Hundreds more airmen who orchestrated Operation Allies Refuge, the massive evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdrew in 2021, will receive medals honoring those efforts, the Air Force announced Wednesday.
Air Mobility Command, which oversees the airlift and aerial refueling enterprise, said it will award 355 medals in all. They include eight Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Pentagon’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement; two Bronze Stars; 229 Air Medals, for especially noteworthy acts in flight; and 98 Meritorious Service Medals, for heroism or similarly significant accomplishments.
The announcement marks the latest round of recognition — and the largest batch of awards to date — for the pilots, maintainers, loadmasters, security forces, medics and others who participated in what the Air Force believes is the largest air evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. history.
“It is with great humility, gratitude and honor that I have the opportunity to recognize the actions of these mobility heroes,” Air Force mobility boss Gen. Mike Minihan said in a release. “This recognition is long overdue, but I hope everyone involved in this incredible operation knows our deepest appreciation for their sacrifice.”
Airmen worked nonstop for weeks to carry more than 124,000 American and Afghan citizens to safety as the Taliban reclaimed control of the country after two decades at war with a U.S.-led military coalition.
As Washington scrambled to make sense of the unfolding chaos, airmen pieced together evacuation missions with little sleep or clarity about the situation on the ground. They tended to U.S. troops and civilians, diplomatic staff, fearful and ill Afghans and the victims of the Aug. 26, 2021, suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 160 Afghans outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
More than two years later, some airmen will receive their medals at the Airlift/Tanker Association’s annual convention in Texas on Thursday, the Air Force said. Officials will review another slate of award nominees next week.
“We continue to reveal incredible actions taken to carry out this mission and it is our duty to recognize each and every one of them,” Minihan said. “Airmen proved, once again, that they can make the impossible possible. But it came with great personal sacrifice and risk.”
The Air Force last year unveiled a similarly large tranche of medals that spanned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 12 Bronze Stars and a Gallant Unit Citation, plus nearly 250 lower-level awards.
Still, airmen have struggled to earn the same high-level recognition as soldiers and Marines who were in charge of operations on the ground in Kabul.
In August, the Defense Department announced that Army and Marine Corps units that helped close down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would receive the Presidential Unit Citation, the nation’s highest unit-level award for collective courage.
Airmen who played key roles in the evacuation were not included in that group because they fell under a different chain of command than the soldiers and Marines who were honored, raising questions about the fairness of the award process.
Minihan pledged in September to fix the apparent snub by nominating airmen for the country’s top individual and unit awards.
Air Mobility Command spokesperson Jessica Brown declined to answer Wednesday whether the command has submitted nominations for the Presidential Unit Citation.
“AMC is committed to pursuing proper recognition for all involved in this mission,” Brown said in an email.
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.