U.S. Marine Major Ben Sutphen was just 15 feet away when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb last month near an entrance to thein Kabul.
The Marines were warned an attack was coming and had a physical description of the suspected bomber, but in the crush of humanity outside the airport, they were unable to spot him. The explosion killedand over 100 Afghans, and wounded at least 15 American service members, including Sutphen.
“We brought a truck with a loudspeaker down to try to disperse the crowd. I was standing right by that truck when it happened,” Sutphen said.
“The truck shielded you?” asked CBS News’ David Martin.
“I’d say so,” Sutphen replied.
After the suicide bomber detonated his vest, gunmen opened fire from a nearby roof. Sutphen described the actions of one marine corporal.
“He’s blown off his feet and still has his wits about him. Shot through the shoulder. Immediately recovers his weapon and puts the opposing gunmen down,” he said.
“If they had just opened fire without you firing back, what would have happened?” Martin asked.
“Without a doubt, many more Marine and civilian lives would have been lost,” Sutphen replied.
Sutphen said “another corporal with substantial blast injuries to his lungs and internal organs” still had “enough grit and courage at, at risk of his own life to drag another injured Marine out of harm’s way.”
The attack happened about 300 yards fromone of the main entrances to the airport. The Marines had set up a corridor between Abbey Gate and the Baron Hotel, where British troops were located. On the day of the attack, Abbey Gate was the only way into the airport.
“The other two gates had been closed for a while, so what was happening is everyone, it looked like the city, converging on Abbey Gate,” said Sutphen.
Despite intelligence warnings of an imminent attack by the terrorist group known as ISIS-K, Abbey Gate stayed open so British troops at the hotel could return to the airport.
“The day of the attack we, we had gotten probably the most direct indications of, of a threat at the Abbey Gate and an individual to look out for, so we made sure that that information was passed to our Marine snipers and the Marines on location,” recalled Sutphen.
“How difficult would it be to pick out one person who you, who you have the description of,” Martin asked.
“I would say next to impossible in, in crowds of thousands, tightly packed, shoulder to shoulder chest to chest. I mean, this was a very dense crowd,” Sutphen replied.
Sutphen, who was the operations officer of his battalion, said the Marines took every possible precaution.
“Armed aerial surveillance overhead at the time. We had electronic countermeasures for improvised explosive device all along the corridor that would try to eliminate any, you know, electronically triggered device,” he said.
But the suicide bomber was not detected, and the carnage was horrific. An estimated 170 Afghan civilians were killed. The airport went into mourning as the dead Americans were sent home with honors. Sutphen said there wasn’t a lot that could have been done to change the situation.
“I’m sure you’ve asked yourself this. In retrospect, what would you have done differently?” Martin asked.
“The mission was. We have to keep that road open. There was not a lot we could change about that situation. It was the mission, and we executed it,” he said.
The mission was going to be the last for the Marines. Abbey Gate was scheduled to be closed that evening, and the Marines of Suthpen’s battalion were supposed to return to the airport and board planes for the flight out.