An officer in the Minnesota Air National Guard was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal — the nation’s highest award for aerial achievement — over the weekend for rescuing troops during the evacuation of Afghanistan.

Maj. Katie Lunning, a critical care nurse assigned to the 133 Airlift Wing, was presented the prestigious medal during a ceremony on Jan. 7 in St. Paul, Minnesota, according to a service release. Lunning’s achievement marks the first time an Air National Guard flight nurse has earned the award.

The airman’s recognition stems from the courageous actions she and her team took during the summer of 2021, when the crew rescued and cared for more than 20 patients following the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Thirteen U.S. troops and more than 160 Afghan civilians were killed in the attack.

“When the suicide bomber exploded at Abbey Gate, we were the first [critical care air transport team] in,” Lunning said in a release. “We took injured Marines and Afghan civilians who really weren’t flight worthy, but there was no choice. We just had to get them out of there.”

In addition to her time in the Guard, Lunning works as an intensive care unit nurse manager for the VA in Des Moines, Iowa.

The transition of power in Afghanistan began unfolding while Lunning was deployed with the 379th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. For weeks after the bombing, she performed evacuation missions to get injured patients to safety. Despite not knowing if another attack was imminent, she and her team saved another 22 lives on a medevac flight to Landstuhl, Germany, the release said.

In receiving the award, which was created by Congress in 1926, Lunning joins the ranks of other historic women, including American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.

The ceremony was attended by Lunning’s family, friends, military leaders and lawmakers.

“I know these awards ceremonies are meant, and rightfully so, to honor an individual like Maj. Lunning,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said during the ceremony. “But these awards are also an outwards representation so that all of us, whether we wear the uniform or not, remember the sacrifices and the risks that go into defending our way of life,”

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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