Marine injured in Kabul blast says CIA knew about bomber but were told not to kill him

Mike Wolcott

Chico Enterprise-Record, Calif.

For as long as there have been countries, there have been wars.

We send the best of our young men and women into unspeakably horrific situations that will stay with them for the rest of their lives — assuming they make it back home in the first place.

I know World War II and Korea veterans who have been impacted by PTSD longer than the term has existed. We still see the impact Vietnam had on generations of Americans every day, and today we’re living with spikes in mental health issues, including suicide, among our veterans like never before — including many of our younger military members who served in the Middle East.

The most tragic of ironies is this: The battles our military heroes fight elsewhere eventually come back to hit them in other ways at home. That means the rest of us must fulfill our sacred duty to honor and help those who put their lives at risk for us.

My hope is that just for today, we can all set aside some differences and join forces for one of our own — just by reading his story.

Today isn’t Memorial Day, or Veterans Day, or even the Fourth of July. But we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of one of the worst days for our United States military in the past decade — the suicide bombing at Kabul Airport’s Abbey Gate on Aug. 26, 2021.

Tristan Hirsch of Chico, a United States Marine, was there, right in the middle of the carnage that cost more than 200 people, including 13 members of our military, their lives. He lost friends (while suffering a traumatic brain injury himself) and saw many of the very people he was trying to help blown to pieces by a sick, subhuman act of evil.

Tristan Hirsch

Thank God he’s home, and is willing to share his story with our readers today.

There is no government spin ahead; this is the first-hand account of a Marine who spent two weeks trying to save lives and maintain some semblance of order in a chaotic situation where human life often seemed to hold no value whatsoever to the barbarians we were fighting — and in some cases even the people we were trying to help.

Parts of this story will horrify you. If it doesn’t make you stop and appreciate all that’s good about your life — while also pausing to give thanks to people like Tristan Hirsch and our millions of military veterans — I haven’t done my job today.

They knew he was there

Of all the things Hirsch said during our hour-long conversation — from the subhuman acts of hate he witnessed right to the desperation and fear he saw in the eyes of Afghanis fleeing from the Taliban as the U.S. ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan — few impacted me more than this:

They knew the suicide bomber was there.

They’d seen him around the area for two days.

And they weren’t allowed to kill him.

“We knew about him (the suicide bomber) two days prior to the attack,” said Hirsch, who spoke with me at a local coffee shop with his wife Kayla and father Steven Hirsch earlier this week. “We knew what he looked like. The CIA let us know; he looked exactly as they’d described him.”

Hirsch explained that the tens of thousands of people hoping to escape Kabul — and often certain death at the hands of the Taliban — had been waiting at the airport for days, and they showed it. On the other hand, a man on a suicide mission was likely to stand out from the crowd, looking freshly showered with a well-trimmed beard.

So, while Hirsch said he never personally saw the bomber, others who were working at Abbey Gate that day did — “the day prior and the day during,” Hirsch said. “He’d show up and leave.”

Our forces literally had their shot at killing the suicide bomber before he was able to kill and maim so many others.

“A friend of mine who was a sniper racked back his rifle and was ready to kill the guy,” Hirsch said. “We asked for permission and the reply was, ‘let me get a military judge to see if it’s legal.'”

Pausing, Hirsch added “the battalion commander at the time was very concerned about his job.”

Needless to say, approval didn’t come in time. The suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt and thousands of ball bearings in his vest butchered almost everyone around him in the crowded area, killing more than 200 people and permanently wounding scores of others.

There was a second suicide bomber there known to the Marines too, Hirsch said, “but he didn’t get a chance to detonate. I think the first one that went off killed him.”

Him, and unfortunately a lot of other people.

The explosion — and aftermath

It’s understandable that an initial reaction to such a blast would be confusion — especially in a scene that was so chaotic in the first place. It was no different for Hirsch.

“I remember getting hit by the blast, sitting there and I was looking at it,” Hirsch said, adding “My normal job was a combat engineer. I’d dealt with explosives all the time, blowing open doors, making trenches with explosives and really big amounts of explosives. I remember seeing it and thinking that’s not that bad, that’s not big.

“But what I failed to realize until 30 seconds went by was there were thousands of ball bearings in that 25-30 pound vest he was wearing. At the time I was pretty confused. One of my friends yelled at me to get cover. I was just kind of standing there — everyone yelled for a corpsman.”

Quickly, Hirsch realized it was “a lot worse than I thought it was.”

Pausing to reflect, he said the most painful words of all: “190 Afghanis dead and 13 (of our) guys … two women.”

The force of the explosion left Hirsch with a TBI — traumatic brain injury — and gruesome memories that will last a lifetime.

Hirsch was asked if he’d lost some friends that day. Looking down at a memorial bracelet he wears bearing his lost friend’s name, he said “Yes … I lost my platoon sergeant. Staff Sergeant Taylor Hoover.”

Pausing, he added “He was a really great guy.”

Here’s the story of how another great guy also ended up in that hellish situation.

From Chico to Afghanistan

Hirsch’s life story is similar to so many others who grew up in Chico. He attended both Pleasant Valley and Chico High Schools, graduating from Chico in 2016.

A cousin of his joined the Marines in 2010, and Hirsch said “hearing his stories from Iraq and Afghanistan” led to him eventually deciding he was going to pursue that avenue as well. So, on May 21, 2018, at the age of 20 and already married to his wife Kayla, he joined the Marines.

Eventually, he ended up in Saudi Arabia as a member of the emergency quick reaction force “for anything in the Middle East.” And that, he explained, “is why we were the first ones there.”

Hirsch said his entire six-month deployment in Saudi Arabia had been spent training for this event, firing thousands of rounds in preparation daily. When President Biden set Aug. 31, 2021 as the final exit date for American military personnel, the Marines knew their time for action was coming — especially in the weeks immediately ahead, as the Taliban regained control of much of Afghanistan and security around the airport was crumbling.

“We just kept looking at the news on our phones,” he said, with everyone finally realizing “This is our job. We’re going.”

Hirsch said they flew in around Aug. 15 or 16, and even that wasn’t easy.

“Our squadron leader would go into the command center while we were waiting and tell us how (the first plane) couldn’t land. There were just too many people on the tarmac,” Hirsch said. “They almost ran out of fuel.”

After that first arrival, the American forces were able to gain control — with a ratio of one Marine to a thousand people.

That wasn’t all they found at the airport.

“The airport was a treasure trove of stuff,” Hirsch recalled. “We would go and break open giant storage units — (thinking) the Taliban was going to get it so let’s mess with it. We found a storage unit of like 10,000 body armor plates and made defensive positions out of those.”

Hirsch said much of his memory of the days before the attack was a “blur” as he spent several days as part of the team guarding Abbey Gate inside the airport.

That is where this story gets more horrifying.

Witnessing ‘pure human evil’

The job of Hirsch and his fellow Marines at the airport sounded straightforward — maintain order and help the people get out. As it turns out, one was practically as challenging as the other.

“Our job was to find somehow certain passports and what’s legitimate and what’s a green card. We were given no visual aids, instructions were probably passed through 40 people. At times we had to be the bad guys, to turn people away. And you knew what was going to happen to them.

“The desperation was the worst. Seeing pure human evil — not even from the Taliban but from actual Afghani nationals that were trying to leave.

“It was desperation I’ve never heard of or seen. Guys would come up to you and just ask you to kill them because they didn’t want to be captured by the Taliban. They’d rather be killed by an American.”

Hirsch described one of the most sickening things he witnessed.

“I was working with a New Zealand guy — special operator — talking to this 15 or 16-year-old kid. We’re at Abbey Gate, right next to the canal. The kid’s holding a newborn child. I turn because my friend is yelling at me … I turn back and the kid’s not there. The New Zealand guy is screaming at this dude.

“I’m like what happened? ‘He threw that kid in the canal. It’s gone.’

“It just didn’t make any sense to me … we weren’t helping him fast enough, he thought that would get our attention.”

Pausing, he said “So that’s how that went down.”

Working with the Taliban, Hirsch added, was “interesting” as well.

“The worst thing I think we had to do was turn people away. You turn them away, and you would just hear the execution shots 10 minutes later. You could sometimes see what was going on; there was nothing you could do about it, you’d just have to sit there and watch.”

Hirsch said they caught an ISIS member at one of the terminals. Then, there was an episode where a man “was being extremely rude to everyone so we just handcuffed him and threw him back to the Taliban. I know what happened to him.”

Getting an average of 9,000 people processed per day — around 130,000 people got out those final weeks — was a Herculean task in itself. It was also done under the worst of conditions. The Marines were working at the gate next to a canal where “the water was black because of sewage runoff and other factors,” Hirsch said. “Most nights you would either sleep on a car, or you would have to sleep in the dirt, which would have human waste in it.

“The issue was personnel. We had to constantly be doing stuff. You’d get about a 2-hour nap and get back up and deal with the crowds.”

There may have been a huge shortage of sleep, but there was never a shortage of adrenaline.

“To be honest, it was like the funnest time of my life,” Hirsch said. “The adrenaline — the highest you’ll ever feel. Your body is just mentally focused; I would not get tired. There was gunfire 24/7 every day, (but) we were doing some good things.”

And perhaps most importantly of all to any Marine, he noted “you are with the guys.”

Lives were saved, too

For all the death and barbaric acts Hirsch witnessed in Kabul, he was also able to be a part of a countless number of life-saving experiences. With understandable pride, he recalled helping one family in particular.

“About a mid-20s female was talking to me, crying her eyes out, and had her father with him. He was probably in his 70s and he was the chief prosecutor with a big area — a guy who put away a lot of people who are now free.”

Obviously, that meant he had a lot of high-profile and very powerful enemies.

“She showed me all these photos, pictures of him with Green Berets and Navy Seals,” he said. “The reason I got her help was because she just wouldn’t stop. Eventually I was able to grab a DOS ( Department of State) worker, who looked at all the photos, and he said ‘We’ll take them.'”

A long, nervous wait

By Aug. 26, the Marines had been told to shut down Abbey Gate — “shut it off completely and wrap it up.”

They never got the chance. Just a few hours later, the suicide bomber struck.

The attack quickly made international news. That made for a long, frightening wait for Hirsch’s family and loved ones back in northern California.

“From the moment we saw the media reports of an explosion at Abbey Gate, there was radio silence from Tristan, who we heard from regularly,” said Hirsch’s father, Steven Hirsch, a private investigator with the Butte County public defender’s consortium.

“We had picture-in-picture of CNN, Fox, MSNBC trying to catch up. It was a long period of time.”

Hirsch’s wife, Kayla, was going through the same thing. “When the explosion happened I was nervous because I didn’t hear from him,” she said.

A day — or maybe two — later, Hirsch was able to contact Kayla and let her know he had survived. She relayed the good news to Hirsch’s father Steven and Steven’s wife, a woman Tristan also calls “mom,” Clare Keithley, a Butte County Superior Court judge.

“Surprisingly,” Hirsch said, “you had (cell) service in Afghanistan.”

The long flight home

There’s a famous photo taken by Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, on Aug. 31, 2021 showing he was the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan. Hirsch and his fellow Marines departed just one flight ahead of Donohue, with much less fanfare.

They left behind a lot of people who were still wishing they could leave — people who, as Hirsch noted, had been given ample advance warning that they needed to get out.

“We tried to get as many out as we could and just couldn’t get all of them,” he said. “We offered them a way out a year prior — ‘you can just fly out, we’ll take you.’ ‘No we’ll stay.’ Then the Taliban took over. I feel bad for them but … you waited too long.”

The Marines flew back to Kuwait after leaving Afghanistan, still a very stressful and emotional time for everyone involved.

“We got there right as the sun was coming up. We got all of our ammo out of the magazines, hundreds of thousands of rounds. No one even slept, we just waited to get on the plane that night and back to Saudi Arabia. The next 2-3 weeks, those were pretty rough for everyone.”

It was October before the Marines finally set foot on American soil again.

“We got home Oct. 6,” Hirsch recalled. “We landed in Baltimore, and 500 Marines drank every bar in the airport dry.”

The road still ahead

I asked Hirsch what was most important for him to convey to our readers — some message he wanted every American citizen to understand.

“I think a lot of people made it political,” he said. “You never know what would have happened if either person was in office. I think that’s something people don’t understand.”

Back in Chico, with his Marine service over as of May 20, 2022, Hirsch said he’s spending time in therapy and going to the Veterans Administration for support.

“If you don’t talk about things they just sort of get worse,” he said.

He’s also working with his father — “it’s nice to learn new things” — and plans on going back to college, likely in the spring to pursue a degree in business management and ultimately an MBA.

Hirsch does admit to missing parts of his military experiences: “Just being with the guys you went through your hardest battles with.” He said they Facetime “at least once a week,” talking about life.

He’s also spending time with his friends in Chico — people he said he “loves to death,” even if they might bring up his military experiences a bit more than he’d prefer at times.

“That was a period of time in our lives, but it’s not who defines you. We still have a life to live. I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but I don’t need to hear about it 24/7,” he said.

“It happened. It sucked. It’s over.”

And we should never forget it.

Honor our veterans. And be thankful for the lives these brave men and women allow us all to live.

You can help Hirsch and his fellow veterans by supporting the Operation Allies Refuge Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making sure “all of the guys and women who were there are taken care of,” Hirsch said, adding “a good handful of them were at the gate that day.” The group is obtaining its nonprofit license and has an Instagram page, You can email Mike Wolcott at


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