Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Jeremy Ruppe and his circle of military friends have taken to calling the catastrophic scene that unfolded amid the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan their generation's "fall of Saigon."
Ruppe, a Marine who served in rural Afghanistan with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, said a number of veterans have reached out to him since the Taliban took over the country this past weekend.
"Most of them open with the phrase, 'So how does it feel to watch our generation's fall of Saigon happen?'" he said.
Ruppe said as a young Marine he always made a point to thank Vietnam veterans for their service and make them feel good about it. He told them they were his heroes and had inspired him to join the military.
"Now, it's an ironic situation, that more or less, I guess I'm in the same boat," he said.
"The similarities to Saigon are just too obvious," Ruppe said. "You start to think about Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis if this evacuation doesn't go well."
Thousands of American citizens and Afghan interpreters and others who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war are clambering to get out of Kabul, the capital city now under Taliban control. U.S. officials say they can't guarantee them safe travel to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
President Joe Biden has vowed to get every American out of the country over the next two weeks but was noncommittal about the Afghans, many of whom are eligible to resettle in the U.S. under a special visa program.
As Kim Olsen watched the chaotic images in Afghanistan, her thoughts turned to the Afghan citizens who now might not be able to escape the new regime.
Olsen thought about Afghans who could walk the streets of their towns without fear of the Taliban and the women who had rights and little girls who learned to read. She thought about the Afghan interpreters and others who risked their lives to help American troops like her son, Lance Cpl. Nigel Olsen, who died in an IED explosion in Helmand Province in 2010.
"They all got left. I am heartbroken that we didn't plan this a little better," she said. "I don't know why we took the troops out first before we got the citizens."
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney expressed the same sentiment in a recent Twitter post.
"The Administration cannot continue to defend the indefensible: Civilian citizens and our Afghan partners should always leave first — then the military," he wrote. "We cannot abruptly abandon the people who helped us over the past 20 years and leave them to face the Taliban alone."
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan two weeks before the U.S. was set to complete its troop withdrawal after the 20-year war. The insurgents stormed across the country, capturing all major cities, including the capital of Kabul, in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies offered no resistance.
"I think it was terribly naive of this administration to expect anything different," Olsen said.
Biden admitted in a speech this week that the Taliban takeover occurred much quicker than U.S. military officials anticipated.
One of those who can't get out of Kabul is a man named Frogh. He acted as an unofficial interpreter with his older brother, Fardeen, an interpreter assigned to Braden Wayment, a Utahn who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Army. Fardeen came to the United States a decade ago and joined the U.S. Army.
All three appeared by telephone Thursday on KSL NewsRadio's "Dave and Dujanovic Show." The Afghan brothers didn't want their last names used.
Frogh said the only way to save his life is to get out of the country, but the U.S. military won't let him into the airport because he doesn't have the documents they're asking for, including a U.S. passport. He only has an Afghan passport and email address. He said the Taliban is hunting him down because his brother, Fardeen, is a U.S. soldier.
Wayment said Frogh has met the State Department requirements for entry into the U.S. and that he has sent his emergency visa number to the agency numerous times to no avail.
"The Taliban had already wanted Fardeen eliminated for just being an interpreter. Now they know that he is an American soldier with family in Kabul, and they are actively being hunted right now," Wayment said of Frogh and other family members.
Fardeen described the past week as the "saddest days of my life."
Wayment said he ate, slept and worked out with Fardeen while he was stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Fardeen, he said, was critical to his unit's mission. He could diffuse a scary situation and he put his life on the line for Wayment and other soldiers.
"So, it is very personal," Wayment said.
He said it's hard to talk to people without getting into a debate about how much money the U.S. spent on the war or the lives that were lost in the fighting.
"What it comes down to is that the people that came home, most of us feel like we did a good job. We met people like Fardeen and like his family. We delivered care packages. We played soccer with kids. Those stories don't get covered. And to see them having to evacuate and be in danger, it hurts," Wayment said.
Olsen said the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan in no way diminishes her son's service.
"He knew what he was doing was for our country. He knew that he would make a difference. He and all of those others who served did make a difference. They did," she said. "Nothing will ever take away from that. I am incredibly proud of him. I'm incredibly proud of everyone he served with."
Olsen said she has been receiving text messages this week from Nigel Olsen's fellow Marines saying they're thinking about her and that they love her and her son.
Ruppe was sitting in the vehicle that triggered the explosion that killed Nigel Olsen. The two of them deployed together and were on the same team. Ruppe wasn't injured in the blast.
Like Kim Olsen, Ruppe said he was disheartened by what transpired in Afghanistan over the past few days. But also frustrated and confused. He described his feeling as a mix of bewilderment and resignation. He was surprised and not surprised.
"It is heartbreaking for the people who are there," he said.
Ruppe said he is frustrated that the Afghan army crumbled, but there's as much blame to put on the U.S. military, Department of Defense and political leaders for mismanaging the withdrawal.
The only way to describe it, he said, is catastrophic, adding the effects will be far-reaching. He called Biden's explanation of what happened a "cop-out."
"I've done my share of studying history and culture and military tactics. It doesn't feel to me like it needed to be this way. All of the high-level excuses of, 'Well, there's nothing we could have done,' it just reeks of shifting blame," he said.
Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, said Americans deserve to know what went wrong in the days and months leading up to the Biden administration's withdrawal. He introduced legislation Friday to get answers and "ensure that an absence of presidential leadership on this scale will never happen again."
He called the president's decision to pursue a Sept. 11 deadline regardless of the safety of U.S. citizens and Afghans who support American troops "theatrical and disturbing."
"Without a responsible exit plan, the Taliban eroded decades of progress in just four months," Moore said.
Moore said he received a text message at 1:30 a.m. from a caseworker on his staff saying an Afghan family the office was working with got their visas and flight orders.
"We were kind of celebrating and we woke up to the briefing that you couldn't even get passage through to the airport," he said on KSL NewsRadio's "Inside Sources." "There's been a lot of anguish to sift through and just try to help folks."
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this week said the state stands ready to receive Afghan refugees. Catholic Community Services, one of two resettlement agencies in the state, is preparing for that possibility.
Olsen said she's willing to take them into her home.
"We owe this to them. We do. We have a chance to save their lives," she said. "These are the people my son did his best to protect and to serve, and they're already family to me."