The emotional testimony this week by the families of the 13 U.S. service members killed during President Biden’s chaotic military withdrawal in Afghanistan has cast renewed scrutiny on the president’s past treatment of Gold Star families.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., held a congressional forum Monday with the Gold Star families who said they felt misled and betrayed by their own government.
Several called out Biden and his top Cabinet officials by name, calling on them to resign. A father of one fallen U.S. Marine called on the president to ‘be a grown a– man.’
The Biden administration’s series of missteps during the withdrawal nearly two years ago marked a political turning point for the public’s perception of the president’s competency and ability to lead. His decision faced widespread global backlash after Taliban insurgents retook the country in a matter of days on Aug. 15, 2021, essentially winning the war 20 years after their ouster by U.S.-led forces.
Biden had assured Americans just one month before the collapse that the likelihood of a Taliban takeover was ‘highly unlikely.’
Then on Aug. 26, 2021, during the U.S. military’s mass evacuation at the Kabul airport, suicide bombers killed 183 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
The U.S. military evacuation, which required thousands of additional U.S. troops on the ground and significant cooperation from the Taliban to complete, ended a day ahead of deadline on Aug. 30, 2021, leaving behind hundreds of U.S. citizens and tens of thousands of Afghan allies despite Biden’s promise days earlier to ‘get them all out.’
Critics have demanded that heads roll for the Afghanistan debacle with calls for the firings of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Despite telling Americans after Afghanistan’s fall that ‘the buck stops with me,’ Biden repeatedly blamed former President Trump and the Afghan military for the country’s swift collapse, and he has declined to fire a single official over the withdrawal.
During Monday’s hearing, Kelly Barnett, mother of Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, addressed the panel first and spoke for nearly 15 minutes, accusing Biden officials of lying to her about her son’s death – and saying she was told that he died immediately only for eyewitnesses to tell her he ‘lived for a little while.’
‘We were told lies, given incomplete reports, incorrect reports, total disrespect,’ Barnett said. ‘I was told to my face he died on impact. That’s not true. The only reason that I know this is because witnesses told me the truth. I was lied to and basically told to shut up.’
Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui’s father, Steve Nikoui, accused Biden of using his Marine son ‘as a pawn so we can meet his Sept. 11th deadline and get the optics he wanted.’
‘My life and that of my family’s has been on pause since the early morning of Aug. 26, 2021,’ the emotional father said. ‘The difference between the minutes of my life before that and the minutes that passed after that day are contrasted drastically.’
Christy Shamblin, the mother-in-law of Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, held back tears when she described her reaction to Biden officials lauding the evacuation as a success.
‘When our leaders, including the secretary of defense and our commander in chief, called this evacuation a success, as if there should be celebration, it is like a knife in the heart for our families and for the people [who] came back,’ Shamblin said. ‘I live [every] single day knowing that these deaths were preventable. My daughter could be with us today.’
‘I can’t even begin to piece together the words that would convey to you the devastation that her murder has brought to our family,’ she said.
A Defense Department spokesperson’s statement on the Gold Star families’ testimony said, ‘The Department of Defense expresses our deepest condolences to the Gold Star Families who lost loved ones during the tragic bombing at Abbey Gate. We are forever grateful for their service, sacrifice, and committed efforts during the evacuation operations. We also commend the historic and monumental efforts of all our service men and women who served honorably during the withdrawal period from Afghanistan.’
Biden received criticism for his treatment of the Gold Star families immediately following the 2021 attack in Kabul.
Following the attack, Biden met in Dover, Delaware, with the family members of the 13 killed, but several of them later spoke out, accusing the president of repeatedly bringing up his late son, Beau, and saying he routinely checked his watch during the dignified transfer of the deceased’s remains.
Cheyenne McCollum, one of the sisters of Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, said she met with Biden alongside McCollum’s pregnant widow and that the president would not look at the family in the eye and spent the three-minute conversation talking about Beau, who served in Iraq with the U.S. Army and died in 2015 from brain cancer.
‘I was able to stand about 15 seconds of his fake, scripted apology and I had to walk away,’ Cheyenne told ‘Fox & Friends.’
Roice McCollum, another sister, refused to meet with the president but said he showed a ‘total disregard to the loss of our Marine.’
‘You can’t f— up as bad as he did and say you’re sorry,’ Roice told the Washington Post.’This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands.’
Shana Chappell, the mother of Lance Cpl. Nikoui, wrote a scathing Facebook post that said Biden hijacked their conversation by talking about Beau and that he rolled his eyes when she challenged him.
‘You tried to interrupt me and give me your own sob story and I had to tell you, ‘This isn’t about you so don’t make it about you!’’ Chappell wrote. ‘You then said you just wanted me to know that you know how I feel and I let you know that you don’t know how I feel and you do not have the right to tell me you know how I feel! You then rolled your f— eyes in your head like you were annoyed with me and I let you know that the only reason I was talking to you was out of respect for my son.’
As Biden turned to walk away, the grieving mother said she let him know that ‘my son’s blood was on your hands and you threw your hand up behind you as you walked away from me like you were saying ‘ok whatever!’’
Mark Schmitz, the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, said Biden bristled and bluntly responded to his request that he learn the individual stories of the 13 fallen.
‘Initially, I wasn’t going to meet with him,’ Schmitz said. ‘But then I felt I owed it to my son to at least have some words with him about how I felt – and it didn’t go well.’
Biden was also criticized after he was photographed appearing to check his watch during the dignified transfer of remains of the fallen soldiers to American soil.
Darin Hoover, father of Utah Marine Darin Taylor Hoover Jr., said the president looked down at his watch not once but several times as the caskets were being offloaded.
‘That didn’t happen just once. It happened on every single one that came out of that airplane. It happened on every single one of them. They would release the salute, and he would look down at his watch on every last one, all 13, he looked down at his watch,’ Hoover said on Fox News’ ‘Hannity’ in 2021.
‘As a father, seeing that and the disrespect and hearing from his former leaders, one of [Taylor’s] master sergeants said … that this was avoidable – that they left them over there. They had them over there and let them down, and we can’t have that,’ he said. ‘It can’t happen ever again.’
The controversy at the time also resurfaced Biden’s reported past treatment of Gold Star families that predated the Afghanistan withdrawal.
For instance, Mike Iubelt, the father of the fallen Army Pfc. Tyler Iubelt, told the Washington Examiner in October 2019 that he had a ‘horrible experience’ meeting the now-president in 2016 after his son’s death in Afghanistan a few days earlier. Iubelt said he left their conversation ‘feeling worse’ than before.
‘He told my daughter-in-law … that she was too pretty for this to happen to her,’ Iubelt recalled. ‘It’s probably a good thing that he was surrounded by Secret Service, probably for both of us, because I’d probably be locked up in jail right now.’
Meanwhile, Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine who was severely injured during the Afghanistan withdrawal, recently recalled an awkward encounter he had with Biden after he arrived at a hospital for treatment in the United States.
Describing his recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Vargas-Andrews, who lost an arm and leg as a result of the suicide bombing that took place outside the Abbey Gate at Kabul’s airport, said he was greeted by a number of U.S. military officials who were looking to participate in ‘photo ops’ with him – including the president.
Vargas-Andrews said Biden showed up four hours late and tried to shake his hand despite him being immobile.
‘He says, ‘Oh,’ and kind of stands up and then goes over to reach for my fingers … and just like grabs my fingers. Doesn’t greet me or anything, just grabbed my fingers. I was like, ‘OK, that’s weird.”
Vargas-Andrews said the Bidens ‘almost immediately starts talking about how their son served in the military. [He] doesn’t say anything about what happened, just starts talking about how their son served in the military.’
When reached for comment Tuesday, a White House told Fox News Digital that the president and first lady ‘will always honor the sacrifices of the 13 servicemembers who were killed in that attack.’
‘We mourn with them, we remember their loved ones, and we will continue to support these Gold Star families,’ the official said. ‘We are enormously proud of the men and women of our military, our diplomats and the intel community who conducted that withdrawal – they performed bravely and helped evacuate more than 120,000 people in one of the largest airlifts in history.’
‘But more broadly, the President made the tough decision to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan because he was not going to send another generation of troops to fight and die in a conflict that had no end in sight,’ the official added.
Fox News’ Kyle Morris and Elizabeth Elkind contributed to this report.