It was getting worse.
Most of the embassy staff left Afghanistan that night or early the next day. But Mr. Wilson and about 30 other U.S. diplomats stayed for two more weeks, trying to find and evacuate other U.S. citizens and permanent residents and foreign allies among tens of thousands of panicked Afghans just outside the airport begging to be rescued.
“They have to make choices: ‘Yes, you can come in’ or ‘No, sir, you can’t,'” recalled Mr. Wilson about the diplomats’ work at the airport gate during 12-hour shifts, amidst gunfire and explosions, and against the constant roar of the crowd. “And you know, it’s really hard.”
“No one who wasn’t out there can really imagine how horrible it was,” he said.
Mr. Wilson was among the last four diplomats to leave Kabul, departing on the last US military plane that departed shortly before midnight on 30 August. The plane went to Doha, Qatar, where he was taken to a military hospital for tests and was told he had the coronavirus. Few people wore masks during the long and devastating days at Kabul airport, but Mr. Wilson had assumed that the fatigue and other symptoms he had experienced were the result of working 20-hour days for five straight weeks.
He flew to his home outside Minneapolis to isolate himself and formally resigned his position in late September. That part had always been the plan: Mr. Wilson had retired from the Foreign Service in 2008 after a 30-year career as a diplomat. But he had never served in Afghanistan until, to his surprise, he was asked to fill in as chargé d’affaires in January 2020 as the Trump administration and Congress battled over who to send as permanent ambassador.
“To be honest, my reaction was that they should ask other people who had served there,” Mr. Wilson. But once asked: “it was my duty to do it.”
Almost a year later, Mr. Wilson contacted American diplomats who were with him in recent weeks in Kabul, many of whom he said were still shaken. The brutal memories have in some cases overshadowed the silver lining of an evacuation mission that drew more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan.