One airman from the New York National Guard’s 105th Airlift Wing was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while five others received Air Medals with a “V” device for valor to honor efforts in 2021′s humanitarian evacuation from Afghanistan.

The latest ceremony, held at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, emphasized the airmen’s bravery onboard a C-17 Globemaster III transport jet — nicknamed “Reach 824″ — as part of Operation Allies Refuge in August 2021.

“The Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Valor have been awarded to other great Americans such as ‘Hap’ Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr.,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, said at the June 4 ceremony. “Today, the Air Force adds to this distinguished list of American airmen heroes the crew of Reach 824.”

Capt. Matthew McChesney, Reach 824′s aircrew commander, was the sole recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest honor for heroism during air operations.

C-17 pilots Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend and Capt. Jonathan Guagenti, and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Joseph Caponi, Staff Sgt. Evan Imbriglio and Staff Sgt. Corey Berke each received an Air Medal.

Tech. Sgt. Byron Catu, a flight mechanic, earned the Meritorious Service Medal in May.

Despite knowing that Taliban forces had reached the outskirts of Kabul — much closer than recent intelligence reports had indicated — the crew of Reach 824 was slated to fly a MH-47 Chinook helicopter and 22 soldiers from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment from the United Arab Emirates to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 15, 2021.

Once there, rescuers were supposed to find Americans on the ground and prepare them for immediate evacuation. But the team didn’t make it to the airport.

The crew couldn’t securely communicate with air traffic control, while another C-17 was on the ground, reporting heavy small-arms fire, panicked civilians overrunning the airfield and both civilian and military aircraft flying in every direction. One crew member described the situation as flying into a “hornet’s nest.”

Reach 824 was forced to abort its mission and divert to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

“After we turned around that first night, the whole crew felt disappointed, discouraged, upset because it was a hard decision to make, and I have no doubts that it was the right decision,” McChesney said in a press release. “Discouragement and disappointment only motivated us to want to get in there even more.”

The next day, determined to try again under the cover of night, Reach 824 navigated the mountains around Kabul and passed several other C-17s that couldn’t land due to the airfield closure, low fuel or other threats. Still lacking controlled airspace, McChesney asked a Chinook crew on the ground for help figuring out where to land.

The jet had been airborne for so long, though, that it was running out of fuel. So the crew turned back a second time.

While flying to Qatar, the airmen were able to connect with a nearby KC-10 Extender tanker jet that accompanied the C-17 back to Kabul. That way, the transport plane could gas up after landing and takeoff from the airport as well.

With enough fuel in tow, the crew came up with a plan to land.

“We knew how serious [our mission] was,” Catu said. “We knew the cargo we were carrying was really desperately needed by the people on the ground.”

With no landing clearance and no terminal or building lights, and while being continually shot at, the crew was given one simple instruction: “Land at your own risk.”

Reach 824 finally touched down in Afghanistan and was swarmed by heavily armed Taliban forces in 12 vehicles, who escorted them over taxiways littered with garbage, stray animals and abandoned cars to the allied side of the airfield.

In the face of severe stress and danger, the crew still managed to offload the rescue crews’ cargo in an unprecedented 40 minutes, allowing the special operations team to recover Americans across the country.

“They were able to get over 800 people out from the countryside who otherwise would not have made it to Kabul,” Guagenti said. “If we did not complete our mission, that’s 800 people who would be stuck there still.”

The crew returned to Kabul two more times to help evacuate 348 people, the youngest of whom was a 17-day-old girl.

On its final mission, the crew transported the remains of 13 service members killed in the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at the airport’s Abbey Gate.

The 13 service members killed in the attack, claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan, were Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin Hoover, 31; Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23; Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25; Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22; Cpl. Daegan Page, 23; Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22; Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20; Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, 20; Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20; Lance Cpl. Dylan Merola, 20; Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, 20; Navy Hospitalman Maxton Soviak, 22; and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23.

“That was at the end of a long two weeks trying to figure everything out,” Guagenti said. “We were all exhausted. We thought we were going home. Not one of us hesitated, even as exhausted as we were.”

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, praised the team’s dedication to the mission despite setbacks and danger.

“You met crisis with conviction,” Hokanson said during the ceremony. “With purpose. With valor.”

Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.

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