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Leaving Afghanistan — and Leaving Americans Behind

U.S. Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last U.S. service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. (XVIII Airborne Corps/Handout/Reuters)
Soldiers aren’t supposed to leave fallen comrades to fall into the hands of the enemy.

These are the times that try men’s souls.

By now everyone has seen it. The image of a solitary man walking up the ramp of an aircraft, dressed in full kit with a rifle in his hand. The picture is rendered in grainy night-vision green, making the soldier’s blurry expression unreadable. No one but Major General Chris Donahue knows what he was thinking when he boarded the last C-17 to leave Afghanistan.

But I can guess.

Full disclosure: I don’t know, nor have I ever served with, General Donahue. But a friend of mine who does and did described the general as a soldier’s soldier. After a brief look at General Donahue’s resume, I can understand why. Though he’s currently the commander of the vaunted 82nd Airborne Division, General Donahue has a history of serving in elite units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment and Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, more commonly known as Delta Force.

Members of the special-operations community are a breed apart. Their training is more rigorous, their deployments more frequent, and their casualty rates often more grievous than conventional units. They proudly wear berets, or tabs, or tridents that announce to the world their membership in this most elite of fraternities. But it is what is written on their hearts that truly sets them apart. One of these differences is elegantly captured by the Fifth Stanza of the U.S. Army Ranger Creed, which reads, in part: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.”

On June 28, 2005, I saw this play out firsthand in Afghanistan. I was the air-mission commander of a flight of Black Hawks and Apache helicopters desperately trying to rescue four SEALs who had been overrun by the Taliban. Ahead of us was a flight of two MH-47 Chinooks carrying a quick-reaction force of SEALs also trying to reach their brothers-in-arms. As we approached the landing zone, the lead Chinook was destroyed by a Taliban RPG, killing everyone aboard. For the next several days, the war in Afghanistan effectively paused as seemingly every available asset in country was singularly focused on finding the remains of our fallen. Even after hope of discovering the SEALs alive began to fade, the recovery mission did not end until every fallen comrade was found and repatriated.

Twelve years earlier and almost 2,500 miles away, this same level of commitment was demonstrated on another battlefield, this time in Somalia. In an operation immortalized by the book Black Hawk Down, special-operations personnel lived the Ranger Creed by recovering the remains of their fallen comrades from the twisted wrecks of Black Hawk helicopters. A close friend who was there told me that the special operators on scene knew that the helicopter crew members were dead. Even so, these courageous men refused to leave their fallen comrades behind even though the rescuers were themselves under enemy fire. These heroes hailed from the Ranger Regiment and Delta Force.

The same organizations General Donahue would one day join.

On the surface, their actions made very little sense. Why risk the living for the dead? The answer is as simple as it is profound. Because the dead were Americans, and we don’t leave Americans behind.

Ever.

Except in Afghanistan, we just did.

Between one and two hundred Americans are believed to still be in Afghanistan. Americans whose survival and repatriation is now dependent on the Taliban’s benevolence. The same Taliban now hunting for anyone who worked with America or the Afghan government it supported.

General Donahue is a soldier’s soldier. He followed the orders of his commander in chief. The leader of the nation on whose behalf General Donahue deployed 17 times over his almost three decades of service. I don’t know what Major General Chris Donahue was thinking as he climbed aboard that C-17. No one does. But I have to wonder if it went a little something like this:

I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.

Don Bentley deployed to Afghanistan as an Army Air Cavalry Troop Commander where he was awarded the Air Medal with “V” device for Valor, the Combat Action Badge, and the Bronze Star Medal. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of Tom Clancy Target Acquired and The Outside Man.

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