Hundreds of Airmen Will Receive New Medals for 2021 Afghanistan Evacuation

Air Medals sit on display during a ceremony at Travis Air Force Base
Air Medals sit on display during a ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, California, Jan. 9, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lan Kim)

Hundreds of new medals -- including Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Stars -- are being given to airmen who helped with the 2021 evacuation of Afghanistan, and more awards are on the horizon.

The latest awards include a total of 229 Air Medals, 98 Meritorious Service Medals, eight Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Bronze Star Medals and are for "maintainers, loadmasters, Raven-trained security forces, aeromedical evacuation personnel and pilots" involved with one of the largest humanitarian evacuation efforts in military history, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command announced Wednesday.

"It is with great humility, gratitude and honor that I have the opportunity to recognize the actions of these mobility heroes," Gen. Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, said in a statement. "This recognition is long overdue, but I hope everyone involved in this incredible operation knows our deepest appreciation for their sacrifice while saving more than 124,000 American and Afghan lives."

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Air Mobility Command played a crucial role in the evacuation, from loading up the first evacuee to boarding the last American soldier onto the final C-17 Globemaster III from Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021. More than 124,000 people ranging from government employees to Afghan refugees were flown to safety as more than two decades of U.S. military involvement in the country was left behind.

That military-led evacuation also came at a major cost. When a suicide bomber struck at the Kabul airport's Abbey Gate during the rescue mission on Aug. 26, 13 troops -- 11 Marines, a sailor and a soldier -- were killed, marking the final American casualties of the war in Afghanistan. More than 20 other troops were wounded, and about 170 Afghans were killed.

"Airmen proved, once again, that they can make the impossible possible," Minihan said. "But it came with great personal sacrifice and risk."

The latest announcement of medals connected to the mission, known as Operation Allies Refuge, marks the sixth awards board related to the evacuation. Last year, Air Mobility Command announced 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 12 Bronze Star Medals and a Gallant Unit Citation for the 621st Contingency Response Group.

More recognition is on the way for airmen involved with the operation, too. A seventh awards board is scheduled for Air Mobility Command next week.

In late August, on the two-year anniversary marking the chaos of the Afghanistan exit, the Pentagon announced that many of the Marine Corps and Army units involved in the effort would be honored with a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest distinction that a military unit can receive.

Members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, and Joint Task Force 82 of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were recognized with the citation for their efforts during Operation Allies Refuge.

Besides the Army and Marine Corps units, elements of 20 other units, including active-duty and National Guard troops, were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Minihan told reporters during a media roundtable at the Air and Space Force Association's conference in National Harbor, Maryland, in September that he was also fighting for airmen involved to be honored with a Presidential Unit Citation.

"With a lot of hard work, there's been some exceptional recognition, including individually and in units, but it is not at all where I want it to be," Minihan said in response to a question. "So, there is lots of work that remains on units and individuals, including the Presidential Unit Citations ... but what I intend moving forward is to take those units, those individuals, and sponsor those all the way up."

Some of the latest awards will be given at a private ceremony during the 2023 Airlift/Tanker Association Convention in Grapevine, Texas, this 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.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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