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An Afghan child walks up the ramp of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul, Afghanistan, during Operation Allies Refuge on Aug. 19, 2021.

An Afghan child walks up the ramp of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul, Afghanistan, during Operation Allies Refuge on Aug. 19, 2021. (Brandon Cribelar/Air Forcce)

More than a year after the collapse of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Air Force leaders have approved some of the military’s most esteemed decorations for 108 airmen who helped in last summer’s gargantuan evacuation of Afghan refugees.

Air Mobility Command said Friday in a statement that it will issue 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 12 Bronze Stars and one Gallant Unit Citation for their work during Operation Allies Refuge.

“Make no mistake, we should have done this last year immediately after the operation, and I recognize our airmen’s frustration with the process,” unit commander Gen. Mike Minihan said in the statement. “We’re making that right.”

Commanders will present the medals to airmen over the next few weeks, the statement said.

Minihan is scheduled to personally present the first Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Stars during a November visit to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, according to the statement.

Seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, which are awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight, will be rendered with the “V” device, recognizing the recipient for valor and actions beyond what is expected in combat flight operations.

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. Approximately 124,000 Afghans were airlifted to safety in one of the largest air evacuations of civilians in American history.

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. Approximately 124,000 Afghans were airlifted to safety in one of the largest air evacuations of civilians in American history. (Victor A. Mancilla/Marine Corps)

An additional 74 airmen will receive the medal embellished with the “C” device, denoting they earned the award under combat conditions.

Of the 12 airmen to be awarded the Bronze Star, two will receive the medal with the “V” device, recognizing valor or heroic action during military operations against an armed enemy on the ground.

The 621st Contingency Response Group, which is dually based at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and California’s Travis Air Force Base, will collectively receive a Gallant Unit Citation.

Airmen with the rapid response expeditionary unit were lauded for their swift airfield repair and work that allowed evacuations to continue after civilian air traffic controllers fled as Taliban forces closed in on the beleaguered Kabul airport.

The awards are among an additional 350 individual decorations approved for actions in support of the massive evacuation.

That is one of the biggest batches of awards approved for individual contributions to what the Air Force calls the largest noncombatant evacuation in U.S. military history.

The awards were delayed by administrative hurdles tied to unit approval authorities after the end of the operation in September 2021, the command said in a statement.

One year later, an Air Force expert board panel met to review the citation submissions from command leaders and approved them.

Evacuation flights tasked thousands of airmen with unprecedented levels of personnel transfers and within days turned air bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Germany and the United States into major impromptu evacuation hubs.

Ramstein Air Base alone spent more than $56.3 million in two months of supporting 30,000 evacuees, the Pentagon reported in December 2021.

All told, at least 124,334 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan as it fell back into the hands of the Taliban.

Air Mobility Command, whose 110,000 members provide the majority of the Department of Defense’s airlift capability, said it had already issued 4,500 decorations to airmen who participated in the evacuation missions.

“The world witnessed history during that airlift, borne on the shoulders of mobility heroes,” Minihan said. “This recognition is long overdue for what our heroes did during those historic 17 days.”

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Alexander reports on the U.S. military and local news in Europe for Stars and Stripes in Kaiserslautern, Germany. He has 10 years experience as an Air Force photojournalist covering operations in Timor-Leste, Guam and the Middle East. He graduated from Penn State University and is a Defense Information School alumnus.

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