The Air Force plans to present 350 awards in the coming weeks, including more than 100 of the military’s most prestigious medals, to airmen who served in Operation Allies Refuge.
It’s the largest batch of awards approved so far to honor the contributions of individual airmen in the U.S.-led humanitarian evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021. 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 there.
OAR was the largest noncombatant air evacuation operation in U.S. history, according to the Air Force.
Air Mobility Command said Oct. 21 it will hand out 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, awarded for extraordinary action while in flight, and 12 Bronze Stars, offered for heroic non-flight service while fighting an armed enemy. Most of the medals also include signifiers of exceptional valor or combat achievement.
Command boss Gen. Mike Minihan will present the first medals at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, in November.
“This recognition is long overdue for what our heroes did during those historic 17 days,” Minihan said in a press release.
Bureaucratic hurdles prevented military leaders from reviewing certain award nominations after Allies Refuge Ended in September 2021, the release said. Air Force officials eventually convened to pick the awardees one year later.
“We considered the contributions of crews as teams, and in the end, there was no disparity in award determinations among members of the same crews,” said Brig. Gen. Gerald Donohue, deputy director of AMC’s strategy and planning branch.
Troops have criticized the Air Force in the past for leaving certain airmen out of group award packages because of factors like their job title.
All told, more than 4,500 medals have been approved for airmen in the mobility enterprise — those who work with cargo or tanker aircraft — who participated in the operation.
“We should have done this last year immediately after the operation, and I recognize our airmen’s frustration with the process,” Minihan said of the delayed honors. “We’re making that right.”
Entire units will be recognized for their efforts as well. The 621st Contingency Response Group will receive the prestigious Gallant Unit Citation for repairing and running airfield operations amid the chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Over the summer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, announced that all units involved in the evacuation — both Operation Allies Refuge and Operation Allies Welcome, the subsequent resettlement effort — will be awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation or its equivalent.
President Joe Biden has also 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 have earned them the Presidential Unit Citation or other award.
“This is about taking care of our airmen, and there is still more to be done,” Minihan added.
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.