Home News Father of Wentzville Marine killed in Afghanistan will air concerns in Congress

Father of Wentzville Marine killed in Afghanistan will air concerns in Congress

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Erin Heffernan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aug. 27—WENTZVILLE — Mark Schmitz thinks a lot about what to tell members of Congress investigating the attack that killed his son.

He wants to know how long his 20-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, lived after the suicide bombing at Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate. He questions the official narrative of the attack, which happened two years ago during the final days of America’s longest war.

But most of all, Schmitz wants to expose what he thinks are cover-ups aimed at softening blame for the bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members, including his son, and at least 170 Afghans, in the deadliest day for American troops during the last 10 years of the U.S. War in Afghanistan.

“For us, accountability comes down to making sure history is written correctly,” Mark Schmitz said in an interview in his Wentzville home decorated with memorabilia of his son and items for The Freedom 13, a nonprofit he created to honor those killed at Abbey Gate. “The evacuation was not an extraordinary success, as Biden likes to say it was. This was a goddamn disaster.”

Now, Schmitz and several other families of those killed in the attack have joined Republican lawmakers criticizing the Biden administration for the U.S.’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this year launched multiple investigations into the withdrawal, resulting in hours of testimony on the bombing.

The hearings, about a year before the next presidential election, have so far split down party lines. Republicans have lambasted Biden, and Democrats have claimed that decisions by former President Donald Trump are to blame.

Schmitz and his wife, Jaclyn Schmitz, Jared’s stepmom, will join several of those other families on Tuesday afternoon when they speak to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in support of the investigations.

White House and Pentagon summaries of the withdrawal concluded that the deaths were not preventable without putting other troops at risk and compromising their operation — emergency evacuations that ultimately allowed an estimated 124,000 U.S. citizens and allies to escape the country at the end of the war.

But while the father goes to Washington, D.C., Jared’s mother, Sue Schmitz, won’t be joining. The parents divorced when Jared was about 2, and they have taken far different approaches to the political attention to his death.

Sue Schmitz told the Post-Dispatch last year she believes the bombing is being used as a partisan political weapon, and she said in a message to the Post-Dispatch this week that she plans to avoid the ongoing Congressional hearings for the same reason.

“The timing of these hearings seemed very suspect to me,” she wrote. “I will always find it difficult to believe that any politician cares more about my son and my family than their own political agenda.”

The attack at Abbey Gate

Mark Schmitz remembers the short, tense calls after his son landed in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Jared Schmitz joined the Marines directly after his graduation from Fort Zumwalt South High School in 2019. He was deployed as an infantryman to Jordan in April 2021, but plans changed when the Taliban captured the Afghanistan capital of Kabul and the country’s president fled about four months later.

The fall of the Afghanistan government came a little more than two weeks before the U.S. had planned to withdraw troops from the country, forcing emergency evacuations.

The Taliban agreed to allow the U.S. to evacuate citizens and Afghan allies from the Hamid Karzai International Airport for the next 17 days. The U.S. sent a few thousand troops, including Jared Schmitz, to oversee the massive operation of sifting through overwhelming swells of people seeking the chance to flee.

Mark Schmitz said his son called him just after his unit landed at the airport, only for the aircraft to be met with overwhelming crowds. The Marine told his father the airport was so tightly packed he couldn’t lift his arms.

“It was one of the first times that I heard him sound legit scared,” Mark Schmitz said. “He flat-out told me: ‘I thought I was going to die.'”

The father stayed glued to the international news coverage of the operation. His son told him he was assigned to Abbey Gate, which later became the last remaining path for evacuees to escape. Thousands packed into the road and a nearby sewage canal hoping to get closer to the troops checking documents and processing evacuees through the gate.

The U.S. made an agreement with the Taliban to run checkpoints leading up to the gate where they searched for weapons and documentation, but back alleys and other paths to the gate were left unguarded to allow evacuees a way to bypass the Taliban, Pentagon officials have said.

During calls home, Jared Schmitz told his father he was exhausted after working multi-day shifts without relief trying to control the crowds at the gate. In his final call with his dad, he optimistically said he thought the situation was now somewhat under control, Mark Schmitz said.

But early Aug. 25 — about 10 days into the evacuations — U.S. officials received information that a bombing was imminent at the airport. The U.S. State Department issued a warning online: ” U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately.”

The crowds remained. Abbey Gate stayed open, as the window to evacuate rapidly closed. The military prepared medical supplies in case of an attack.

U.S. officials have said they believe the bomber took one of the back routes to Abbey Gate. He was strapped with 20 pounds of explosives, which he detonated in an area packed with both Afghan civilians and U.S. military. About 180 people were killed in the blast, and the Pentagon estimates at least another 200 were injured.

Within hours, the global terrorist group ISIS-K, known as the Islamic State and an enemy of the Taliban, took credit for the suicide bombing. American officials told The New York Times the bomber was a former engineering student who was one of several thousand people the Taliban freed from two large prisons when they took control of Kabul just weeks before.

Four days after the attack, the military launched a drone strike on a white Toyota they suspected of being another suicide bomber linked to the terrorist cell behind the Abbey Gate attack. That turned out not to be true. Ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, were killed in what Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later called “a horrible tragedy of war.”

Two days later, the final U.S. evacuations ended on Aug. 30, 2021, marking the end of the 20-year U.S. War in Afghanistan.

President Biden, in speeches after the Abbey Gate bombing, said the 13 troops who were killed were heroes, and he said they took part in a successful “airlift and evacuation effort unlike any seen in history.”

The news reaches Wentzville

It was about 2:45 a.m. when Mark Schmitz heard the knock at his door.

He hadn’t been able to turn away from the news showing the bombing that evening. He was anxious for a call from his son, but he figured the young Marine must be busy after the attack.

“My heart was wrenching for the families, not even realizing I was one of them,” the father said.

Two Marines delivered the news, and Schmitz said they sat with him for an hour afterward.

“They did a good job,” he said. “That has to be the worst job in the world.”

Schmitz said Pentagon officials invited him and Jared’s mother to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to claim their son’s body.

When they arrived, the families were given the option to meet with Biden the next day.

Schmitz initially refused. He voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and he already blamed Biden for the chaos of the withdrawal.

But that night in the hotel room, he changed his mind.

“Here I am sitting in a hotel room by myself just finding out the news that my son had been killed,” he said. “I’m drinking whiskey, pouring a drink for my son and talking to Jared. I thought, ‘Actually, I would like to speak my mind to Biden.'”

The next morning, Mark and Sue Schmitz sat in one of 13 pairs of sofas and chairs set up for the grieving families to meet with the president. Biden came to see the Schmitz family last.

Sue Schmitz pulled out a photo of their son on her phone. Mark pointed at the photo and told the president: “That’s our son. Learn his story,” he recalled.

But he said Biden seemed distracted — an observation that still makes him angry today.

“It was like he was looking through the phone,” he said.

Schmitz said the president appeared to be checking his watch as flag-draped caskets were unloaded from the aircraft at Dover.

“I wish now that I had yelled something at him,” Schmitz said.

‘I don’t believe it for a minute’

A few months after the bombing, Schmitz said a military attorney and Marine Corps lieutenant colonel sat at Schmitz’s dining room table to talk him through the findings of a Pentagon report on the Abbey Gate bombing that killed his son.

By then, Schmitz had become a vocal critic of the Biden administration, speaking to conservative news outlets like Newsmax and Fox News as the bombing became a focus for critics of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal, including U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R- Mo.

So Schmitz was skeptical. He set up cameras to film, and he brought his own attorney while the military officials recounted the findings of the report.

“I’ve already got a disdain in my mouth for these people, you know?” he said. “I wouldn’t believe what they told me for anything.”

The lieutenant colonel showed the father an aerial surveillance image of the area around Abbey Gate. Jared Schmitz’s location was marked by a dot and a number. Schmitz remains doubtful about what he was told.

“I don’t believe it for a minute,” he said.

While the full Pentagon report has not been publicly released, officials announced its conclusions in February 2022. The summary said despite commanders initially believing there was both a suicide bomber and an Islamic State gunman, officials concluded that the attack consisted of only a single bomber.

Military officials said in a press conference when the findings were released that ball bearings in the bomb initially looked like bullets in autopsies. Some U.S. and U.K. service members fired “warning shots” after the explosion, but the report found “no definitive proof that anyone was ever hit or killed by gunfire, either U.S. or Afghan,” based on witness testimony from those with “commanding views of the scene before, during and after the explosive attack.”

The report’s primary author, Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis, told reporters he believed the attack was “not preventable” at the tactical level.

That enraged Schmitz, who was active in a group chat with several other family members of those killed in the attack. The group shared news, along with footage and accounts they collected themselves from witnesses.

Several, including Schmitz, remain convinced there was a second attacker with a gun. Schmitz said he’s asked for the five metal fragments found in his son’s body so he can test them himself to see if they were bullets, but he was told they were not available.

“It was a coordinated attack, and they’re trying to deny that,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz and other grieving parents give myriad explanations for why the Biden administration would prefer the explanation of a single bomber. But several of them are steadfast that the footage indicates there was also a gunman and a cover-up is afoot.

Schmitz said he was frustrated, too, with the lack of detail he has received from officials about his son’s final moments.

“Two years later, I still have no clue if my son dropped dead immediately, if he was bleeding out on his way to the hospital, if he died in a hospital,” he said. “I have no idea.”

The father is also unsatisfied with the accounts of why Abbey Gate and the unguarded paths to it remained open despite hours of warnings that an attack was imminent.

According to excerpts from the Pentagon report, commanders decided against closing Abbey Gate because ally British forces were still processing U.K. evacuees at the nearby Baron Hotel. Closing the gate would have left British troops isolated and vulnerable, the report concluded.

Schmitz has focused on the larger criticism of the Biden administration’s withdrawal, too, including the decision to shut down the military hub in the war, Bagram Air Base, in July before the evacuations. The controversial closure has become a common criticism from Republicans in Congress who argue the base would have been a more secure site for the evacuations.

“They were sitting ducks at HKIA (the Kabul airport),” Schmitz said. “Bagram is a freaking fortress.”

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testified weeks after the bombing that the possibility of using Bagram for the evacuations of civilians “went away” because there were not enough troops left in the country to keep the base running and defend the embassy in Kabul.

In April 2023, the Biden White House issued its own summary of the larger withdrawal, largely placing blame on decisions in the Trump administration. Trump’s 2020 peace deal with the Taliban included a pledge to withdraw troops from the country by May 2021 in exchange for promises from the Taliban, including refraining from attacking U.S. troops. The Taliban didn’t abide by many of the agreements, but the Biden administration opted to go forward with ending the war anyway, extending the deadline for withdrawal at first to Sept. 11, 2021.

“There were no signs that more time, more funds, or more Americans at risk in Afghanistan would have yielded a fundamentally different trajectory,” the White House summary argues. “Indeed, the speed with which the Taliban took over the country showed why maintaining 2,500 troops would not have sustained a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.”

Schmitz said from his view, those conclusions from top military leaders and the Biden administration are focused only on deflecting blame.

“You’re a new president,” he said. “If there was something that was arranged by the old president you can say: ‘No, this is what we’re doing now.’ This is on Biden’s hands.”

Hearings in Congress

Schmitz watched as hearings in the House Foreign Affairs Committee opened in March with emotional testimony from witnesses to the bombing, including Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was seriously injured in the blast. Vargas-Andrew testified he was in a sniper tower the day of the attack and spotted a man matching the description he’d been given of a suspected suicide bomber hours before the attack. His superiors did not give him approval to shoot, he said.

“Plain and simple, we were ignored. Our expertise was disregarded. No one was held accountable for our safety,” Vargas-Andrews said in the March hearing.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul, of Texas, has pledged to continue to investigate the decisions made by Biden and his top commanders, including sending a request this month to interview Vargas-Andrews’ commanding officer.

“I will not rest until we uncover every stone and get to the bottom of how this happened and who is responsible for these failures,” McCaul said in a press release on the ongoing hearings at the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul. “Our service members, veterans and our Gold Star families — especially those who lost family on August 26 at Abbey Gate — deserve answers and justice.”

Mark Schmitz traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to meet McCaul and House leadership, including Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He hopes Tuesday’s House Foreign Affairs roundtable will lead to more answers.

Sue Schmitz, Jared’s mother, said she won’t attend or watch the hearings. She wrote in a message to the Post-Dispatch that she’s avoided reading the Pentagon report on the bombing altogether because it would be too emotionally devastating. She told the Post-Dispatch in 2019 that she leans Democrat but tries to vote for people rather than party.

“It was never made clear to me what the agenda was supposed to be, much less the purpose of the hearings in terms of a desired outcome,” she wrote. “I kept hearing the word ‘accountability,’ but I think everyone involved has their own idea of what that looks like, and I honestly don’t even know what that would look like for me. I just want my son back, and unfortunately, no amount of accountability or policy change is going to make that happen, so I find it hard to care. Perhaps that’s a selfish attitude, but it’s how I feel.”

Meanwhile, Mark Schmitz said he hopes to widen the attention to the bombing investigation beyond Republicans.

“It is so aggravating that this is becoming a partisan issue when it shouldn’t be,” he said. “We’ve already lost our kids. They’re not coming back. The sun will never shine on their face ever again, but this is about those that are still in.”

Schmitz said he expects the investigations — and political attention — on the deaths at Abbey Gate will not recede any time soon.

“They’re planning on fighting this thing all the way until they get their answers on what is out there,” he said. “All the pieces of the puzzle are coming together and forming a whole different picture.”

Mark and Jaclyn Schmitz are expected to speak at the House Foreign Affairs Committee roundtable at 1 p.m. Tuesday. The proceeding will be livestreamed on YouTube by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans at youtube.com/@FArepublicans.

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