From Saigon to Kabul: A Veterans Day homage to the U.S. Military
By Peg Eastman
From its founding, Charleston has celebrated a proud military history, and we are privileged to have Medal of Honor Recipient Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, USMC (ret.) and Col. Alex Pelbath, USAF (ret.) living among us today.
By 1975, the United States had witnessed the assassination of a president, student protests rampaging at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile, the unpopular war in Vietnam was dragging on and on. Then, we had the exclamation point of the television images of the U.S.’s inglorious departure from Saigon. That awful remembrance of Vietnamese allies clinging to the tracts of helicopters to escape retribution from the communist regime is forever etched into the psyche of the entire nation. Never in history had U.S. citizens witnessed such a tragic spectacle.
The nation had seen the alarming progress of the North Vietnamese Army as it surged to the gates of Saigon. Despite this turn of events, preparation and planning was executed prior to South Vietnam’s collapse. In addition to a Marine regiment on standby, the Air force had already conducted an airlift of Vietnamese allies and the Navy had an Amphibious Ready Group on station for the evacuation order.
When Major Jim Livingston received orders that he was to be the “action officer” for “Operation Frequent Wind,” he was a seasoned warrior who had already proven his valor in the action where he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. His command was the furthest evacuation outpost in the Saigon area. His was no insignificant assignment.
Despite the chaos, almost 700 helicopter sorties evacuated nearly 7,000 Vietnamese and Americans — at a loss of four Marines. This was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. According to Gunnery Sergeant Russell Thurman, the sky was “filled with helicopters, and most of them weren’t ours. They were Vietnamese flying every conceivable helicopter they could get their hands on. The sky was black with helicopters.” Sad to say, because of the air congestion, many of those valuable assets were pushed into the sea to make room for more refugee flights to our carriers.
Total disaster was avoided only because the military had the tools to do the job without interference from civilian leadership in Washington. Military commanders understood the simple presidential intent — to get people out — and they were free to use all available assets. Frequent Wind was accomplished in little more than 24 hours.
Fast forward to Afghanistan almost 50 years latern Gen. Livingston’s words, “Kabul made Saigon look like a triumph.”
The Afghan disaster started in February 2020 when the U.S. signed a peace agreement with the Taliban that included the gradual withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan. In September, more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including 400 of whom were accused and convicted of major crimes such as murder, were released by the Afghan government as part of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. Many of the released prisoners were “experts” returned to the battlefield. Worse, after his election loss in November, on Veterans Day, President Trump ordered a rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Somalia, but (thankfully) senior officials never followed this order.
In early 2021, the Pentagon and the Afghan government believed that Kabul would need to be provided with continuous U.S. military support. Unfortunately, on July 8, President Biden shifted the expected completion date of September 11 to August 31. This enabled the Taliban and allied militant groups to begin a widespread offensive simultaneous with the withdrawal of most of U.S. troops. Even then the president refused to soften restrictions on reinforcing troops. Unsurprisingly, the Afghan National Army fell like dominos across the country until only two units based in Kabul remained operational. By mid-August the capital city was encircled. Its capture occurred hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. It was only then that more forces were authorized in in a desperate move to secure the last remaining lifeline out of Afghanistan.
Even then officials in the White House and the Pentagon, 7,000 miles away, were restricting individual helicopter movements thus placing limitations on rescue missions outside the airport gates and requiring National Command Authority level approval for special forces operations to extract stranded American citizens.
The human costs were catastrophic: Eleven Marines, one soldier and one sailor were lost at the airport’s Abbey Gate. Many American citizens were left behind despite repeated assurances from the Biden administration that all U.S. citizens would be rescued. This did not include hundreds of Afghans who were so desperate to escape that they clung to the wheel wells of departing planes as they took off.
Incredibly, by the time the U.S. evacuated Afghanistan, the nation had already witnessed the spectacle of the terrorist September 11, 2001, attacks on both New York and the Pentagon (and the attempted attack via Flight 93) and the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. capitol. A jaded nation was shell-shocked by the images that came across TV. And in the aftermath, contractors had to be hired to extract those left behind. Worse, militant groups outside Afghanistan later gained access to the military equipment the U.S. abandoned in the country.
Gen. Livingston commented:
Few understand how close this … came to a full-scale military disaster. Had the Taliban not agreed to a last-minute cease-fire brokered by American officials, Kabul may well have fallen into a murderous rampage. Even with that cease-fire in hand, when we requested more time to complete our evacuation, a peasant army of hardscrabble religious zealots told the most powerful nation on earth “no.” It was a humiliation that shattered more than trust in the president, whose poll numbers collapsed along with Kabul. It was a blow to the credibility of America itself. Not just in those we betrayed, from the innocent Afghan girls who can no longer go to school, to the soldiers who risked everything to fight with us, but to our military that once prided itself on “leaving no man behind.”
There is a silver lining to this monumental tragedy. This columnist chanced upon two visitors from Seneca Falls, New York, the home of 19th century feminism. In curiosity, I asked them what their favorite thing about America was. Unhesitating, both answered almost simultaneously: “Freedom.” We agreed this this freedom was due to the continued valor of our military.
Let us conclude with a salute to our military on Veterans Day.
My deep appreciation to Gen. Livingston for inspiring this article. Alex Pelbath, Susan Marlowe, Ron Plunkett and Peter Williams also contributed. Col. Alex Pelbath’s story will appear in next issue of the Mercury.