It was about to get worse.
Most of the embassy’s staff left Afghanistan that night or early the next day. But Mr. Wilson and about 30 other American diplomats stayed on for two more weeks, trying to find and evacuate other U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and foreign allies, among the tens of thousands of panicked Afghans just outside the airport, begging to be rescued.
“They’re having to make choices: ‘Yes, you can come in,’ or ‘No sir, you can’t,’” Mr. Wilson recalled of the diplomats’ work at the airport gate during 12-hour shifts, amid gunfire and explosions, and against the constant roar of the crowd. “And you know, that’s really hard.”
“No one who wasn’t out there really can imagine how awful it was,” he said.
Mr. Wilson was among the four last diplomats to leave Kabul, departing on the final American military plane that flew out shortly before midnight on Aug. 30. The flight headed 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 the Kabul airport, but Mr. Wilson had assumed the fatigue and other symptoms he had been experiencing were the result of working 20-hour days for five straight weeks.
He flew to his home outside Minneapolis to isolate and formally resigned his post at the end of 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 before he was asked, to his surprise, to fill in as the chargé d’affaires in January 2020 while the Trump administration and Congress fought over who to send as a permanent ambassador.
“To be honest, my reaction was, they should be asking other people who had served there,” Mr. Wilson said. But once asked, “it was my duty to do it.”
Nearly a year later, Mr. Wilson remains in touch with American diplomats who were with him during the final 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 spirited more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan.