By Damon Goforth
Damon Goforth, a consular-coned Foreign Service officer, initially traveled to Kabul on a temporary duty assignment from the Department of State Operation Center’s Crisis Management and Strategy (CMS) office to assist with the special immigrant visa surge at post. No stranger to challenging and sometimes dangerous assignments, Goforth had previously served in Embassy Baghdad’s consular section during the ISIS push of 2014. He also served as the sole consular officer in Juba, South Sudan, where he coordinated the safe passage and repatriation of a large number of South Sudanese opposition members after the start of the country’s second civil war. In a prior tour in CMS, Goforth had worked on embassy evacuations from the Stateside perspective, most notably the ordered departure of American diplomats from Yemen.
While these prior experiences uniquely prepared Goforth to respond effectively in high stress situations, no amount of experience, planning, or training could prepare him, or anyone else, for the overwhelming chaos that unfolded in Kabul during his tour.
“The memories of those days at the airport will stick with me forever, as I’m sure they will for everyone else who served there,” he said.
Goforth took photographs with his phone throughout his tour in an effort to illustrate just how chaotic and surreal those final days in the country were. Despite capturing a broad swath of the operations at the embassy and Hamid Karzai International Airport, Goforth said some scenes were simply too devastating for him to document.
“Some things I didn’t take a photo of, like the two-year-old unaccompanied child I carried around with me for hours at the east gate after she made it through the masses outside. She fell asleep in my arms and I couldn’t bear to just abandon her, but ultimately I had to,” said Goforth. “I didn’t want a photo of that time with her because I knew the memories would be bad enough.”
While Goforth’s photos succeed in illustrating this historic moment in time, and the humanity of those who experienced it, he believes they inadequately convey the atmosphere of despair that he and his colleagues were witness to—the wailing of the crowds, the parents crying out for their missing children, the anguish of families being separated because some of their members didn’t qualify for evacuation, the near constant sound of gunfire and concussion grenades exploding, the smell of destruction, and the continuous stream of aircraft taking off and landing.
“No one signed up for Kabul expecting to evacuate soon after arriving—but everyone put their shoulder to the wheel and persevered, often with a smile on their face. We did the best we could in an impossible situation, saving countless lives in the process,” said Goforth. “I am very proud to have served alongside such a dedicated and professional group of people, all of whom exemplified the best in American values.”
“We took hammers and drills to everything in the section. I can’t guess how many hundreds of cubic feet of paper we burned, how many thousands of dollars in equipment we destroyed. Over two days, we basically nuked the entire consular section—anything that could be exploited by the Taliban we obliterated or burned.”
“It is hard to describe the toll this work had on our FSOs and military. It was physically and psychologically exhausting for all involved—both Afghan and American.”
“Upon arriving at the gate, I saw Taliban carrying weapons both in front of and behind the Marines. This progressed to the Taliban bringing me the documents of SIV holders and Americans, essentially aiding our efforts at identifying vulnerable people for evacuation.”
“We parked the MRAP against the gate with only a foot of clearance for the door to open.
That way, we were able to prevent a mad rush from occurring.”
“It was very bittersweet to leave HKIA before the operation was truly over. With more and more TDYers flying in to assist, those that had been on the ground the longest were sent home. It is telling that, having been on the ground for nearly two months, I was the longest serving consular officer in the section.”
Damon Goforth was a consular officer at Embassy Kabul.