Four airmen flying a C-17A Globemaster III came into Afghanistan on the night of Aug. 15, 2021, initially with the mission of transporting the 82nd Airborne Division to Kabul in order to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport. However, their mission quickly turned into an evacuation when Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban on the same day.
It was their role in evacuating Americans and allies from Kabul that earned them the Distinguished Flying Cross. Particularly, one airman assigned to the 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and three Reserve Citizen Airmen assigned to the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base in California were presented with the award on April 1 in Travis AFB, according to the 349th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs.
As per the Wing’s release about the ceremony, the Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to “any officer or enlisted member of the US Armed Forces who distinguishes themselves in combat in support of operations through heroism or extraordinary achievement in combat aviation.” A notable recipient of the award is Amelia Earhart, who was the very first civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The ceremony involved presenting the medals to 301st Airlift Squadron airmen Lt. Col. Dominic Calderon, 1st Lt. Kyle Anderson and Master Sgt. Silva Foster, and Senior Airman Michael Geller from the 517th Airlift Squadron. The awards were presented by US Air Force Maj. Gen. Matthew J. Burger, deputy commander of the Air Force Reserve Command at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The ceremony also recognized the efforts of S.C. Gonzales-Furman who served as the crew chief of the 4 airmen in Afghanistan, as well as Staff Sgt. Dennis Gonzales-Furman from the 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Joint Base Charleston.
Berger said that only 45 people within the Reserves had received the award, and only five individuals awarded were from the mobility airmen.
“The last time a mobility Airman was awarded this award was in 2004. This is a unique and special, and an extraordinary achievement while conducting flight operations,” Berger explained.
“They created order out of chaos. They hit the ground running,” the deputy commander said. “…They really worked together to preserve life.”
During Operation Allies Refuge in August 2021, an operation where the US military evacuated US government officials, embassy personnel, and Afghan civilians who were in the running to receive Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), the four airmen were tested on how to handle emergencies and sudden change of missions. They were ordered to evacuate as many people as possible, with the US government fearing the worst as the Taliban’s violent reprisals are known throughout the world.
With little time and a tension-filled atmosphere, the airmen were able to keep their composure and assess the heightened risks involved with transporting a large number of individuals immediately out of Afghanistan. It was said that the crew led by Calderon had to work with numerous logistical problems that appeared due to the near panic at the airport, with tens of thousands of Afghans wanting to evacuate the country. One of the problems was said to be insufficient fuel to complete their mission, and that the aircraft was unprepared for the sheer volume of the passengers.
Their resourcefulness proved the effectiveness of the airmen’s training. With minimal crew, the reserve airmen accomplished their mission and ensured the evacuation of 153 United States citizens along with Afghan nationals and allied partners on a single flight.
Calderon described the conditions of the day of the evacuation as “none I had ever seen,” as the airfield was known to be overwhelmed with Afghan nationals trying to get out of the country. The security was breached, and personnel could no longer hold back the massive crowds entering the airfield. The aircraft commander had his hands full just to avoid running over civilians and preventing the aircraft from being overrun by the people trying to climb onto the aircraft.
He added that he and his crew performed well under pressure and that he was proud of everybody due to their efficiency and resilience. Furthermore, he gave credit to Gonzales-Furham for being an unsung hero. He later asked him to join the crew on stage as he deserved to be recognized for his efforts.
Anderson said that he thought of the award as being attached to World War II and their fighter pilots who had battled the Axis in the air. He thought of the award as “an honor” and that he was very proud to have served with Calderon, and their loadmaster, Master Sgt. Foster.
“It was paramount to our success that evening to have all that knowledge and breadth of experience onboard,” he said.
Calderon, on the other hand, described the Distinguished Flying Cross as “steeped in flying lore” as it had been awarded to the US’ best pilots and aviators. “I don’t think anyone of us will be able to put into words what this truly means,” he added.
Foster said that receiving the award is the biggest honor he has ever experienced in his entire military career. He added, “You train for this throughout your entire career, and you actually hope this moment never comes up.”
Celebrating with their friends and family, Calderon thanked every individual involved with the operation and said that it was the collaborative efforts that ultimately saved lives.