormous consequences. Meanwhile, all around the airfield, the different elements that made up Task Force Bastard reported what they were seeing.
Headquarters and Headquarters Company Commander Capt. Mike Popp recalled the mission of the HHC Hellcats in assisting Afghan evacuees on their way out. “They’d be there one day and gone the next. Although we only got to know them a short time, it was comforting to know they were on their way out – to someplace safer. Somewhere they could breathe.”
His soldiers secured gates and the perimeter of one of the airport pads at HKIA. They got to know the departing Afghan soldiers and their families. One of the Afghan airmen, Jimmy, stayed on with his family for a few days, providing interpretation to civilians desperate to get into the airport.
Even though they tried to give directions to the swarms of people looking to gain entry, there was no way to know whether they made it past the Taliban checkpoints and through the crowds. Mike told his men to concentrate on their job and remember the little wins, like a child’s smile, as they said goodbye and skipped onto the flight line to a waiting jet.
His men looked out over the smells and sights of Kabul: Poverty, violence, checkpoints, erratic traffic, gunfire, smoke, and the moving crowds of pedestrians probing the perimeter, desperate to get in anywhere they could find a weakness. In the midst of it all, Capt. Popp saw a cotton candy vendor in the street. “Surreal,” he recalled.
“It was tough. We had to keep the walls secure – thank God for our engineers. At the end of the day, if we didn’t keep the airport secure the onrush of people would’ve shut down operations. We couldn’t let that happen. It was heartbreakingly necessary,” Popp said.
HHC 1st Sgt. Adam Gallant, himself a hardened veteran of four deployments and father of two, reported his scouts got to know and love the kids. They adored them in return. Specialists Levi Evans and William Pajari were known as the “dancing men.” Kids would beg them to dance with them, bouncing with joy to imaginary music while the world outside was fraught with danger, hatred, and fear. Soldiers taught the kids paper, rock, scissors, and patty cake. One little girl’s eyes sparkled as she played, leaning over with dimpled cheeks to hug a soldier from northern Minnesota whom she only knew for hours.
“The kids were happy with nothing. They had nothing,” said Sgt. First Class Chase Potter, the even-keeled NCO leader of the scouts. “To the north of us by less than 50 meters was chaos and despair. It was a bipolar atmosphere.”
“The adults didn’t know where their next meal was coming from,” added scout platoon leader 2nd Lt. Cody Gilbert. “Yet when they got their food, the first thing they’d do is offer some to us. I can’t comprehend their generosity.”
It was a humbling two weeks. Humbling because all that had been worked for, all the blood that had been shed, seemed in vain. That’s what news articles and social media pundits were saying back home. But as G.K. Chesterton once wrote, hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless, or else it is no virtue at all. Somehow we all experienced hope, that thing with feathers that perches in the soul, that sings without the words, and never stops at all.
One of our soldiers was a refugee himself. His parents had fled Vietnam. He broke down as he saw in these Afghan families his own family and his own story. With tears in his eyes, he realized what they had done, what they had sacrificed, for him. His hope? He hoped the kids that were boarding the planes to safe havens would grow up like he did – happy and healthy –and that they would never have to do the job he was doing.
3-172 Infantry Battalion, headquartered in Vermont and part of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, augmented our task force with their mortar platoon. They spent most of their deployment in Saudi Arabia, but with the planning in Afghanistan, we gained additional support to plus-up our organic mortars. Hailing from Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Colorado, they quickly melded into our family.
“We wanted them to know they were our brothers. They can come with us anywhere. Bastards have to stick together,” said Popp.
Of course, platoon leader 1st Lt. Cody Halliday couldn’t resist a hockey jab at their buddies in the frozen tundra. “Let’s get a game of hockey going when we get back to the states. We’ll see what you boys got.”
Their lineage stems from the Green Mountain Boys of the American Revolution. Manning the towers in north HKIA and patrolling the road network in the area, they lived up to that high reputation.
Platoon Sgt. First Class Robert Beckett stated what was on a lot of his soldiers’ minds. “Working alongside the Afghan National Army and getting to know their families – their accounts of personal tragedy and their hope for a bright future – that is what we’ll remember.”
1st Lt. Matt Steien, the executive officer of A Company, didn’t see it coming. I had gotten to know Matt, a cavalry scout, from his time as the Unmanned Aerial Surveillance platoon leader with the Military Intelligence Company back in Minnesota. Matt is 6’4”, one inch taller than me. He is competent, speaks carefully, and doesn’t get rattled. His Company Commander, Capt. Mike Bogda, had recently gone to Syria to support Operation Inherent Resolve. With Bogda off on another mission, Steien found himself unexpectedly on deck for what would be the biggest mission of his career. “I had 1st Sgt. Walker, so there’s that,” he joked.
1st Sgt. Steve Walker had a couple of previous tours under his belt, so he wasn’t too flustered when the call came to go to Afghanistan. He also had a scrappy supply private first class who stepped up about three ranks to get Anzio out the door. “PFC Sarah Hang singlehandedly outfitted us. She was absolutely amazing,” reflected Walker.
On the bus to the airport in Kuwait to fly out to HKIA, 1st Lt. Steien admitted it didn’t seem real. But when he got on the ground in Kabul he was greeted by Marines. “Glad as hell you guys are here. Let’s get you in the fight!”
A Company manned a flight line entry control point and a quick reaction force. Balancing goodwill and vigilance was a necessity. “We knew there was going to be an attack, you warned us of that,” he reminded me, “so my Soldiers knew that they had to be looking in and out for what might come.” There were some tough moments. Some unauthorized families were forced to leave the gate since there was no way to process civilians at their current location. There was anger and tears that will be ingrained in their memories forever. Our soldiers will lie awake at night wondering if they made it out.
In spite of adversity, hope remained. Sgt. 1st Class Izaak Schafer, an Iraqi war veteran and first platoon sergeant, had a candid conversation with one of the men who spoke perfect English. “What do you think of America leaving? Did we – did I – let you down?’ Schafer asked. “No,” the Afghan replied, “We love you. You were our friends for 20 years, and we lost our country in a matter of weeks. We bled together. We died together. I am excited to become an American. I am already an American here,” as he pointed to his chest.
Capt. Charles Cox and 1st Sgt. Rodney Welch deployed their troops along the eastern portion of our sector. Working both inside and outside the compound, Charlie relayed to me that his intent was to make certain his soldiers treated all Afghans as friends, but he also reminded them to remain vigilant as they faced the threats from outside, or from the insidious possibility of an insider attack — an infiltrator from ISIS-K.
“It was tough…it was always in the back of your mind. I wanted to give the best impression of America that I could. They needed to see we respected them and that they had dignity. My guys took that to heart, even with all the active threats.”
Those emotions can be difficult for young soldiers to deal with. Depending on where the Barbarians were stationed — a gate with pre-vetted Afghans versus non-vetted civilians — the difference was gut-wrenchingly apparent. At times they were welcoming people in with hugs, handshakes, and smiles. At other times they were pushing people out or peeling their wrapped arms from around their feet as desperate would-be Afghans begged for help.
“We had to turn a family away because they didn’t have documentation. Some had crawled over the concertina [razor] wire. Can you imagine that? The mother collapsed in tears.”
As an Afghan at the gates, your last impression of an American soldier would be one of welcome or of rejection.
It wasn’t all bleak, according to 2nd Lt. Carl Swanson, 3rd platoon leader. Carl is young and bright, strong-jawed and devoted to family and his faith. He has a fiancé waiting for him at home.
“My guys played with the kids for hours,” Swanson said. “We would pretend we were robots and fighting like those old Power Ranger shows on TV. The kids loved it. I don’t know how many MREs we ripped into just to get the candy to give to them. I sat with a 12, maybe 13 year-old boy. He didn’t speak any English, but we sat there for an hour and drew pictures in my notebook to share back-and-forth.”
The next day they’d be gone.
“We knew they’d been evacuated, which was a relief. The compound felt empty when the children weren’t there.”
‘I don’t think we can help this guy’
Swanson recounted the story of ‘Sammy’, an electrician that worked in the Afghan Air Force and a prior interpreter for the U.S. He walked up to Carl and his men. “I need help,” he said.
Sammy had all the proper paperwork showing he had been an interpreter. His family was stuck outside the gate and he knew they’d never get in. “I will honor them with the life I will lead, and I will get them out if I can,” he said with tears in his eyes.
2nd Lt. Swanson met with an ANA lieutenant colonel and delivered water and MREs to families that had nothing to eat in over a day. He brought up Sammy’s story. Carl was certain he had secured Sammy a spot on a plane with the high-ranking officer, and they agreed to meet the following day.
When the time came, the lieutenant colonel had already departed. “I didn’t know what to do. I decided to bring him to the Marines myself,” Swanson said.
Carl met Sammy, a 30-something-year-old clean-shaven Afghan ally, at his car in the compound. He had been crying – his face was red and wet. Carl thinks Sammy was talking to his family. Sammy got into Carl’s hot-wired truck, and they sped off towards where the Marines were processing evacuees. All Sammy had was a small briefcase.
“On the ride over I prayed the rosary in my head, asking for help,” Swanson said. “We got there and I showed a Staff Sergeant his papers and passport. Everything was in order. I took him down to the flight line. Sammy gave me a hug, handed me the keys to his car that he had left in our area, and we took a couple of photos. Then he was on a plane.”
Last he knew, Sammy was at the U.S. embassy in Germany. “I still have his car key in my pocket.”
Capt. Jordan Carlson is about as straightforward as a person gets. “Cobra acquired three 44-person buses for the Marines to utilize for evacuee transport. I won’t relate how,” he told me.
Aside from building a fleet of an additional 20 vehicles, his company provided security for various sectors of the airport and responded to breaches in the perimeter of numerous civilians that jeopardized air operations.
“We worked with the Red Devils (1/504 Airborne) and Geronimo (3/504 Airborne), setting up screen lines to dissuade civilians from finding ways through the perimeter walls or fences. It was tough to escort jumpers back outside the gate or over the wall, but that was our mission. One Afghan had a letter from a state governor that he thought gave him permission to leave. In my mind, I thought to myself, ‘Why did you do that?’ You gave false hope to this poor dude.”
I met Capt. Bob Zellmann when we were assigned to the Bastards about two years ago. Bob is the quiet, competent sort who just seems to get the job done — usually with a huge dip in his mouth.
“I’m never going to do my job as an engineer, am I?” he joked. It was January 2020, and we were at the Leadership Training Program at Fort Irwin, California, prepping for our National Training Center rotation the following summer. Bob had realized that as a combined arms battalion the likelihood of him actually doing engineer work was slim, but everyone quickly recognized his talent and ability. He became a capable battle desk officer-in-charge.
His prediction was proven false shortly after we landed in Kabul. It was clear to all of us that the perimeter of HKIA was porous and insecure. Desperate Afghans found holes wherever they could, as illustrated by the thousands of civilians who had stormed the airfield hours prior. Capt. Zellmann and Staff Sgt. Alex Bodnar of Cobra Company — himself a prior engineer — became a two-man force to be reckoned with.
Bob’s small team scrounged enough wire, rebar, machinery, welding equipment, ties, tools, and other material, without support from the brigade, to get the job done. As it turned out, higher was about two days behind Bob the Builder.
“We knew that non-approved civilians could easily get in with little effort, but I was more concerned with the potential for a devastating vehicle-borne or suicide vest-IED,” recalled Bob. “Additionally, all that was between us and over 100 people in many places was a chain-link fence, and sometimes not even that.”
They worked under constant threat 8 to 12 hours each day. As I worked in the Tactical Operations Center adjacent units or the 82nd Airborne Brigade engineer would stop by. “You know where Capt. Zellmann is? We need his help.”
While he was working near Pad 9 of HKIA, Anzio called in a possible IED at the flight line entry control point. It turned out that a pickup truck was abandoned by evacuees from a special Afghan military unit. In their rush to leave, they had left their vehicle, and inside was 100 pounds of C4 explosives with detonation cord and blasting caps. Capt. Zellmann coordinated with Explosive Ordnance Disposal to clear the site.
All told, Bob, Staff Sgt. Bodnar, and his rag-tag group of laborers (to include our Command Sgt. Maj. Travis Manzke wielding a welding torch and our plans officer Capt. Drews driving a forklift), identified, mitigated, and reinforced 22 breaches, executed five complex block obstacles, and prepped one hasty block. They emplaced over 700 meters of concertina wire and assisted 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions and the Marines. At their request, Bob oversaw the last line of obstacles in support of the parachute infantry regiments’ joint tactical exfiltration.
As the team emplaced one of the blocks near an entry control point a Special Forces operator walked up. “Normally, the active-duty guys just roll a strand of C-wire across and call it a block, but this,” he told Bob. “This is a block.”
Hell at the Abbey Gate
Even though I was acting as executive officer (XO) forward, I stayed plugged into the intelligence community. Staff Sgt. Dustin Mongold, my noncommissioned officer in charge, constantly updated me on brigade info and chatter from the classified chat rooms.
Descriptions of vehicles and subjects were ubiquitous. We knew ISIS-K was attempting to derail the evacuee operations, run us out of town, and discredit and challenge the Taliban.
“We’re sharing intel with the Taliban on the ISIS-K threat,” Mongold said. Strange bedfellows.
Drone footage monitored all sectors. Human and signal collection efforts attempted to discern clarity from the murkiness. VBIED, SIED, rocket attacks, and complex ambushes were reported as imminent. It’s hard sometimes not to sound like Chicken Little. We knew the sky was falling…we just didn’t know when or where. As the U.S. and (ironically) Taliban shifted tactics to disrupt the threats, ISIS-K kept adapting. The game of chess was bound to result in a piece being removed from the board. The entire intelligence enterprise worked to assess and delay. We had to keep the gates of the airport open as much as possible. Every evacuee depended on it, but with it came great risk.
On August 26th, as troops operated to get people out, a suicide bomber detonated his charge at the Abbey Gate. The gate had been crowded with people, jostling for entrance. Narrow and canalizing, it was especially suited to the type of gruesome attacks carried out by the Islamic State. A sewage canal ran alongside it, and Afghans waded in the putrid water, disregarding its contents in the hope they could get inside and on a plane. The explosion was followed by gunfire from assailants near the entrance for Special Immigrant Visa holders and their families. ISIS-K had found a weakness and exploited it to devastating effect. In their quest for ideological purity, which even found them pitted against the Taliban, the monstrous network killed men, women, and children — among them Marines, a soldier, and a Navy corpsman. Scores of military and civilians were injured.
Our hearts fell into our stomachs. Those of us who had deployed to combat before knew that getting blown up was the worst kind of war. There is nothing to shoot back at most of the time; there was simply unexpected carnage. We knew this was the first blow, and the threat would not diminish. A couple of days later, a U.S. drone strike on a VBIED stopped another catastrophe. Collateral damage appears to have unintentionally killed innocent bystanders. Did the preemptive attack save countless others? Arguably yes, but it was at a terrible cost. Like a ripple on a pond, the reverberations of hatred and violence spread out and corrupt our world.
In the face of that stands those who are the helpers. Capt. Rachel Cochran and Lt. Col. Timothy “Doc” Borden, Task Force Bastard medical providers, jumped into action along with two of their medics, Sgt. Sara Seck and Spc. Ali Hutter.
Capt. Cochran, a physician assistant with a disposition that expresses both grace and professionalism, had just a few days prior made rounds in a nearby evacuee compound with her medics. Rachel’s blonde hair was tucked under her helmet. A group of children, dark-haired and starry-eyed, gathered around her.
“Are you a girl?” one child asked through an interpreter.
“And you’re a doctor?
“I want to be a doctor, too!”
“You can be, and maybe you will,” replied Rachel. “Come to America and be whatever you want to be.”
Capt. Cochran was wearing all her gear that day – except for her cape.
On August 26th Rachel found herself at the hell of Abbey Gate. Arriving in a field ambulance, she surveyed the aftermath. Hundreds of injured Afghans walking through the gate amongst the dead and dying, soaked in sewage from the canal. Blood everywhere.
GROUND ATTACK IMMINENT!
Out of nowhere, a siren sounded and an authoritative voice pierced the air, announcing that a ground attack was imminent. After an IED oftentimes an assault follows with coordinated small arms fire. A family of women and children cowered in shock. A woman with obvious head injuries; a young girl with burn marks on her chest; a toddler boy; another 12 or 13 year old who was screaming. Capt. Cochran threw herself over them, sheltering them from a possible follow-on attack with her body armor.
They triaged who they could, and raced across the airfield to the makeshift medical facility. Capt. Cochran adeptly administered aid alongside others to a four-year-old girl with bullet wounds. Doc Borden, Task Force Bastard surgeon, worked to save the life of a Marine with blast injuries. Both are employed in emergency rooms back home in Minnesota, and both exemplified the heroic virtues of first responders and emergency medical personnel that work every day to protect and save the lives of strangers.
As our providers and medics worked feverishly, Maj. Joe Genin, operations officer-in-charge, and I poured over sector maps at the Command Post. An urgent call came out over the radio net for Type O Negative blood. We yelled out across the hangar for volunteers. The men had just bedded down after a long overnight shift. Six Bastards popped up, eager to give blood and help whoever needed it. I quickly escorted them over to the makeshift medical facility. They were tired and worn out, but they wanted to be there for an Afghan civilian or service member in need. As I walked back to the battalion area, one of the 82nd Airborne operations sergeant majors smiled at me and said, “The land of 10,000 lakes and O Negative blood. They’re saving lives, sir.”
That’s the call sign for 1-194’s Chaplain, Chad Czischke. The 1/82 Brigade are known as the “Devils.” Between both Chaplains, a Devil and a Bastard, I guess I’m at a loss for words.
Chaplain Czischke is a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who lives across the Saint Croix River from Stillwater, Minnesota on the Wisconsin side. At the risk of alienating his soldiers, he claims to be a Packers fan. Regardless of his football foibles, he is laser-focused on the mental and spiritual wellness of the task force.
“They stayed strong, most days with smiles,” he said. “I’m proud of them.”
He recalled how he went to visit the evacuees to deliver necessities like baby formula, diapers, and wipes along with food, toiletries, and goodies.
“We had bags of stuff. Most of them had nothing – just the clothes on their back. A suitcase if they were lucky.”
He encountered a young married couple with a baby. Chaplain thought he would just hand her the bag of items. Instead, she pulled out just a couple of things. “That’s all I need,” she said.
“Trust yourself and each other. Trust your training. We will do amazing things.”
Those were the confident words of our commander, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, as he jumped on a chair in the Ali al Salem airbase passenger terminal and stood before the task force as we prepared to board C-17 Globemasters en route to Kabul via Qatar. Getting there was a feat in itself. He was concerned with understanding our command relationship and mission on the ground. He had been woken up late on August 12th with the news the Bastards were going to Afghanistan.
“No one could’ve predicted how this unfolded. The entire situation was surreal.”
That continued once the task force was on the ground, but his battalion was ready.
“Given the past two years, and now with our time here, I would argue we are the best trained, most ready mechanized armor unit in the entire Army.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.
That applied not only to the companies but the staff as well. Lt. Col. Helgestad got our combat power into the fight and did so in a way that anticipated a sustained operation.
“NTC taught us this – you can’t stay awake forever. You have to sustain indefinitely.”
The Bastards performed as trained.
“We were never shaky. We arrived confident and solidified within 48 hours.”
He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.”
He was impressed by the resilience of the Afghan people.
“Some have never known anything but war. All they want is to find work and provide for their families. They’ve been fighting for decades, but not just for themselves – always for their families. They deserve peace.”
When asked to reflect on the totality of the mission and what he was most proud of, he had this to say:
“We brought every one of our soldiers back. In a situation no one could perceive during a once-in-a-lifetime military event, we defended the last stronghold during a difficult and dangerous noncombatant evacuation while displaying courage, dignity, and respect. We can hold our heads high.”
The Bastards were among the last units out of Kabul, with the exception of the 82nd Airborne’s three remaining Parachute Infantry Regiments conducting the tactical exfiltration. It befits our history. We had been left behind in 1941 as the Japanese closed in on Manila. What better unit could the Army send to make sure others wouldn’t face the same fate?
Our formations began to collapse for redeployment to Kuwait on August 30th. We boarded C-17s and left HKIA as ISIS-K launched rockets that failed to find their mark. I chatted with the flight crew on the way out.
“Can you get us to Kuwait? I know we’re scheduled to land in Qatar, but is there any chance of diverting?” The guys were tired, hungry, and odiferous.
“I’ll see what I can do,” replied the airman.
As the engines roared and we gained altitude, I looked around to see a lot of solemn faces filled with relief. ‘Some of these kids grew up over the past two weeks,’ I thought to myself. As if to drive the point home, I looked to my left at a young infantryman sprawled out on the deck. He was looking at photos of Afghan children he had met on his phone.
A short time later an announcement from the flight deck: “Hey Guys. We just got permission – we’re landing in Kuwait!” Roars of approval.
Moose 79, whose home base is at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, was refueled in-flight. We were escorted by F-15s. I looked out the port window. The pilot was so close I could see him wave. Our aircrew treated us to a hard descent to Ali al-Salem. It was a rollercoaster ride meant to welcome us back, a thank you from the aircrew. Our Air Force is something else. Over half of the total C-17 fleet was mobilized for the airlift. They flew mission after mission safely, and without them, the entire operation was in vain.
As the ramp lowered and we deplaned, I walked out into the bright Kuwaiti sun and onto a hot tarmac. I saw Maj. Gen. John Rhodes, the commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division and Task Force Spartan, walking briskly towards me. I rendered a hand salute. He gave me a bear hug.
Reflections and Implications
As the XO, I assisted Lt. Col. Helgestad with syncing the efforts of the staff and line companies. My job was to conduct current operations so that he could focus on the future fight. Sharing daily updates from the battlefield with our rear XO, Maj. Phil Wong, and my intelligence counterparts in Kuwait were part of my battle rhythm. I sat down with Maj. Puri and the Task Force Spartan G2 intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Joseph Pieper, upon my return.
“Charlie, the updates you shared with us as a combat XO and S2 along with the products that your team put together traveled all the way through the defense intelligence enterprise. The atmospherics you provided helped us confirm or deny the veracity of multiple sources of reporting. Our collection capabilities were severely degraded – you helped us build real tactical awareness. It was good to have you there, and it’s good to have you back.”
It is good to be back in Kuwait, and that’s something I thought I’d never say.
The experience of 1-194 AR at HKIA demonstrates the importance, and viability, of the Army’s Total Force Policy, an ongoing effort to transition reserve components into an operational force. The intent is to create a seamless and holistic “total force” governed by the same interchangeable policies and procedures. Few could have imagined a decade or two ago that a National Guard combat unit would be ready — and able — to deploy with such short notice and perform so effectively in such trying circumstances. We did just that, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with top-tier conventional and special operations forces. Considering Covid response, civil unrest, and noncombatant evacuation operations, 2020-2021 was truly the year of the National Guard, and Minnesota stands as its paragon.
The support for our task force, and our families, has been overwhelming. I believe many of our young Soldiers will not realize or fully appreciate the magnitude of this moment or the second- and third-order effects that their actions contributed to for many years. Many of our soldiers had never been to Afghanistan before, and the two weeks there seemed a pittance compared to our fellow soldiers and veterans that had given so much, some of them all, to the cause of freedom at the request of our nation.
I was fortunate to be a part of this, and I will be forever grateful. The Bastards carry with us the weight of the dead and wounded servicemen and women at Abbey Gate and the suffering and desperation of the Afghan people. We did everything — everything — we could to hold the line at the airport and get U.S. citizens and allies evacuated.
Following the conclusion of our mission, our task force will reset and be postured to respond in the region for any further missions. We’ll continue to train and engage our multinational partners to promote peace and stability.
As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his stories about a dangerous and uncertain journey, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” America’s soldiers, especially the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” of Task Force 1-194 AR, Minnesota National Guard, helped keep the promise of hope alive for over 120,000 people.
Our only regret is that we couldn’t help more.
Capt. Charlie Anderson is the S2 for 1-194 AR (TF Bastard), and served as the XO Forward at HKIA. He is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield. From 1998-2006 he served as a military policeman, completing a combat tour in Iraq 2003-2004. After a 7-year break-in-service, he re-enlisted and completed State officer candidate school, branching military intelligence (MI). As a member of the Minnesota National Guard, his previous assignments include 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion (AS2) and 334 BEB MICO (XO). In his civilian life, he is a Commander with the Saint Paul Police Department and a local elected official. He resides in Marine on St Croix, Minnesota with his wife (Betsy) and four children (Thorin, Ingrid, Kjersten, and Leif).
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