On Tuesday evening, as family gathered at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, Ray Merkle's plane landed, bringing him home from Afghanistan for the first time in months.
The Guilford, Indiana, native spent the past three months as a private security contractor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. While his wife and children sat at home glued to the television the last several days, Merkle watched firsthand as the situation in Afghanistan's capital city deteriorated.
"Things were collapsing fairly quick," said Merkle. "The urgency kept picking up as more and more helicopters were coming in."
He was one of the last civilian groups evacuated from the embassy on Sunday as Kabul fell to the Taliban and the insurgent group took control of the country.
U.S. officials said so far seven people have died in the chaotic evacuation, with thousands fleeing to the airport in an attempt to escape the emerging Taliban regime.
"My heart just goes out to the people," said Merkle. "I mean, they're just trying to get out of town. I don't have any ill will against any of them. They're in a tough spot and I wish that we had done things differently."
Merkle said he's happy to be back home with his wife and son, but he's still thinking about the U.S. military personnel who remain in Afghanistan. He said he hopes Americans understand the seriousness of what's happening.
"People need to take the time to appreciate what they have and the liberties and freedoms that they have," he said. "They have the opportunities to complain and voice your opinion and get away with it. There's a lot of bad that goes on over here, but it's nothing compared to a country like Afghanistan."
Merkle served with the U.S. Marine Corps for 21 years and is also an Iraq war veteran. He was initially scheduled to return from his job as a security contractor in mid-September, until the emergency evacuation.