The son of a Hillsdale English professor and former provost appeared in a viral clip of U.S. Marines lifting a baby over a razor-wire topped airport wall in Kabul, Afghanistan in August.
The photo of Gregory Whalen, son of David Whalen, was taken at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 19, days before the U.S. formally withdrew all troops from Afghanistan.
The Hillsdale native is a part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He belongs to the North Carolina-based 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, an infantry battalion that was on standby in Kuwait for a month before going to Afghanistan.
“Sometimes, there were women and fathers trying to pass their kids up to us, because they were worried about them getting dropped and trampled and crushed in all the bodies,” Whalen said. “And so it was normal for a little bit. We eventually got the order to stop doing that because there were too many parentless children in the waiting area behind us.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the Times of Israel in August that the Marines took the child in the photo to a Norwegian hospital in the airport and returned the infant to its father that same day. The viral photo is one of many depicting officers aiding children at the Kabul airport.
“In some cases, it was necessary to save their lives,” Whalen said.
Marines entered Afghanistan on Aug. 14 and Whalen’s infantry unit flew from Kuwait to Afghanistan on Aug. 16.
“We had been watching the news ourselves in Kuwait waiting for our flight. We were seeing that the airport had been entirely overrun by Afghans and civilians trying to escape,” he said. “We had one-and-a-half companies worth of Marines there with an army unit as well — way too few men.”
When he landed in Kabul at 2 a.m. on Aug. 17, Whalen said the airport was unexpectedly secure.
“We were expecting to get off this plane and have to fight back civilians who were trying to bum rush onto the plane because they thought that it would get them out of there faster,” he said. “It fortunately ended up being a smooth landing because the officers there had already cleared the runway.”
Whalen’s battalion was stationed at a main entryway of the Kabul airport. The airport has three gates, all of which were patrolled by American servicemen while Taliban forces navigated crowd control. One of the three gates, Abbey Gate, was the site of an ISIS-fueled bomb attack that killed dozens, including 13 marines.
“We were dealing with the Taliban daily,” Whalen said.“They were actually helping with crowd control outside of the airport, as weird as that may sound. And the impression was that if Aug. 31 came around, when that deadline hit, they were going to start shooting us and the people outside of the airport.”
Chaotic crowds gathered outside the airport, waiting to be searched and identified by American troops, who evacuated an estimated 100,000 people in two weeks.
“The crowd was absolutely crushing. The second you crack the gate open a little bit, thousands of bodies crash forward thinking that it was going to help them get through sooner,” Whalen said.
Mothers and fathers desperately passed their children, as seen in the photo, to marines stationed on the other side of the airport wall. When the waiting area behind the gates reached capacity, troops were ordered to stop rescuing children from the crowds unless it was a medical emergency.
Afghanistan was Whalen’s first live mission, but he said the mission in Afghanistan was particularly hectic due to short notice, a depleted supply chain, no local support, and extreme exposure.
“If it had been a combat mission, in some ways, we would have been a lot more prepared because our training was geared toward finding the enemy and killing them — to be blunt, that’s what the job is. And that’s not what this mission was at all. Not what we could have ever seen coming,” he said.
Whalen left Afghanistan shortly before the last C‑17 Globemaster departed Afghanistan at 11:59 p.m. local time on Aug. 30, fulfilling the U.S.’s promise to exit the region by Aug. 31 and ending 20 years of military occupation in Afghanistan.
One day after U.S. soldiers left the region, the Taliban seized control of Kabul. Although the terrorist-led group fulfilled its promise of aiding and not killing U.S. forces, Whalen said he wondered if the Taliban-takeover would have occurred in different circumstances.
“The entire purpose of the MEU is to have marines deployed with the Navy somewhere in the world, close by where something might happen,” Whalen said. “We were wondering, ‘Could have been there for a whole month more, what more could we have done if we had been there earlier?’ I am going to assume that our command and the people in charge of those decisions made the best decision they could with the information and intelligence that they were receiving because nobody expected the Taliban to take over the entire country in a matter of days.”
The Hillsdale community, including the Whalen family, many professors, and students, were fervently praying for him while he was overseas.
“The little communication that did happen while I was in Afghanistan was just the knowledge of thoughts and prayers,” he said. “Families being a family and at home does a lot for the mind in that situation. In that situation, you’re not seeing a combat mission, you’re seeing a bunch of families with the threat of being torn to pieces and separated — it brought home the importance and weight of family.”
Warzones aren’t romantic: he was there to do his job, not react to the situation, Whalen said. But the Christian idea of service, self-sacrifice, and dedication to something important and good fueled his work.
“We have a common tie to human beings regardless of who and where they are. Seeing people in misery and terror and fleeing for their lives — it touches you and makes you want to do what you can,” he said. “These marines, they’re not touchy-feely dudes. But you could see the situation touch them. And you could see the desire to do absolutely anything for these people.”