Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley hailed military heroism in Afghanistan, in the top Pentagon officials’ first public remarks since the complete withdrawal of U.S. military assets from the region.
“It’s been a busy time for all of us in this department, a proud one and a solemn one, too,” Austin said. “We have concluded our historic evacuation operation and ended the last mission of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.”
He added: “America’s longest war has come to a close.”
Austin remembered the 2,461 American service members and personnel who “paid the ultimate price” in the two-decade war, and the more than 20,000 wounded Americans, some of which, he said, are “still carrying the scars that you can’t see on the outside.”
Austin touted the U.S. military evacuation mission, which he said was the “largest air evacuation of civilians in American history.”
“It was heroic. It was historic, and I hope that all Americans will unite to thank our service members for their courage and their compassion,” he said, noting they were operating in an “immensely dangerous and dynamic environment.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, right, answers a question during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
“Our troops were tireless, fearless, and selfless. Our commanders never flinched, and our allies and partners were extraordinary,” Austin said, adding that the mission was done in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and “in the fact of grave and growing threats.”
Austin and Milley hailed the 13 U.S. service members who “paid the ultimate price” last Thursday in Kabul, during what Milley described as a “horrific terrorist attack” carried out by ISIS-K.
“Our forces risked their own lives to save the lives of others, and 13 of our very best paid the ultimate price,” he said. “And many of them were too young to personally remember the 9/11 attacks. United States military will always honor their heroism.”
He added: “We mourn with their families and we owe them support through the days and years ahead.”
“Those soldiers, sailors and Marines gave their lives so that others may live free,” Milley said. “They literally gave their tomorrows for the tomorrows of people they never knew those 124,000.”
The officials also added that 22 American troops were wounded in the suicide attack that took the lives of 13.
Marking the close to the war in Afghanistan, Austin said the U.S. military has shifted.
“Now, as one mission ends, others must go on,” he said. “It is our duty to defend this nation and we’re not going to take our eye off the ball.”
Austin said that means “relentless counterterrorism efforts against any threat to the American people from any place,” working with partners to shore up “stability” in the region surrounding Afghanistan, and a new focus on leadership to meet other security challenges.
Austin expressed thanks to the military and their families, saying he will “always be proud of the part we played in this war,” but noted that the United States “should not expect Afghan war veterans to agree any more than any other group of Americans.”
Meanwhile, Milley addressed those veterans who served in Afghanistan, and families who have “suffered and sacrificed along our side.”
“These have been incredibly emotional and trying days and indeed years. We are all conflicted with feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness combined with pride and resilience,” Milley said. “There are no words I or the secretary or the president or anyone else will ever do to bring the dead back. But we can always honor them.”
He added: “And one thing I am certain of, for any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine and their family, your service mattered and it was not in vain.”
Austin and Milley were asked about their “pain and anger” with regard to the end of America’s longest war— which they both served in.
Austin said that Americans need “to respect each other’s views and be supportive of each other,” while encouraging those who believe they need help to “seek help,” stressing the importance of mental health.
As for Milley, he said he has “all the same emotions, and I’m sure the secretary does and anyone who served.”
“I wasn’t born a four-star general. I have walked the patrols and been blown up and shot at and everything else,” Milley said. “My pain and anger comes from the same as those grieving families, the same as those soldiers that are on the ground.”
Milley added that he visited the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Tuesday evening.
“This is tough stuff,” Milley said. “War is hard. It’s vicious, it’s brutal, it’s unforgiving. And yes, we all have pain and anger, and when we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger.”
“And mine comes from 242 of my soldiers killed in action over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Milley continued. “So, yeah, I have that.”
He added: “But I’m a professional soldier. I’m going to contain my pain and anger and continue to execute my mission.”