Army Helicopter Crews Risked Their Lives to Save 10,000

Tracer rounds zipped between the CH-47 Chinook helicopter’s spinning rotor blades as Ron piloted the aircraft over Kabul to reach the U.S. embassy on the first night of the Afghanistan evacuation.

The sky was slightly hazy over the city, which the Taliban had just captured. For the five-person Chinook crew — a pilot, co-pilot, and three aircrew — most of the world outside was cast in shades of gray due to their night vision goggles. The incoming tracers, however, were notable exceptions: They became white streaks through the goggles before blossoming red and orange as they got closer. 

Sitting in the cockpit of the CH-47, it was clear to Ron, a 10-year helicopter pilot with five deployments under his belt, that gunmen on the ground were trying to hit the four green Chinooks as soldiers with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade took part in the hurried evacuation of American personnel and U.S. allies from Afghanistan. 

Even though his crew chief could see where the fire was coming from, the soldiers onboard did not engage the shooters. Eventually, the Taliban and the U.S. military would form a strained partnership that held until the evacuation was complete, but on that first night, the rules of engagement were unclear.

Kabul had suddenly become enemy territory for the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade helicopter crews. A small infantry company from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division provided a shrinking security perimeter at the embassy’s landing zone as Army helicopters touched down to pick up the Americans, a mix of State and Defense Department personnel, and people with other government agencies awaiting evacuation.

One immediate challenge for the Chinook crews was that many waiting for evacuation wanted to board the helicopters with luggage. Since bags could be replaced while people could not, the crew chiefs told the Americans they could take two small items onboard and anything they could use to fight, if needed. Everything else was discarded to make room for other evacuees while there was still time to fly.

The Chinooks spent between three and six minutes on the ground as they loaded passengers. During the last trip, no one was left at the embassy to provide security at the landing zone.

“Obviously not, because we made sure we got every last American out of there,” Ron said. “There was no security there. We picked up, made sure we had everyone, and those four Chinooks were the last U.S. helicopters to touch down in the embassy [landing zone].”

When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, the U.S.-led effort to evacuate more than 124,000 Afghans and Americans was based at Hamid Karzai International Airport. However, helicopter crews with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade rescued thousands of Americans and Afghans by flying dangerous missions in and around Kabul. 

These helicopter crews braved gunfire and other dangers as they flew numerous missions outside the wire to ferry Afghan security forces and civilians to the airport. Yet, the soldiers who kept that lifeline going for days on end have received little public recognitionAnd while 55 soldiers with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade have received Air Medals — including 12 with “V” devices for valor — none of the soldiers have received the Distinguished Flying Cross, unlike the airmen who flew refugees out of Kabul.

Task & Purpose spoke to several soldiers who served with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at the time about the operation to pluck Afghans from Taliban-controlled territory. All spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid potential reprisal and are being identified by pseudonyms. 

“I would say it was the most dangerous flights that I’ve ever had, those two weeks there,” said George, a Chinook flight engineer. “I’ve got about 1,100 hours and those were the most intense. Even the guys that had been deployed six, seven, eight times, they said this is something that they had never experienced before. It was hectic.”

George had been in Afghanistan since May to help with the U.S. military’s withdrawal, which U.S. government officials had repeatedly promised would be “orderly and safe.” But former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15, 2021, and the mission changed overnight. George had just worked for two weeks straight so he was not scheduled to fly that day. He was catching a few moments of rest when he was awakened by U.S. troops sprinting through the barracks.

He walked outside, heard gunshots, and saw fire in the distance, so he grabbed his weapon and equipment and ran toward a hangar, where he was immediately assigned to a mission. That was the start of the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in the U.S. military’s history.

For George, that first night was the most perilous part of the operation.

“From the first takeoff to very later in the night, 12 hours later, we were getting shot at,” George said. “We were getting lasered [from small arms optics]. There were gunfights outside the gate from the Taliban and ISIS-K. We were making drop-offs. We were fitting all kinds of people in the aircraft.”

They had to move quickly, George said. “It was land, load ‘em, go; land, load ‘em, go.”

That’s how it went until the crew returned to relative safety offered by Hamid Karzai International Airport around 1 a.m. on Aug. 16. But as soon as the Chinook touched down, the security situation inside the wire imploded as thousands of Afghans stormed the airfield in a scene eerily reminiscent of a “zombie apocalypse,” George said.

George’s Chinook had just touched down, and as he stepped outside the aircraft, he saw a wall of people running toward the helicopter.

“I started realizing just how many people there were,” George said. “I started seeing things fly up in the air, and I was like, what are those? And then I realized that they were shooting ammunition and fireworks at the helicopters and all the C-17s on the ground.”

When the crowd got within 100 feet of the aircraft, George said they needed to take off, and the helicopter flew right over the crowd with rounds flying between the rotor blades, he said. They touched down elsewhere on the airfield, where it was dark. Crew members grabbed their weapons and prepared to defend themselves.

But in what can only be described as “perfect timing,” an Air Force C-17 loaded with 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers managed to land just as the crowd broke through a gate protecting the helicopter crew, so the soldiers immediately began restoring security, George said.

Had that C-17 arrived on the scene one or two minutes later, it likely would not have been able to touch down, he said. In the end, at least five people were killed when Afghans tried to rush the airfield, Reuters reported at the time. U.S. troops reportedly had to fire into the air to control the crowd, which was so large that it could be seen on commercially available satellite imagery. 

Over the next several days, American helicopter crews were able to ferry many Afghans to the airport, including women and children, George said.

“Knowing that they got on our aircraft, they got dropped off, put on a C-17, and flown away, that was the most rewarding part — that you’re able to change lives,” George said.

Saving allies

Following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, the situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport was grim. 

On Aug. 16, several Afghans fell to their death after trying to cling onto an Air Force C-17 as it took off. Shortly afterward, Mike, a Chinook pilot, received a request from a government agency to pick up Afghan troops outside of Kabul that would provide extra security at the airport.

While Mike did not name the government agency in question, the New York Times and The Intercept have reported that Afghans who worked for the CIA, known as Zero Units, were flown by helicopter to the airport.

Mike said the Chinook crew did not have time to think about the Afghans who died earlier that day. As the sun began to go down, they took off and headed north of Kabul.

“The first out-and-back went by relatively uneventfully, other than an extraordinary amount of small arms fire coming up from the entire city of Kabul,” Mike said. “They hadn’t started shooting at us yet. We picked up the security force, flew back to HKIA, and dropped them off on the South side of the airport. The second run was well into dark, and under the night vision goggles that we wore, we saw an incredible amount of tracer fire. Although we varied our route over the mountains, we received small arms and machine gun fire that traced over and underneath our aircraft. We ran with the lights off, fully blacked out, so we figured that they were shooting at the sound of our aircraft.”

The helicopter crew decided not to return fire because they could not positively identify the shooters, and even if they could, he said firing back would give away their position.

As Mike’s Chinook — one of three helicopters returning from the mission — flew in from the West to land at the northern part of Hamid Karzai International Airport, the crew caught a glimpse of a crowd surging from the south.

Then, as the lumbering transport descended below 200 feet, the ground below erupted in gunfire to the right of the landing zone. Chaos ensued. Those who stormed the airfield ran directly into the landing zone, as crew members aboard helicopters called out the distance and direction of those below.

When the Air Mission Commander broke over the radios and yelled, “go around, go around!” The engine of the Chinook roared as Mike “pulled as much power as possible,” he said.

“We had over 60 passengers, twice the aircraft’s capacity,” Mike said. “My co-pilot shadowed me on the controls the entire time, ready to take them over if one of the rounds incapacitated me.”

Mike’s helicopter and two other Chinooks flew to the north side of the airport, landed, and Afghan commandos set up security positions, he said.

Over the course of seven days, Mike’s crew helped rescue about 1,500 Afghan security personnel and roughly 5,000 refugee families, he said. In addition to taking small arms and machine gun fire, the helicopters narrowly escaped a mortar strike, which hit one pickup site within a minute of the Chinooks taking off.

“The entire Chinook Company, callsign ‘Flipper,’ participated in the evacuation of the refugees,” Mike said. “On one of those lifts the refugees reached up and touched the American Flag that was affixed to the inside of the cabin as they exited the aircraft, and I was overwhelmed with emotion.”

No Distinguished Flying Crosses

The soldiers who spoke with Task & Purpose said the evacuation flights lasted for more than a week, but a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division said the Combat Aviation Brigade flew missions outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport from Aug. 15-17, 2021. The reason for the disparity remains unclear.

During those three days, the Combat Aviation Brigade ferried about 10,000 American citizens and at-risk Afghan civilians to the airport, said Lt. Col. Anthony Clas.

So far, 55 members of the Combat Aviation Brigade have received Air Medals for their bravery during the evacuation flights, including 12 Air Medals with “V” devices for Valor, he said.

“The crew members of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade performed exceptionally during the HKIA evacuation mission while being exposed to hostility and personal risk,” Clas told Task & Purpose. “There were 12 Soldiers and Paratroopers who performed valorously during this operation who were recognized accordingly for their performance. We are grateful for their bravery and commitment to mission accomplishment.”

But several soldiers who served with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at the time told Task & Purpose that a number of helicopter crew members were initially nominated for Distinguished Flying Crosses — including several Apache helicopter pilots — and Bronze Stars, only to see those awards downgraded by the brigade’s leadership.

The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade held award ceremonies in May and August to present soldiers who took part in the Afghanistan evacuation with Air Medals for their bravery, Clas said.

“These awards were deemed commensurate to the service and impact our soldiers made during the 82nd CAB’s deployment to Afghanistan and participation in the evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport during Operation Allies Refuge,” Clas said.

Clas also said that awards submitted for approval must meet the criteria outlined in Army Regulation 600-8-22 Military Awards to determine the appropriate level of recognition.

However, Task & Purpose obtained multiple screenshots of an email that appears to be sent from Col. Jennifer Mykins, commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigadeto a subordinate commander, in which Mykins says soldiers who took part in the evacuation do not deserve higher level valor awards.

“Your aircrews did not earn a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross]; an Air Medal for achievement might even be questionable based on the current write-up and AR [Army Regulation]. BSMs [Bronze Star Medals] for achievement need to show heroic or meritorious achievement involving conflict with an opposing force and you also need to relook the ‘V’ recommendation,” Mykins wrote in the email. “You might be able to recommend ‘C’ but only for some.”

When asked if Mykins had sent an email ruling out Distinguished Flying Crosses for soldiers in the Combat Aviation Brigade, Clas did not answer directly but did not deny the email had been sent.

“Awards for exceptional service during this mission were nominated and approved in accordance with Army Regulation 600-8-2,” Clas said. “The soldiers and paratrooper were recognized commensurate to their service and impact during the mission.”

In August, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that he was tasking the military services to identify units and service members who should receive the Presidential Unit Citation or individual awards for their actions during the Afghanistan evacuation.

Air Force Brig Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, deferred questions to the military services about which troops and units might be recognized.

U.S. Army Human resources command has reviewed several hundred unit award citations so far per Austin’s directive, said Army spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt.

“Award packets have been processed through HRC for additional staffing and approval in accordance with established awards processing procedures,” Hewitt told Task & Purpose. “We are confident we will be able to meet the Secretary’s intent to recognize our personnel and formations that have been instrumental in the Afghanistan evacuation.”

‘No matter how bad things are, there is always something good in it’ 

The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade provided the last lifeboats on a sinking ship for Americans and Afghans who could not make it to Hamid Karzai International Airport.

During those chaotic evacuations in August 2021, helicopter crews flew missions that rescued far more people than their helicopters were designed to carry, said Fred, a Chinook pilot.

“The Chinook has 30 seats; that’s how many people usually fill it,” Fred said. “Well, it started out they were giving us 35 [people], whatever, per aircraft, and one day we were like: Hey, if it fits, we can take it. They were like: Oh! I think by the last day, we were pulling 70-something people out per aircraft.”

At the start of the non-combatant evacuation operation, the brigade’s helicopter crews used humor to keep themselves motivated, Fred said. They joked that a movie would eventually be made about the mission called 14 Hours — an homage to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, he said, adding that they had a chart in their tactical operations center showing which actors would play real-life characters in the film adaptation.

But as soon the evacuations got underway, the crews just wanted to help as many people as possible, said Fred. The door gunners, crew chiefs, and flight engineers — collectively known as “backenders” — were particularly moved by the plight of the women and children they were ferrying to safety, he said.

“It really affected a lot of our backenders because upfront we’re kind of insulated from what’s going on in the back,” Fred said. “We’re not in it. Our backenders were immersed in it.”

“As soon as we got back from that first day,” Fred continued, “Our backenders got together and they’re like: Hey, we’re going to ransack everything that we can find that has candy, that has toys, anything that we can give to a child — basically, this is probably one of the worst days of their life at this point — something to brighten it a little bit more.”

From then on, he said that every time the helicopters went to rescue Afghans, helicopter crew members had a little bag with candy, snacks, and whatever else they could find for the families and children.

Ralph, a helicopter crew chief during the evacuations, would hand Girl Scout cookies, Skittles, and M&M candies to children and families when they got on and off the aircraft. He noted that Afghan children were probably scared of the uniformed and armed Americans, so he hoped the candy would ease their nerves.

Afghan women and children would usually get onto the helicopters first, but were reluctant to sit next to crew members, whose face masks and other gear made them look frightening, Ralph told Task & Purpose.

“Kids were hesitant to take things from us but rarely turned down food or candy,” Ralph told Task & Purpose. “Not a lot of smiles in the crowds, but I can’t blame them. I’m sure every single one of the evacuees was exhausted and just wanted to be on the airfield where they at least had some protection and promise of leaving the country.”

The helicopter crew members realized that the people they were rescuing had lost most of their possessions, and had little rest or food as they made their way across Afghanistan, he said. The ordeals these Afghans endured were written on the faces of the women and young children.

“What we saw on a daily basis is the definition of desperation in their eyes,” Ralph said. “They had no other choice than to leave. That manifested in either standing in crowds at Abbey Gate; to traveling across the country for a chance to catch a ride with us; to clinging to the outside of C17s with a destination unknown.”

Sometimes, a little touch of humanity made all the difference to the Afghans.

Fred remembers how one of the door gunners in his aircraft had the same stuffed toy as his nephew, who is just 3 or 4 years old. “It was one of those things: You have yours, I have mine, and it keeps us together,” he said.

On one of the evacuation flights, a man was holding a little boy who kept pointing at the stuffed animal, Fred said.

“My door gunner, he was playing with him back and forth, back and forth, and he goes to hand it to him, apparently the kid’s face just lit up. He did this huge hug on it. That is the kind of memory that I hope can stick with this kid as he goes through his life and kind of remembers no matter how bad things are, there is always something good in it.”

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