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Gold Star mother on Biden’s conduct at dignified transfer ceremony: ‘Total disrespect’

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(WASHINGTON) — Kelly Barnett had a “horrible feeling” about her son after learning of the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate outside Kabul’s airport amid the hectic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“I kept texting him, ‘Are you OK? Are you good?"” Barnett, mother of Marine Staff Sgt. Darin “Taylor” Hoover, told ABC This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz in a segment that aired Sunday. “I had a three, three-hour drive back to my house. That whole drive home, I was sobbing. I knew something was wrong. I could feel it.”

Hoover was one of 13 U.S. service members who died in the attack on Aug. 26, 2021. Raddatz sat down with his mother and the Gold Star family members of two other Marines killed that day.

As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in 2021, 6,000 U.S. troops were dispatched to the Kabul airport to aid the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians desperate to flee. Abbey Gate was the only remaining public entrance for civilians who swarmed the gate despite the chaos and danger. It was there that the suicide bomber would detonate his device, ending the lives of the 13 service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians.

Less than a week before the bombing, Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee posted a photo of herself holding an infant at the Kabul airport with the caption, “I love my job.” At 23 years old, Gee volunteered to join the mission.

“She shared with me that she had never seen people so desperate,” said Christy Shamblin, Gee’s mother-in-law, with whom she shared a close relationship. “And I think once she saw that, she was just going to give 100% to help them be rescued.”

A similar mindset motivated 31-year-old Hoover, who was on his third deployment to Afghanistan.

“I have heard from many of his friends, his men, that had said that when it was time for them to take a break, he didn’t want to,” said Barnett. “He wanted to stay out there and continue to bring people in.”

Coral Briseno gave her son, Humberto Sanchez, permission to join the Marine Corps at 17. Known as “Bert” by friends and family, Sanchez wanted to join to make his mother proud.

“One day he just show[ed] up and said, I want you to go and sign up because I enlist in the Marines,” Briseno said. “And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to be the best of the best and I want to make you proud."”

These Gold Star family members remember exactly where they were when they found out their loved ones were among the fallen. Shamblin was on vacation with her son Jarod, Gee’s husband and a fellow Marine.

“As soon as we saw the news that 13 service members had been killed, he said to me, ‘Mom, I have a very bad feeling,"” she shared. “And we stayed up that whole night waiting for our phone call that we knew was coming. As time wore on and we didn’t hear from her, my son knew. I was, I think, in shock or denial.”

Barnett recalls being gripped by fear herself.

“I got home around 7 p.m., [and the] doorbell rang. And I looked at my son-in-law, and we both just dropped before we even looked at the door. We knew,” she said.

“What do you remember, Coral?” Raddatz asked.

“I went to sleep, but I could not sleep. I was awake,” Briseno recalled. “At 1:42, I hear my phone vibrating under my pillow. I don’t want to answer.”

After a second call, Briseno’s husband told her to pick up the phone. The Marines had information about Bert but were at the wrong address.

“I gave them my address and they said, ‘We’re gonna be there in a few minutes.’ So as soon as I went downstairs, I still [had] hope that they were going to [say] ‘Your son’s got wounded and we have to take you somewhere,"” Briseno said. “When I look at the window, I just saw my husband and I said, ‘Please tell me that they are not in full dress.’ Then he’d just shake his head.”

Three days after the bombing, the remains of all 13 service members arrived at Dover Air Force Base for the dignified transfer ceremony, where President Joe Biden was there to greet the families. Instead of feeling comforted, all three mothers described feeling disrespected.

“The administration didn’t seem to know our story,” Shamblin said. “They didn’t seem to know Nicole’s name, our names. People from the military certainly knew our story, Nicole’s name, our names. And that was expressed to us in a way that felt very genuine and loving. But when it came to the people in suits, it felt disingenuous and hollow.”

“First, he called me ‘Ms. Lopez,’ and I was not ‘Mrs. Lopez,"” Briseno said. “And he just talk[ed] about his son and said how much he knows or he understand[s] how we feel because he lost his kid and he didn’t feel — he didn’t know how we feel because he was there with his son when he passed. We didn’t have the privilege. We received our kids in a casket.”

Briseno added that she felt the president made the encounter “all about him.”

“We had decided as a family that we would not meet with the president, so we were actually in a room on the side,” Barnett emphasized.

The family ultimately decided to go onto the tarmac, where Biden checked his watch multiple times.

“It was just total disrespect,” Barnett said. “It’s beyond disgusting.”

Raddatz recalled a prominent moment during Biden’s exit, where someone in the crowd screamed, “Burn in hell.”

“That was my daughter,” Barnett said. “And she meant it.”

These mothers, along with several other family members of the 13 fallen service members, have been extremely vocal in their calls for transparency and accountability from the Biden administration. Last week, all three were among a group who participated in a roundtable discussion led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, marking the first time several of these Gold Star families gathered on Capitol Hill. And these grieving families say they will continue to seek answers.

In response to an inquiry from ABC News, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House knows “each of these families still suffer, still grieve and still yearn for loved ones killed in Kabul.”

“We also know that very little can be said to ease their pain. But we do hope they know how deeply committed the President and First Lady remain to honoring the service and sacrifice of their Marines, their Soldier and their Sailor,” Kirby continued. “Each of these brave men and women lost their young lives trying to make possible entirely new lives for thousands of Afghans. And we will never forget that.”

While these family members say their grief will be with them forever, their hope is that changes will be made in our institutions to avoid another chaotic conflict or withdrawal.

“That’s all I can really hope for, you know, so that we don’t have another addition to our Gold Star family,” Shamblin said. “We love each other very much, but we don’t want any more.”

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