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The last soldier to leave Afghanistan — nicknamed 'Flatliner' — was uniquely prepared for that moment

Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan, has been deployed at least 17 times, including four times to Afghanistan.
Image: 82nd Airborne Division commander the last Soldier to leave Afghanistan
Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last U.S. service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday in a photograph taken using night vision optics.Jack Holt / US Central Command via Reuters

The image of Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue departing Afghanistan on Monday night will forever serve as a symbol of the end of a grueling, nearly two-decade war there.

Donahue, steely-eyed, in a helmet and fatigues and carrying a rifle, was photographed using night vision optics as he became the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan.

His focus, whether he was aware of the significance of the moment or not, is likely the reason he was nicknamed "Flatliner" early in his military career.

"I definitely think there’s time where you have to flatline," Donahue said in an interview for The 18th Airborne Corps Podcast in May.

"Every time you do something, act like you’ve done it before. In other words, don’t get too high, don’t get too low," he said. "You’ve been told to do something — just act like this is another one. That ability to forget what has happened and don't over-anticipate what’s coming. Focus on what you have to when you’re in execution mode."

U.S. Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last U.S. service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021.Courtesy 82nd Airborne

Donahue's ethos fit with the 82nd Airborne Division, which he took command of last year. A main tenet of the division is "no heavy breathing."

"We do not heavy breathe in this division," he said. "Whatever you ask us to do, we can handle it. Doesn't matter if the conditions are perfect, doesn’t matter if the conditions are poor. Does not matter," Donahue explained on the podcast. "We have been well-trained, well-led, we have complete trust in each other. Anything that comes up, we can handle it."

"Whatever the nation needs, whatever the corps comes back to us and says they need, we got it," he said.

Donahue and more than 3,500 paratroopers from the division deployed from their base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Afghanistan in mid-August to provide security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as chaos unfolded there after the Taliban took over and people rushed to evacuate the country.

At the height of the turmoil there, 13 U.S. military personnel and more than 110 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport last week ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline to get American troops out of Afghanistan.

"Without a doubt, the paratroopers of this division are absolutely a national treasure," Donahue said in May. "No other organization has the size, the capacity and capability to very rapidly go anywhere in the world than this division."

"It is an incredible honor to be in this division," he said. "For the rest of my life, when people say 'What’d you do with your life?' I’m going to be able to say, 'I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.'"

Donahue, though, could answer that question in a lot of different ways.

He was 8 years old when he first felt inspired to join the military, he said on the podcast, when he saw a newspaper front page showing the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

"That moment forward led me to always want to do this kind of thing," he said.

After his graduation from West Point in 1992, Donahue served as a second lieutenant in the infantry branch.

He has now commanded at every echelon from company to brigade, according to Military.com, and has attended Harvard University as a U.S. Army War College Fellow.

Donahue, who is highly decorated, also worked at the Pentagon as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, where he was serving on 9/11. Donahue was on the ground at the Pentagon that day getting intelligence to Myers and other officials, according to Myers' book "Eyes on the Horizon" and Garrett M. Graff's "The Only Plane in the Sky."

He was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, and was back three more times.

His at least 17 deployments also include missions to Iraq, Syria, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

It's unclear if Donahue knew he would be the last soldier out of the country, or if it was planned that way. Regardless, he has espoused and preached a culture that has prepared him and his troops for a moment like that for years.

"In this division," he said in May, "leaders jump first, eat last. Always."