‘There is always a picture of him in my memory’: How a Utah Marine helped a family escape Afghanistan

Sgt. Taylor Hoover died in a bomb blast outside the Kabul airport

Editor’s Note: Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover was among the 13 Marines killed one year ago on Aug. 26, 2021. This story was published Jan 6, 2022.

This is the third story in a series as the Deseret News explores the experiences of refugees who have fled Afghanistan and resettled in Utah.

Shazia Kakaie can still picture Taylor Hoover’s face. It’s Aug. 26, and he’s standing in front of the loud, disorderly crowd gathered outside of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Marine staff sergeant lifts her up out of a wet sewage gutter next to the gate, and checks her passport. Amid the chaos and shouting, he’s friendly. Kakaie’s mother is stuck, swallowed up by the crowd on the other side of the gutter, and Hoover tells the people to make way. They listen, and with her arms outstretched, Kakaie’s family helps her across the gutter. Hoover pulls her out of the water and checks her visa. She kisses his hand, and asks for his phone to take a selfie, but there isn’t enough time. He ushers them through the gate.

Kakaie is 23. In the last two days she has had almost no food and only a little water. She inhaled tear gas, was beaten by both the Taliban and Afghan soldiers, and intervened as her mother looked down the barrels of several Kalashnikov rifles. She watched as a flash grenade exploded in front of a man’s hand, severing his thumb and sending it flying through the air. She watched as a child was trampled outside of the airport after gunfire triggered a stampede. She watched her city collapse.

She’s also pregnant, and as she’s being escorted into the airport alongside her family, she faints. She’s hiding the pregnancy from her family, though, and they just assume the stress of the last 48 hours is wearing on her.

Some soldiers help her into a car, where they run the air conditioning and give her water. After about 30 minutes, she feels better and the family is brought across the airport where they will eventually undergo a biometric screening. 

Afghan refugee Shazia Kakaie left, talks to her mother, Hawa Sultani, in front of a framed picture of slain U.S. Marines Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover at their house in North Salt Lake on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Hoover, who was from Utah, was one of the 13 American service members killed in a bombing at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

They’re walking near a runway when the explosion happens. It’s loud on the tarmac, and the thundering engine of a Boeing C-17 transport plane drowns out some of the noise. But they can still hear it, and moments later an alarm rips through the airport. They see soldiers running toward the gate they had just passed through, followed by an ambulance minutes later.

They get on Facebook, and see rumors of a suicide bombing. There are reports of multiple deaths, but it’s still too early to know exactly what happened.

The Marines accompanying them become quiet, and markedly less friendly. “They changed,” said Kakaie’s brother-in-law, Wali, who would occasionally help translate for Shazia. “There was sorrow on their faces.”

Hoover was among 183 people, including 13 U.S. services members, killed after an ISIS-K member pushed his way to the front of the crowd and detonated a suicide bomb. Hoover had been working for hours outside the airport, where thousands of people were attempting to funnel into the final sliver of U.S.-held territory in Afghanistan. 

Utah Marine killed in Afghanistan blast was 'a born leader,' father says

Hoover has been lauded as a hero by the likes of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, fellow Marines, his former classmates at Hillcrest High School, and what is likely thousands of Afghans and other foreigners he helped into the airport in August, including Kakaie and her family. 

On the bottom floor of the newly constructed town house in North Salt Lake that Kakaie now calls home, the wall is empty save for three things — a framed picture of Hoover, an American flag and a collage of the thumbnail headshots of the 13 U.S. service members who died in the bombing.

Hoover’s father, Darin, keeps in touch and can occasionally be seen sitting cross-legged on the floor of the apartment, eating chicken shawarma and rice below his son’s shrine. 

‘A normal day’

On the morning of Aug. 15, Kakaie said goodbye to her husband, Azim, as he left their home and headed to the airport where he worked as an air traffic controller. “It was a normal day,” she said. It would be the last time the two would see each other for months. By 11 a.m. the Taliban had rolled into Kabul.

Shazia and Azim already had their visas. Their final semester at the university was approaching fast, both of them pursuing bachelor’s degrees in business administration. Shazia had hopes of getting her degree, then moving to the U.S. to open her own business. Even as the Taliban drove into Kabul, she tried to convince her family to stay — she had one more final exam to take.

But as the Taliban tightened its grip on the city with little resistance, it became clear that life would never return to normal. Within hours, her dreams of graduating were put on hold.

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Kakaie and her family stayed in their home, at the behest of Azim who warned that it was too dangerous to leave. Confined to the airport, he would guide them to the gates in the following days.

But eventually the U.S. military took over air traffic control, and told Azim he could either guide them over the phone from the airport and risk getting left behind, or he could guide them over the phone from a military base in Qatar or Germany. He chose the latter.

Azim Kakaie would bounce around U.S. military bases for the next week. On Sept. 1, his journey ended in Salt Lake City, where he became the first Afghan to resettle in Utah after the fall of Kabul.

Afghan refugee Hawa Sultani, left, talks with her daughter, Shazia Kakaie, while posing for a portrait at their house in North Salt Lake on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Following the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, Shazia was separated from her husband, Azim. They were reunited in Utah on Oct. 30. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

‘Brother, take my wife’

After spending three days confined to their home, Kakaie’s brother-in-law came by with instructions from Azim — “he said brother, take my wife, my mother, her mother, her brother, to the airport.”

They thought it would be easy. The entire family already had the documents they needed, plus Azim was already inside the airport. They figured he would meet them at the gate.

Instead, they found themselves in a crowd numbering in the thousands outside a roadblock guarded by the Taliban. People were desperately trying to crawl under the makeshift gate, or pleading with Taliban soldiers to let them through, who would often respond with a beating.

Despite the chaos, they were able to push to the front of the gate. “You go to speak with Taliban,” Kakaie told her mother, Hawa Sultani, “because she is old.”

The Taliban wouldn’t let them through. When she persisted, they pointed their guns at her. Undeterred, she continued to press the soldiers. One of them put his gun in the air and fired several shots, before lowering the rifle at Sultani’s head. Kakaie grabbed her mother’s hand and yanked her away.

“They wanted to kill my mother,” she recalled.

They would eventually make it through a different roadblock, also guarded by the Taliban, only to find themselves in front of another gate, this time guarded by Zero-One soldiers, a CIA-backed special forces unit of the Afghan army that Kakaie says was just as ruthless as the Taliban.

“We know the Taliban, they are very brutal. But these Afghan forces that were working with the Americans, they were also very brutal. Kicking ladies and kids, everyone, firing guns,” Shazia said through Wali’s translation.

It was hard to breathe, and the soldiers routinely threw canisters of tear gas into the crowd, or hit Kakaie and her family with the stock of their rifles if they got too close to the gate. They didn’t seem to be letting anyone in — Kakaie’s family maintains they were only letting Afghan soldiers and their families through.

Tired, their lungs and eyes burning, and bodies aching, they returned home.

The next day they walked to a different gate, but Kakaie says the crowd had doubled in size. They tried to push through, but they couldn’t get close. And Kakaie, pregnant, kept fainting.

They left the gate, first taking her to a doctor before returning home for two days while she recovered. Once Kakaie felt strong enough, they went back to the airport.

Shazia Kakaie pauses at her house in North Salt Lake on Nov. 23, 2021, while describing her experience leaving Afghanistan.
Afghan refugee Shazia Kakaie pauses at her house in North Salt Lake on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, while describing her experience leaving Kabul, Afghanistan. Following the Taliban takeover, Shazia was separated from her husband, Azim. They were reunited in Utah on Oct. 30. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

“We were beaten at the first (gate) by the Taliban, then by the Zero-One corps at the second gate,” Kakaie said. They spent two sleepless nights outside a gate guarded by Afghan forces, kept awake by the sound of gunfire and clouds of tear gas.

The soldiers would throw flash grenades into the increasingly unruly crowd. Sometimes it would trigger a stampede.

“I saw in front of my eyes, many people die. Like, small babies, maybe a month or three months ... they were just smashed ... and also I saw many old people, their hands, their feet broken. I saw in front of my eyes a person lost his finger because of a sound bomb that directly exploded, and his finger went into the air. And because of this, I see nightmares every night,” Wali Kakaie said, as Shazia nodded in agreement, flashing a wary, tired smile.

But the family was unwavering in their determination. They tried another roadblock, this time guarded by the Taliban, and were let through. Expecting to see more Afghan forces, Kakaie and her family were cautiously optimistic when they arrived at a gate bearing the Australian and English flags.

It was 6 p.m. The family was nearing 32 hours on foot, with almost no food. “Just water, if we find it,” Kakaie said. “If we don’t find, we don’t drink water.”

They stayed in front of the gate for the night, with Kakaie’s brother, Arif Muradi, standing in a sewage gutter for hours. At 7:30 a.m., they started searching for U.S. troops. By 8, they saw an American flag hanging on the gate.

It would still be hours before Muradi was able to wade over to Hoover and hand him his sister’s passport.

“Whose passport is this?” Hoover shouted over the crowd. Standing in the gutter, Kakaie walked over to the Marine. “It’s mine,” she said.

One by one, Hoover reached down into the gutter and pulled her family onto dry ground. He shouted into the crowd to let her mother through. He smiled at them as he ushered the family through the gate.

Less than a week later, they would instantly recognize his picture in a news story listing the 13 U.S. service members killed in the blast.

The next 24 hours are hard for Kakaie to remember. She was severely dehydrated, hungry and bruised. They underwent a biometric screening, and were forced to discard what little belongings they had. They spoke with Azim, who by now was at a U.S. military base in Qatar, and would soon depart for Germany. They would be close behind, flying into Qatar for a day, Germany for about a week, then Washington, D.C., then Indiana.

On Oct. 30, they landed in Salt Lake City. It had been over two months since Azim had said goodbye to Shazia, and left for work.

Through it all, Taylor Hoover was there.

“His face, it’s impacted in my brain — his face is always in front of me,” Wali says.

“It’s same for me. There is always a picture of him in my memory,” Shazia says. “When we speak about him, my mother is always crying.”

Kakaie still hasn’t abandoned her dreams of owning a business. “I want to own a shop,” she says, adding she’ll need to go to school first. And for now, she’s busy with paperwork and doctors’ appointments. She’s not sure if she’s expecting a boy or a girl. She wants it to be a surprise.

The family breaks out in laughter as Wali teases Shazia.

“Now she tells us, but she was pregnant this whole time. She was expecting a baby. But she did not say that to anyone at home,” he says with a grin. “Nobody knows that at home.”