Pilots and crew from Joint Base Lewis-McChord received Distinguished Flying Crosses for missions in the opening and final hours of the Kabul airlift. US Air Force photo by Maj. Brandon Lingle.
The airfield was dark and full of moving shadows.
There were almost no Americans left at Hamid Karzai International Airport to direct the last C-17s as they arrived, either by radio or even with lights to follow. Any US troops left at HKIA had spent the last hours packing and were waiting to board the big jets for a final flight out.
But as two C-17s, call signs Moose 81 and Moose 92, rattled to the ground on Aug. 30, 2021, Afghan civilians and Taliban were encroaching on HKIA’s runways and ramps, and gunfire surrounded the airport. The pilots maneuvered the big jets down dark taxiways as the crew in back readied for whatever was waiting when the ramp dropped.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Reed, center, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to (from left), Capt. Bandna Choudhary, Master Sgt. Eric Pietras, Tech. Sgt. Justin Lyles and Capt. Thomas Jividen for missions during the Kabul airlift. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Williams.
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, three crew members from those flights received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their last-minute dashes in and out of HKIA in the final hours of the Kabul airlift.
A pilot from a separate mission in the opening hours of the airlift was awarded the DFC as well.
The four were presented the awards by Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Reed, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, at a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
“This isn’t anything that you set out to achieve,” said Reed. “When you were sent into uncertainty, when the battle, the war, life and the world presented something to us, you stood up at the moment.”
Distinguished Flying Cross medals are displayed during a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Dec. 20, 2022. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Reed, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, presided over the ceremony in which four 62d Airlift Wing Airmen received the DFC for exceptionally meritorious service during Operation ALLIES REFUGE. OAR was the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. history, evacuating 124,334 individuals from Afghanistan. (U.S Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Williams)
The DFCs were presented to Capt. Thomas Jividen, Capt. Bandna Choudhary, Master Sgt. Eric Pietras, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Lyles.
Other crew from the two Moose flights — the call sign reflects the unit's Pacific Northwest heritage — received DFCs for the mission at earlier events. Maj. Jay Campbell and Tech. Sgt. Chase Gautschi received DFCs at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and Capt. Cody Apfel received his DFC at Travis Air Force Base, California.
All of the crews received the DFC with “C” device, indicating it was earned in combat conditions. The DFC ranks fourth in the hierarchy of military awards for valor and is the highest that is awarded exclusively for actions in flight.
The crews flew two of the last five C-17s that evacuated HKIA on Aug. 31, 2021. Both crews and aircraft belonged to JBLM’s 62nd Airlift Wing.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Reed, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, presents Capt. Bandna Choudhary with a Distinguished Flying Cross during a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Dec. 20, 2022. Reed recognized four Airmen for exceptionally meritorious service during Operation ALLIES REFUGE. OAR was the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. history, evacuating 124,334 individuals from Afghanistan. (U.S Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Williams)
The Air Force announced in November that 96 pilots and crew who flew in and out of HKIA during the Kabul airlift would receive the DFC, an unprecedented number of the awards.
According to an Air Force release, the crews saw anti-aircraft fire, flares, and heavy machine-gun fire on the approach.
Once on the ground, Choudhary taxied the jet through “complex ground maneuvering” needed to reach the last Americans. Pietras and Lyles, both loadmasters, loaded the remaining US personnel and their equipment in less than an hour.
A C-17 attempts to take off from Kabul while surrounded by a crowd of Afghans. Screenshot from Twitter video.
After ensuring full accountability of all remaining American forces, the five final jets departed with no air traffic control or runway security.
“We had some people who generated a tremendous amount of courage. They took a situation where everything was going wrong, and they were the difference to having something truly amazing go incredibly correct,” said Reed.
Jividen received his award for a mission in the opening hours of the airlift on Aug. 15, 2021.
A breach in the airfield’s security perimeter placed Jividen and his crew under constant threat of small-arms fire and dozens of people jostling to enter.
Jividen flew a flight delivering 100 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division, arriving as the field was being overrun by civilians with no American control. His crew then loaded 200 Afghans.
As Jividen taxied the C-17 toward the runway, hundreds of civilians surrounded the jet.
By the end of the airlift, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, American crews had lifted over 124,000 Afghans and others out of Afghanistan.
“It will be years before you truly understand just how big of a difference you made,” said Reed.
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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