Air Force C-17 crews flew hundreds of missions into and out of Kabul in the 16 days of the Kabul airlift, often under fire and with chaotic conditions on the ground. In all, Air Force planes flew over 100,000 people out of Kabul. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.
The Air Force will award 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 12 Bronze Stars to troops who flew the nonstop airlift missions in and out of Kabul, Afghanistan, for two weeks in August 2021.
“The world witnessed history during that airlift, borne on the shoulders of mobility heroes,” Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, said in an Air Force news release. “This recognition is long overdue for what our heroes did during those historic 17 days.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross, or DFC, is the highest flight award in the US military, given for “heroism or extraordinary achievement.” The DFC is fourth in precedence among all military combat awards, just behind the Silver Star. The Bronze Star is one step lower.
The Bronze Star cannot be awarded for flight operations, while the DFC can only be awarded for flight.
A C-17 attempts to take off from Kabul while surrounded by a crowd of Afghans. Screenshot via Twitter video.
The approval of so many valor awards at once for a single operation is unusual, though not unprecedented. The Army awarded 58 Silver Stars in 2021 to Rangers who fought in Somalia in 1993.
And just as the 1993 Somalia conflict — chronicled in the book and movie Black Hawk Down — remains a watershed moment in Army special operations history, the Kabul airlift is already viewed as an era-defining moment in the Air Force mobility world.
Beginning Aug. 15, 2021, Air Force mobility crews — flying C-17s, C-130s, and other aircraft — lifted more than 100,000 people out of Kabul in a chaotic, full-throttle evacuation that could be accomplished only by air. Most of the aircraft and crews involved were from Air Mobility Command, though C-17 units from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve also participated. Those non-active-duty units have their own approval processes for awards, and some have already awarded their crews for Kabul missions.
The airlift began on Aug. 15 when US diplomats abandoned the US Embassy for the Kabul airport, then named Hamid Karzai International, and continued until just before midnight on Aug. 31, the deadline for withdrawal set by an agreement between the US and the Taliban.
A Marine lifts an evacuee Aug. 26, 2021, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.
In those two frantic weeks, as chaos and fighting swirled around the airport, Air Force aircrews evacuated the embassy staff, delivered — and later flew back out — more than 8,000 US troops and their equipment for airport security, and evacuated more than 100,000 Afghans and other refugees fleeing the oncoming Taliban.
Thirteen Americans defending the airport were killed by a suicide bomber at the airport’s Abbey Gate. More than 100 Afghans died in the attack as well. A handful of Afghans died in the early days of the operation as chaos engulfed the flight line, with at least one falling from the outside of a departing C-17 and another dying while stowed away in the wheel compartment.
Along with the individual awards, the 621st Contingency Response Group will receive the prestigious Gallant Unit Citation for the actions its airmen took to “rapidly repair and run airfield operations.” The 621st is a mobility unit with elements based at both Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Travis Air Force Base, California.
Of the 96 DFCs, seven will be awarded with the “V” device for valor, recognizing “heroism beyond what is normally expected while engaged in direct combat conditions.” And 74 of the DFCs will be awarded with the “C” device for having been earned in combat. Two of the 12 Bronze Stars will be awarded with the “V” device.
Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command provide assistance at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla.
The Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Stars "were among 350 additional individual awards approved for actions in support of [the evacuation of Kabul]," the Air Force news release reads. "The decorations were recently finalized following a September awards board held by Air Forces Central Command."
“Some submissions were upgraded or downgraded to reflect the distinct contribution of the Airman or team,” said Brig. Gen. Gerald Donohue, AMC’s deputy director of Strategy, Plans, Requirements and Programs, who served as the president of a September award board that recommended the awards. “It’s important to note that we considered the contributions of crews as teams, and in the end, there was no disparity in award determinations among members of the same crews.”
Minihan acknowledged that the awards — more than a year after the airlift — were late in coming.
“Make no mistake, we should have done this last year immediately after the operation, and I recognize our Airmen’s frustration with the process,” Minihan said. “We’re making that right.”
All the awards will be presented at recipients’ units in the coming weeks.
Minihan will present the first DFCs and Bronze Stars during a scheduled base visit at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in November.
To date, commanders have approved more than 4,500 medals for Mobility Air Forces airmen who supported the operation, the Air Force said.
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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