Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 31, 2023 at 6:14 p.m. EST with additional information from Navy public affairs.
Two years ago, the fall of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, to the Taliban sparked one of the largest humanitarian operations in U.S. military history. In two weeks, troops helped evacuate more than 124,000 civilians through the airport there, despite a fragile truce with their former Taliban foes and a deadly suicide attack that killed a soldier, a Navy corpsman and 11 Marines.
The Defense Department announced Thursday that many of the soldiers and Marines who were there at the two-decade war’s close will receive the Presidential Unit Citation for their collective courage. The Presidential Unit Citation, the nation’s highest unit award, is presented for shared “exceptional heroism” roughly equivalent to that required for an individual award of the Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said the following units received the honor, and troops from them who participated in the evacuation may permanently wear the decoration:
- 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit,
- Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command,
- Joint Task Force 82 of the 82nd Airborne Division and its supporting units.
The award covers non-82nd Airborne forces on the ground that came under then-division commander Lt. Gen. Chris Donahue’s control at the airport, such as the National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 194th Armor and elements of the 10th Mountain Division already deployed to Afghanistan that fell back to the airport during the withdrawal.
According to a statement from Army public affairs, “select elements” from the following units that took part in the operation will receive the award: Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division; 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; 1st Attack Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade; 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division; 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division; DIVARTY, 82nd Airborne Division; 82nd Sustainment Brigade; 16th Military Police Brigade; 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade; 50th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Signal Brigade; 1st Battalion, 101st Field Artillery Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard; 319th Ordnance Company, Washington Army National Guard; 1st Battalion, 194th Armored Regiment, Minnesota National Guard; 249th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; USA Network Enterprise Center, Qatar; 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment; 8th Psychological Operation Group; 95th Civil Affairs Brigade; and U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
According to the award citation for Navy and Marine units, a copy of which was provided to Military Times, the following subordinate units under the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation: the command element for the 24th MEU; Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Combat Logistics Battalion 24; Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162.
For the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, the subordinate receiving the PUC are: the Special MAGTAF command element; 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment; Combat Logistics Battalion 21; Marine Wing Support Squadron 373; Marine Aerial Refueller Squadrons 352 and 234; and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 364.
Additionally, those who served with Marine Operations Group Central-Forward on the mission will be eligible for the PUC.
Air Force flying units that supported the evacuation, including the National Guard’s 105th Airlift Wing, already received lower-degree unit awards. The service’s 621st Contingency Response Group received a Gallant Unit Citation. It’s not clear if those awards were upgraded — Air Force public affairs referred questions to Austin’s office, which did not immediately release a detailed list of covered units.
In a statement announcing the award, Austin praised the service members’ heroism “in the midst of the pandemic and in the teeth of danger.”
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth struck a similar note in her statement.
“The Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and Joint Task Force 82 (JTF-82) demonstrated heroic discipline and courage during the execution of the non-combatant evacuation operations in support of Operation Allies Refuge,” the Army’s top civilian said. “The bravery of the Soldiers on the ground and the dedication of those who supported every evacuation flight exemplify the ideals of service with honor and compassion.”
The Navy and Marine Corps’ top leader, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, lauded his troops’ “unparalleled” courage and bravery.
Relatively few organizations have received the Presidential Unit Citation for actions in Afghanistan. Some previous awardees for the war include special operations units from the initial invasion, an Army airborne battalion that fought in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in 2007, an 82nd Airborne Division battalion that helped British troops retake a town in 2007, units from a Marine Corps-led push into Marjah in 2010, an Army Ranger battalion for its fighting in 2010, and an Army brigade that cleared no-go zones in the Helmand heartland in 2010-2011.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.