“One year ago today. I haven’t forgotten. I hope America hasn’t forgotten.”
That was the sentiment repeated again and again on Darin Hoover’s Facebook page Friday. He is the father of Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, one of 13 American service members killed by a suicide bomber at the entrance to the airport in Kabul exactly one year ago. The blast came amid the chaotic, frenzied last minutes of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan.
One person who never will forget is Azim Kakaie.
“We have his picture on our wall,” he told me by telephone Friday, referring to Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover. “Every day we say hello to his picture. We know he can’t answer, but we know his soul will respond to us.”
A year later, so many of the events surrounding the evacuation from Afghanistan still swirl through the turbulent world of politics, whose winds are getting ever stronger as Election Day approaches. As with most things political, they generate more heat than light.
In the debates over what went wrong during those final hectic moments, it can be easy to lose sight of the lives that were forever changed by a hero’s final acts in life, while serving his country.
The remarkable story of how Kakaie’s wife, Shazia, and other family members were saved from the grips of the Taliban was told last January by Deseret News reporter Kyle Dunphey. They bear repeating.
Azim, an air traffic controller, had been unable to leave the airport once the Taliban began asserting itself, and he was finally evacuated from the country without his family’s knowledge. Shazia, who was pregnant, and her family members were left to try again and again to reach the airport safely. All had the visas necessary for leaving the country, but neither the Taliban nor members of a CIA-backed special forces unit in the Afghan army would let them through.
They were beaten at barricades; even hit by the stocks of rifles. At one point, Shazia’s mother was threatened at gunpoint. As crowds pressed toward barriers, Shazia saw people, including children, killed. She saw old people with broken limbs. She watched as a flash grenade exploded in front of a man, sending his severed thumb flying through the air.
She ended up dazed, fainting and losing hope, gagging on the taste of tear gas, struggling through the rancid, wet sewage of a gutter, when he came.
Amid the noise, the desperation, the anger and the violence, Staff Sgt. Hoover spoke to her in a friendly voice, which must have been like salve to her wounds. Unlike all the others, he listened to her. He checked her passport and visa, he gathered her family, he parted the crowd and got them into the safety of the airport.
Moments later, as she and her family walked near a runway, they heard the explosion, loud enough to be audible over the engine of a Boeing C-17 transport plane.
Hoover and 12 of his colleagues had been killed by an an ISIS-K suicide bomber.
“Those men are going to stay forever in our hearts,” Azim said on Friday. “We are so grateful and thankful for their service.” He adds that he could never do enough to thank them for what they did, and what they sacrificed.
Azim is reluctant to talk about his family and how they are doing, only because he doesn’t want to detract from the memories of those who died a year ago. But the story of Staff Sgt. Hoover’s legacy wouldn’t be complete without understanding how a final act of kindness forever altered the course of their lives, setting in motion a series of events that landed them in Utah.
Despite the abuse she suffered trying to leave the country, Shazia gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Little Sina had two holes in his heart when born, but both have healed nicely without surgery. Azim would like to continue his career as an air traffic controller, but he must become a U.S. citizen, first. That, he said, could take as long as four more years.
In the meantime, he is working with an organization that helps refugees settle and assimilate in Utah. It’s work he finds fulfilling and fun. They, like his own family, “are going to become part of the society in the future of this great country,” he said.
Azim says his family is doing well. He has contact with people back in Afghanistan and is doing what he can to help girls there obtain schooling online, because the Taliban won’t let them go to traditional schools.
“If we had Taylor Hoover among us it would be a very happy life,” Azim said. “We would have so much fun. All we can do is think about him and pray for him.”
To the Kakaie family, and no doubt many others he helped while in Afghanistan, there is no doubt about Hoover’s legacy, compassion and devotion to duty. Nor is there any doubt that his sacrifice must never be forgotten.