NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The four-star head of Air Mobility Command said Monday he plans to nominate Air Force units and service members who participated in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan for the nation’s highest military awards, after airmen were left out of a group selected to receive the Presidential Unit Citation for their collective courage.
The apparent snub has raised questions about the nomination process and whether troops are being fairly recognized for Operation Allies Refuge, the U.S.-led humanitarian evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021.
“Because of how the operation was executed, it was a team that came together quickly,” Gen. Mike Minihan told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference here. “There are some challenges when it comes to understanding what the command relationships were.”
“There’s been some exceptional recognition ... but it is not at all where I want it to be,” he added.
More than 124,000 Americans and foreign nationals, including 76,000 at-risk Afghans, fled as the Taliban returned to power at the end of the Pentagon’s nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan. It was the largest air evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. history, according to the Air Force.
Thousands of medals have been approved for airmen in the mobility enterprise — those who work with airlift or tanker aircraft — who participated in the operation.
Last year, President Joe Biden directed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to review all units that were present at the Kabul airport from Aug. 15-30, 2021, to determine whose actions earned them the Presidential Unit Citation or other award.
But when Austin last month announced a set of troops that would receive the Presidential Unit Citation, airmen were not among them.
They include the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit; Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command; and Joint Task Force 82 of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and its supporting units.
But the Air Force pilots, medics and others who flew around the clock for weeks to accomplish the mission fell under different chains of command. That means they weren’t eligible for awards as part of the Army and Marine packages that were submitted for recognition.
Minihan said he will lobby for that to change.
“What I intend moving forward is to take those units, those individuals, and sponsor those all the way up and use some of the current authorities that I have … to make decisions where I can make decisions,” he said.
He’ll also push for airmen to earn honors awarded at higher echelons of the federal government, like the Presidential Unit Citation, he said. Some, but not all, of those proposals have already been submitted.
“We need to look at this holistically,” Minihan said. “We should make a submission that accounts for everybody. We should make an assessment of what we think those units got, and then we should put those all forward.”
He declined to answer which troops are under consideration for awards to avoid tarnishing the review process.
For many, the award process has been bumpy from the start.
Some medals were delayed by bureaucratic hurdles that prevented military leaders from reviewing certain award nominations until a year after Allies Refuge ended in September 2021. Troops have criticized the Air Force in the past for leaving airmen out of group award packages because of factors like their job title.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, announced last year that all units involved in the evacuation — both Operation Allies Refuge and Operation Allies Welcome, the subsequent resettlement effort — would be awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation or its equivalent.
The Air Force’s 621st Contingency Response Group also received a Gallant Unit Citation for repairing and running airfield operations amid the chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Few troops have received a Presidential Unit Citation for “exceptional heroism” — similar to the individual-level Distinguished Service Cross — during the war in Afghanistan. Airmen tapped for the honor would join Army and Marine Corps units that fought in some of the war’s fiercest campaigns to take enemy territory.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.