The US Marine who was accused of abducting an Afghan war orphan has spoken out to defend his adoption of the three-year-old girl, who is at the center of an international custody battle.
Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife Stephanie currently have custody of the girl, identified as ‘Baby L’, who survived a Special Operations raid that killed her parents and five siblings in 2019, when she was two months old.
But an Afghan couple related to Baby L, who had been raising the girl, alleged in court filings that in August 2021, the Masts lured them to the US under false pretenses and took custody of her without their permission.
In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, the Masts strenuously denied the claims, saying they had been up front about their intentions and only wanted what was best for the girl.
‘We have been honest about who we are and our concerns over the child from the very first day,’ said Stephanie Mast.
‘I don’t think I used the word adoption,’ Joshua Mast admitted of his conversations with the Afghan couple. ‘We were trying to explain, again, in a way that they would understand, because they don’t have a concept of adoption in Afghanistan.’
Marine Major Joshua Mast is seen with ‘Baby L’, the Afghan war orphan he adopted. Family members who had been raising the girl accused him of taking her without permission
Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife Stephanie spoke out to defend their adoption of the three-year-old girl, who is at the center of an international custody battle
The case is currently playing out in court, and in November, the US Justice Department filed a motion to intervene in the legal battle, arguing that Mast’s adoption was a violation of Virginia law and should never have been granted.
The government also said Mast’s attempts to take the child directly conflicted with a US foreign policy decision to reunite the orphan with her Afghan family.
The Masts claim in court documents that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s accusations are ‘outrageous’ and ‘unmerited.’
The dispute over Baby L has its origins in a September 2019 US raid on a remote Afghan compound, which killed both of her parents.
Unclassified military reports state that Baby L is believed to be the orphaned daughter of a foreign Al Qaeda fighter who entered Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, according to CBS.
The girl was rescued by US Special Forces, allegedly over the protests of Afghan military partners, who argued for leaving her to die or drowning her, a former Army Ranger who was present told the network.
‘They wanted me to throw the baby into the river ’cause they believed she was a terrorist,’ said the former Ranger, who asked not to be identified for safety majors.
Baby L is seen moments after her parents were killed in a Special Forces raid in Afghanistan. Operators constructed an ad hoc baby seat for the girl to return her to base
Stephanie and Joshua, seen with one of their sons, are accused of trying to use US courts to force the girl into their custody, rather than following Afghan law
Instead, the girl was returned to base and treated for significant injuries. That’s where Joshua Mast, an attorney in the Marines who was not on the raid, first learned about the child, and called his wife to discuss adopting her.
‘The moment when we heard about [Baby L] for the first time, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make,’ Stephanie Mast told CBS. ‘It was just, there was an innocent child caught in an unfortunate situation, and we wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help, and we were able to.’
As she recovered from injuries in a US military hospital, the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross identified her relatives, and through meetings with the State Department, arranged for their reunification.
The child’s cousin and his wife – young newlyweds without children yet of their own – wept when they first saw her, they told the Associated Press, saying taking her in and raising her was the greatest honor of their lives.
However, Mast – allegedly in spite of orders from military officials to stop intervening – was determined to take Baby L home to the United States.
According to the AP, he used his status in the military, appealed to political connections in the Trump administration and convinced the small-town Virginia court to skip some of the usual safeguards that govern international adoptions.
In court filings, Mast says he acted ‘admirably’ to bring the child to the United States and care for her with his wife
Mast with other members of his family. His father, Dick (far left) is a pro-golfer who used to play for the PGA. His mother Roberta (second left) is a realtor in Virginia
Finally, when the US military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, he helped the Afghan family get to the United States.
After they arrived, they say, he took their baby from them at the Fort Pickett Virginia Army National Guard base.
They haven’t seen her since and are suing to get her back, saying in court documents that they believed they were bringing Baby L to the US for medical treatment, and never agreed to relinquish custody.
The Afghan woman said she plunged into a deep depression and, despite being nine months pregnant, stopped eating and drinking. She could not sleep. Her husband was afraid to leave her alone.
‘Since we have come to America, we have not felt happiness for even one day,’ the Afghan man told the AP. ‘We feel like we are living in a dark jail.’
The Afghan woman gave birth to a daughter just weeks after losing custody of Baby L.
The Afghan couple are named in court documents as John and Jane Doe, and requested anonymity due to fears for their safety and concerns for their relatives back in Afghanistan, now under Taliban control.
Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021 during the US withdrawal
Though the former Afghan government determined the Afghan man was Baby L’s first cousin, there has so far been no DNA evidence to support their blood ties, with court filings indicating he has resisted DNA testing.
In court filings, Mast says he acted ‘admirably’ to bring the child to the United States and care for her with his wife.
They say they’ve given her ‘a loving home’ and have ‘done nothing but ensure she receives the medical care she requires, at great personal expense and sacrifice.’ Mast celebrated his adoption of the child, whose Afghan family is Muslim, as an act of Christian faith.
In court, Mast, still an active duty Marine, cast doubt on whether the Afghan couple is related to her at all.
The Masts argue that the little girl is ‘ an orphan of war and a victim of terrorism, rescued under tragic circumstances from the battlefield.’
They say she is a ‘stateless minor’ because she was recovered from a compound Mast says was used by foreign fighters not from Afghanistan.
The case has risen to such prominence that the White House commented on it.
‘We are all concerned with the well being of this child who is at the heart of this matter,’ said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre after the AP first reported on the case in October.
On the other side of the globe, the Taliban issued a statement saying it ‘will seriously pursue this issue with American authorities so that the said child is returned to her relatives.’
The case is currently playing out under seal in a Virginia state court, and in a parallel federal lawsuit filed by the Afghan couple.
Two days after the CBS News interview with the Masts was recorded, both families were placed under a gag order preventing them from speaking to the press.