Miriam Hamilton would open up a private investigation into the murder of her husband if not for the blistering effect she fears it would have on her children.
Hamilton, nee Nylander, is the former spouse of one of the nine men and women — eight airmen and a U.S. contractor — killed April 27, 2011, at the Kabul International Airport — the single deadliest attack on U.S. Air Force members during the Afghan conflict. All nine were assigned to either the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing or the larger NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the horrific incident, family members, friends and colleagues of the fallen gathered at the Air Advisor Memorial at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to honor their loved ones and, more importantly, what their service "meant to the Air Force family," Hamilton told Air Force Times.
The ceremony also commemorated Air Force Maj. Phyllis J. Pelky and Master Sgt. Gregory T. Kuhse, air advisers who died when a British helicopter crashed at Camp Resolute Support in Kabul in October last year.
On that day five years ago, The short version is that the gunman, Col. Ahmed Gul, a two-decade veteran of the Afghan air force Ahmed Gul, entered the the Air Command and Control Center at Kabul and opened fire with a 9 mm Smith and Wesson during a routine morning, without any coalition forces able to subdue him. No Afghans were seriously injured in the attack, including 14 inside the ACCC.
Killed in the attack, before they had a chance to draw their weapons, were Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, Maj. David Brodeur, Maj. Jeffrey Ausborn, Maj. Philip Ambard, Maj. Raymond Estelle II, Capt. Charles Ransom, Tech. Sgt. Tara Brown and contractor James McLaughlin, a retired Army lieutenant colonel died before they had the chance to draw their weapons.
Capt. Nathan Nylander, who left a nearby conference room to try to take down the shooter, died of gunshot wounds sustained during the shootout when his gun jammed. Nylander He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valorhis heroics.
But unanswered questions still haunt Hamilton and other the copious family and friends of the victims.who came together Wednesday on the fifth anniversary of the horrific incident brought together because of the tragedy that changed more than a dozens of lives
Was it really only one shooter, or did Gul have accomplices? Was Gul’s motive tied to ongoing corruption, or was it fueled by hatred for America’s influence over his native country?
Though the Taliban took responsibility for the April 27 shootings, the Air Force could not find a link between Gul and the organization.
The answers that the families have received from the Air Force and from U.S. Central Command have, in their view, been unsatisfactory.
Hamilton and others say the tributes on this anniversary will only be positive, even though some feel the investigations — at least three by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and CENTCOM between 2011 and 2013 — fail to bring the families justice.
"I don’t believe that one person could have physically done this," said Hamilton, who served as a has a security forces airman before separating background and separated from the Air Force in 1998. She has remarried since Nylander’s death.
"I firmly believe that things that were happening before [the shooting], led to this, and we as widows, who, by the way, were never questioned by investigators, have...an idea of why they got killed that day."
Hamilton believes the misuse of aircraft by the Afghan National Air Force, a theory mentioned in one of the investigative reports, to be the motive behind Col. Gul’s rampage.
Two days before the incident, U.S. mentors were pulled off Afghan air force flight missions because the flights were not properly scheduled and did not comply with a process for tracking flight hours and maintenance, according to those interviewed as part of the Air Force’s investigation.
Days after the attack, a U.S. lieutenant colonel told Air Force special agents that Afghan leadership at all levels didn't want transparency in the scheduling and execution of missions.
"I suspect it is because they see the [Afghan air force] aircraft as a way to make money and garner influence by flying around passengers and cargo for a select few influential and connected people," the lieutenant colonel was quoted as saying in the investigation report made public in January 2012.
"I think this is the way they kept a handful of aircraft flying during the '90s and want to continue these nefarious and profitable activities with the billions of dollars worth of aircraft we're buying them and the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend every year on maintenance and fuel for these valuable aircraft."
And some of the airmen may have had a hand in curtailing those missions, aiming to end the Afghan air force’s alleged abuses of aircraft to transport drugs, weapons and other nefarious goods around the country.
Bryant and Brodeur "worked hard to turn the ACCC into a functional command center that could and would enforce disciplined policies and procedures while being able to track the movements of every [Afghanistan National Air Force] aircraft through Afghanistan," the Air Force investigation report said.
Gul, a cargo officer, may not have complied with the new rules.
While succeeding reports found "widespread corruption" in the Afghan networks in early 2011, a final investigative report in 2013 concluded there was no direct evidence linking Gul to a particular crime network and that this motive, for a man "with no authority to deny or approve cargo or passenger movement," lacked substance.
"After we received binders, CDs, diagrams of information ... I was able to look at the outlines ... and realized that [investigators] didn’t talk to critical people involved that day," Hamilton said.
She is also troubled by another unexplained discrepancy.
Most of the armed airmen were killed "in a matter of seconds." Those in the building say they heard pops of gunfire for more than a few minutes.
"And when I asked about it, [officials] couldn’t answer my questions," she said.
But Hamilton believes they still know the answers.
“I don’t think any of us are satisfied [with what we learned],” Hamilton said. “But I just don’t think there’s much that I can do. I mean, it’s the government.”
Chris Campbell was an employee of contractor MPRI (Military Professional Resources Inc.), an L-3 Communications subsidiary, at the time of the shooting. As part of an 11-person mentorship team that trained Afghan pilots, he worked alongside McLaughlin, and flew with his friend’s body back to the U.S.
“I think another look at the information would be worthwhile,” Campbell said. “Suffice to say, that, a single shooter did all that unaided? I don’t buy that.”
As a civilian working upstairs in the ACCC, Campbell was unarmed. When he heard the shots, “which lasted about five to 10 minutes,” he and a few others barricaded the door, and he began calling his team members warning them “to stay away.”
"I think [Gul] would have gone room to room looking for people to shoot. But couldn’t because at some point he got injured," Campbell said.
OSI concluded in September 2011 that Gul committed suicide after the shooting spree. But Central Command’s final AR (Army Regulation) 15-6 report said he was most likely killed by Afghan quick reaction force members, who would not admit to shooting Gul because they feared retaliation.
Still, Campbell, who also attended Wednesday’s ceremony, credits Nylander with saving his life. The investigation also cited another unidentified U.S. officer shooting at the gunman alongside Nylander.
“I wear a bracelet with Nate’s name on it ... great guy, good sense of humor, and ... one of the most trustworthy weather guys, in terms of his forecast,” said Campbell of the airman, assigned to the 25th Operational Weather Squadron out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
How to move on
Jared Walker, a Navy mass communication specialist 3rd class, was at the Kabul base five years ago for a photo project. He remembers running to get his M-16, essentially to stand watch outside the ACCC as shots rang out. He remembers thinking, “Why are there mannequins laying in the hallway? ”Walker later saw two phrases written in Dari, “God is one” and “God in your name” smeared in blood on the walls.
“I didn’t connect it,” Walker said. By then he learned first responders were still trying to revive Brown, perhaps the only one still clinging to life at that point. She later died from her injuries.
“It’s love lost,” said Jim Jacobs, Brown’s father. “I can’t question God on what happened,” Jim Jacobs, Brown’s father, said.
Jacobs, of Orlando, Florida, has since started a scholarship foundationin Brown's name to send kids to college. Brown was posthumously promoted to master sergeant.
"She was a part of so many communities, and ... I said to myself, 'this is something that just needs to continue,' " Jacobs said.
Sean Donegan, a contractor who grew to know Brown, wrote a song in memory of in her and the other victims’ memory. He performed " Cruel World (9 Souls)" for the families on Tuesday. “It was real dark that night [after the shooting], everyone was crying in the hallways. It was just an upsetting place to be,” Donegan recalled. “Later that night, I peeked my head out looking at the building where they got shot, and it looked like there was an opening in the clouds. I’m not a very religious person, but there was this weird vibe with the sky, and it was just this surreal moment.”
That’s the moment he tried to capture in his song, now streaming online. The proceeds from the song are being donated to the Air Advisor Memorial Association.
Hamilton, her husband, and her three children by Nylander make it a point to include their dad in everything they do. “We take his ashes with us on trips. We even scatter them in places he would have wanted to go to,” she said.
To live life with his honor in mind, it’s the only way to deal with it, Hamilton said.
“I’m finally in a place where I feel very patriotic,” said widow Suzanna Ausborn. “Maybe things are not answered the way we would like them to be in total, but I am [not as] adamant to get answers.”
Ausborn previously told Air Force Times that her husband, who taught Afghans how to fly cargo planes, and other air adviser airmen at the base were left “vulnerable to viable threats.”
“It’s one of those fluid things, the stages of grief,” she said. “It’s 180 degrees from where I was five years ago ... there will come a time where the answers will [reveal themselves]...But my husband didn’t die in vain.”
This story used information from previous Air Force Times stories written by reporter Kristin Davis.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.