Air Force Reserve crew at JBLM receives medals for efforts during Afghanistan withdrawal
Stars and Stripes October 19, 2023
An Air Force Reserve crew who flew through gunfire and helped manage the chaos at the Kabul airport during the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021 were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The even six reservists from the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., were some of the last of 96 active-duty and Reserve airmen authorized to receive the award for Operation Allies Refuge.
The 17-day mission flew 124,334 people out of Kabul as Taliban rebels closed in on the Afghanistan capital. It was the largest evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. history, according to the Defense Department.
The six reservists in the crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their extraordinary aerial achievements during the evacuation. In addition, each was awarded a “C” applied to the medal, a “device” established in 2016 for “exceptionally meritorious service or achievement performed under combat conditions.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. Derin Durham, 4th Air Force commander, presented the medals Monday at Lewis-McChord, which is south of Tacoma, Wash.
Medals were awarded to three pilots: Maj. Brandon Dubuisson, Maj. Amit Patel, and Capt. Mitchell Williams. Medals also went to three loadmasters: 2nd Lt. Zachary Ward, Master Sgt. Jodi Signer, and Tech. Sgt. Brian Sinden.
The Air Force said the awards were specifically for their mission on Aug. 26, 2021, when they flew a C-17 Globemaster III from Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
The crew was ordered into the air soon after receiving a briefing that a Taliban attack at an airport checkpoint had killed 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.
The crew flew into Kabul with 23,000 pounds of supplies for troops and the relief efforts, a 13-member aeromedical team, and caskets for U.S. service members killed at the checkpoint, whose remains would be flown home.
The C-17 reported receiving small arms fire on approach to the airport, where other planes and helicopters flying in and out crisscrossed on the runways, tarmacs and airspace, receiving “minimal air traffic control support” amid the chaos during the withdrawal.
The crew kept the C-17 engines running while on the ground - using precious fuel, but increasing their chances to get up and out if the situation at the airport grew uglier.
The reservists unloaded their cargo and the medical team, with the caskets bound for a makeshift morgue. Then the loadmasters directed refugees onboard – including three wounded children on life support.
Once in the air and out of range of any Taliban guns, the C-17 conducted a midair refueling so it could return to Kuwait.
“The crew stood up when their nation called, as this wing always does,” said Dubuisson, aircraft commander on the mission. “I am so proud and honored to have flown with you guys and call you friends and family.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross was authorized by Congress in 1926 and is awarded to “any officer or enlisted member of the armed forces of the United States for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight,” the Air Force said in a statement about the ceremony.
It was first awarded to Charles Lindbergh for his solo 1927 flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh was a captain in the Army Corps Reserve. The award has occasionally been awarded to civilians, including pioneer solo aviator Amelia Earhart. While often given for heroic flying in combat, the Distinguished Flying Cross has also gone to astronauts, test pilots and explorers who have flown under dangerous conditions for the benefit of their country.
The 446th Airlift Wing is an Air Force Reserve Command unit at Lewis-McChord. It is associated with the active-duty 62nd Airlift Wing at the base, and part of Air Mobility Command.
The unit traces its history back to World War II, when the 446th Bombardment Group flew B-24 Liberators. The group switched from bombers to transports when it was activated in 1948 as the 446th Troop Carrier Group at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. Activated and deactivated twice more, the current unit rejoined the Air Force Reserve in 1973 at what was then McChord Air Force Base in Washington.
The Air Force base and the Army’s adjacent Fort Lewis were amalgamated into Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2010.