Three U.S. Air Force crews received the Distinguished Flying Cross on Friday for their efforts evacuating Americans and allies from Afghanistan in August 2021 as the Taliban was taking control of Kabul.
Col. Allison Black, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, presented the medals in a ceremony inside the Freedom Hangar. It marked the first time the elite special operations U-28A Draco aircraft community received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation’s highest honor for aerial achievement.
- “They were ready to execute, they were ready to save lives and they were ready to answer the nation’s call,” Black said at the ceremony. “For its entire existence, the U-28 community has lived in the shadows of recognition, but today there are no shadows.”
Over 24 hours on Aug. 15-16, 2021, the crews faced attack from enemy anti-aircraft artillery and rockets as they flew intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to aid the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy and Kabul airport. Despite the threats, they remained focused on their mission of providing overhead surveillance to ground forces securing the evacuation.
The crews safely landed and took off from an airfield swarming with unidentified armed personnel. They assisted in clearing Kabul’s airport runway when air traffic control personnel fled the tower. And amid chaos at the airport, they helped guide inbound military planes evacuating Americans and Afghans fleeing the country.
Capt. Max Arnold, a U-28A pilot who flew the first mission on Aug. 15, said his crew “only made us more eager to get after it and make sure we did our jobs” after taking off through a firefight between Afghan security forces just 100 yards away.
Capt. Nicklaus Lutz, a combat systems officer, said the reality of the danger hit their crew when they landed after their Aug. 15 mission. “It dawned on us that we almost died,” Lutz said.