U.S. Marines assist during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla

Geoff Ball ’06: Leadership and Loss in Afghanistan

On August 26, 2021, Marine Captain Geoff Ball ’06, commander of Ghost Company, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, was at Abbey Gate at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, leading a group of Marines who were trying to manage the throngs of Afghans attempting to escape from the Taliban by plane on one of the final days of America’s withdrawal from their country, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosion that killed some 170 Afghans, nine of Ball’s company, and 13 American service members in all.

Major Geoff Ball with Head of School Dr. Mike Davis

Just over a year later, on September 16, 2022, Ball—now holding the rank of Major—was in Knowles Hall at Colorado Academy, speaking with students in Head of School Dr. Mike Davis’s War on Terror course about his experiences during the largest noncombatant evacuation ever conducted by the U.S. military.

The subject of a feature story in the New York Times about the military’s last days in Afghanistan, Ball said teaching and sharing about his experiences was a way to honor the nine fellow Marines who died in the bombing at Abbey Gate.

The path to service

Recounting how CA made an impression on his life and helped to prepare him for his experience in Afghanistan, Ball made an impression on the students and the other guests who listened to his talk.

Ball speaks to students in Knowles Hall.

“When I was standing in your shoes,” Ball said, “I didn’t quite appreciate what I had at Colorado Academy, and every year that I go along in this thing called life, I appreciate it more and more. After some very intense experiences over the past year, I realized it was what these hallways gave me that helped me overcome some of the most chaotic stuff you could possibly imagine.”

At CA and then at Occidental College in California, Ball admitted, he was mainly focused on baseball and himself. It was after dropping out of college and meeting a retired Marine, he said, that he began to discover his purpose—service to others. From a position with the Americorps VISTA program supporting American military veteran families, Ball went on to active duty with the Marines after attending its Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.

He quickly found himself leading a group of young Marines based at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, who at any moment had to be prepared to be called for service in a war zone. While stationed in Jordan, they got the call in mid-August 2021.

Into an apocalypse

Ball arrived in Afghanistan on August 19 with his company to find a scene of chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Thousands of Afghans, many of whom had been waiting in line for days, had overwhelmed Abbey Gate, a main entrance to the airport, in their attempt to secure their place on one of the last flights out of the country. Dehydration, hunger, sleep deprivation, crowding, family separations, and the threat of Taliban violence made the scene “apocalyptic,” according to many accounts.

The scene near Abbey Gate, as Marines assist evacuees; photo by Geoff Ball

It was Ball’s mission to help secure the gate, assist those people who were authorized to board a flight, and clear the area around the airport. His Marines stepped up without question, courageously wading into a sea of humanity to find families, translators, orphaned children, and others who were eligible for evacuation, or helping individuals who needed medical care. They witnessed nonstop tragedy and were under constant threat, Ball said, yet his Marines never failed to demonstrate compassion.

Trust, he says, was what made it possible to accomplish such monumental and dangerous tasks. “Building trust takes a lot of work. But it is essential in creating the team you want. As a leader, you have to show up every day, be consistent, and show your team that you have their interest in mind—that you are doing this for them, not for you. You’re truly a family. You have to demonstrate that you will share any burden or hardship that they will experience.”

In time, Ball said, trust becomes love. “And the only way you get through something like August 26 is through love for one another.”

Facing the worst

On August 26, the members of Ghost Company had spent the day rushing to save as many evacuees as possible; Abbey Gate was scheduled to be closed for good that night. When the bomb exploded, the Marines, along with hundreds of desperate civilians, were directly in the path of the flying shrapnel; tear gas sprayed from ruptured canisters, incapacitating many.

“My Marines rushed toward the chaos,” Ball recalled. Ignoring their own injuries and the ongoing danger, they dragged fellow Marines to safety and heroically rescued scores of injured civilians.

“In whatever organization you find yourselves in later in life,” Ball told the CA students, “you’re going to encounter moments when people want to quit, when people will lose sight of the vision you’ve set for them. As the leader, it’s your job to find a way—through your creativity and your care for people—to keep them going.”

In the hours and days that followed the suicide bombing, Ball and his team got back to work; the mission wasn’t over. Ultimately, American service members at Abbey Gate helped rescue more than 30,000 people from the Taliban, according to the Marine Corps.

“After we read off the names of our best friends who were gone,” said Ball, “we moved on, providing security inside the airport. We had gone from one unsafe location to another, and we were still wondering when we would be attacked again. Yet we never stopped treating people with decency and respect; we never stopped doing the right thing.”

A message for students

Ball urged his listeners in Knowles Hall to do the right thing, too. “The good news is that you are being taught how to do that here at Colorado Academy, more so than almost anywhere else. That is why people like me look to people like you as the future leaders who will determine the policies that will make us successful as a nation.”

Ball reminded the students, “Many of my Marines who were killed at Abbey Gate were only 20 years old, two years older than you. Before you know it, you will be on your own, in a position of leadership, and you need to start preparing now.”

“You have such an amazing environment around you at CA,” Ball continued, “that is devoted to improving you as a person. My teachers at CA were the best teachers I ever had, and that includes my professors in college and most of my instructors in the Marine Corps. Don’t ever overlook those people in your life—the ones who put the spotlight on you, the ones who allow you to be successful. That’s who you need more than anyone else when you step up to be a leader.”