Vets on What Americans Don’t Understand About the ‘Poorly Executed’ U.S. Exit
The desperate scenes from Kabul must be “heartbreaking” for U.S. veterans of the 20-year Afghan war, well-meaning people say. That’s not the half of it.
Patrick Dowdell is an Army combat vet as well as the son of an FDNY lieutenant who died on 9/11. And when he saw the images of panicked Afghans clutching the outside of a moving C-17 transport at Kabul airport, he thought of the people who had jumped from the burning twin towers.
“That shows how desperate they are,” Dowdell said.
The thought was all more searing because his father, Lt. Kevin Dowdell of Rescue 4, was killed along with 343 other members of the department while trying to rescue those people trapped on high. Kevin Dowdell’s remains were never recovered.
Patrick Dowdell was 18, his brother James a year younger on 9/11. They were adopted as members of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, which played at more than 400 funerals and memorials after the attack.
James then went into the FDNY. Patrick went to West Point. He served first in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, in 2010 going into 2011. He was not sure if there was an overall plan. He understood it to be a rescue mission of another kind.
“To stabilize it and leave it in the right hands,” he said.
The idea had been to teach the Afghans to save themselves, and many of them had shown a willingness to fight.
“There were a lot of good Afghans who fought by our side, “ Dowdell said. “Those guys took a lot of casualties.”
But there were also too many “insider” attacks. One of Patrick’s West Point buddies, Green Beret Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel, was killed along with another American in 2013 when someone in an Afghan police uniform suddenly began shooting at an Afghan police headquarters. Another West Point graduate, Tom Kennedy, was killed along with three other Americans by a suicide bomber at a meeting in 2012.
“So many guys killed,” Dowdell said. “So many guys hurt.”
One of James Dowdell’s fellow firefighters at present, Lt. Jason Brezler, previously served as a Marine platoon commander in Afghanistan. During his time in the war zone, Brezler carried in his helmet the holy card for fallen FDNY Capt. Patrick Brown, who served as a Marine in Vietnam and died on 9/11. Brezler was saying on Monday that watching the fall of Saigon must have felt to Brown something like what he himself felt on seeing those images from Kabul airport. Both were an ending preceded by so much that never should have been.
“People have said, ‘This must be heartbreaking,’” he told The Daily Beast on Monday. “What they don’t understand is that it has been full of heartbreak and heartache along the way.”
Brezler spoke of Marine Sgt. William J. Cahir, a former journalist who was in his thirties when he enlisted in response to 9/11. He was killed by a sniper in Afghanistan in 2009 when his wife was seven months pregnant with twin girls.
“He never got to see them,” Brezler said.
Brezler had served in the FDNY with Firefighter Christopher Slutman, who was also in the Marine reserves. Slutman was killed by a roadside bomb in 2019. He left three young daughters.
Brezler suggests that the deaths of Cahir and Slutman and so many others were not in vain because there has not been a major terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
But because the war started on that September morning, the end is all the more wrenching for coming just before its 20th anniversary.
“The timing is particularly cruel,” Brezler said.
Former New York Army National Guard Sgt. Michael O’Brien is the brother-in-law of FDNY Firefighter Greg Saucedo, who died in the North Tower. Debbie Saucedo O’Brien was in tears as she watched the coverage of the fall of Kabul.
“She said, ‘You must feel terrible,’” Michael O’Brien told The Daily Beast on Monday. “I’m not sure what I feel.”
O’Brien, who is also a retired NYPD detective, noted that at least two of the places where he trained Afghans had immediately surrendered to the Taliban.
“They laid down their weapons without a fight, but what were they supposed to die for?” he said.
He noted, “I don’t think it’s going to do much for the quality of life for the women.”
He reported that he was able to get an interpreter out of Afghanistan some time ago. And he wrote a letter the other day for an Afghan who had helped with the laundry. The man is most likely trapped in the panicked chaos.
“I don’t think he was able to move that fast,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien thought back to the start of the war, when the U.S. quickly dislodged the Taliban from Kabul.
“They took a whipping back then and came back and won the war,” he said.
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Patrick and James Dowdell and the rest of the family flew out over the weekend to the Hall of Flame museum in Phoenix, Arizona. A retired firefighter had restored the rig that had been destroyed in the collapse after their father and the rest of Rescue 4 rode it to the twin towers. The ceremony was accompanied by a video clip, and Patrick’s 8-year-old daughter saw the stricken towers for the first time.
“She said, ‘Grandpa Kevin was in that building when it fell?’” Patrick recalled. “There are things we’re going to have to start dealing with as they start getting older.”
In the coming years, his daughter will also see those enduring images of the desperation at the end of the 20-year war that began with the attack that killed her grandpa.
“I think it’s complicated on how we should have withdrawn, but the way it was done is tragic and poorly executed,” Patrick Dowdell said.