Gregory Whalen, kneeling far left, was part of the 24th Marine Expe­di­tionary Unit in Kabul during the U.S. with­drawal of troops from Afghanistan.   Courtesy |Twitter 


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.”