Air Force General Fighting to Get Airmen Presidential Unit Citation for Afghanistan Evacuation

by Braxton Taylor

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Airmen who helped with the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021 may still receive Presidential Unit Citations for their courage, after a four-star general confirmed that he is pushing for the awards.

Gen. Mike Minihan, the head of Air Mobility Command, told reporters during a media roundtable Monday that it’s a top priority to get those airmen the recognition they deserve.

“With a lot of hard work, there’s been some exceptional recognition including individually and in units, but it is not at all where I want it to be,” Minihan said in response to a Military.com question. “So, there is lots of work that remains on units and individuals including the Presidential Unit Citations … but what I intend moving forward is to take those units, those individuals, and sponsor those all the way up.”

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In a follow-up email late Tuesday evening, Air Mobility Command spokeswoman Jessica Brown told Military.com that Minihan “immediately got to work ensuring those who participated were properly recognized for their extraordinary contributions to this nation” but added he is working to get even more decorations for airmen connected to the mission.

“While many have been recognized with Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars and unit awards, there’s still work that needs to be done,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “Gen. Minihan is personally involved in ensuring all are properly recognized and at the right levels.”

Minihan said some “were submitted and not sponsored,” but he intends to sponsor them all the way up the award chain. The four-star general and his spokeswoman declined to say which units are being considered for the citation.

“To avoid tarnishing the process, we will not identify the units under consideration,” Brown told Military.com.

Late last month, on the two-year anniversary marking the chaos of the Afghanistan exit, the Pentagon announced that many of the Marine Corps and Army units involved in the effort would be honored with a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest distinction that a military unit can receive.

Members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, and Joint Task Force 82 of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division will be recognized with the citation for their efforts during Operation Allies Refuge.

Besides the Army and Marine Corps units, elements of 20 other units including active-duty and National Guard troops were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Operation Allies Refuge and the evacuation of about 124,000 people from Kabul was called “one of the largest, most difficult and most dangerous humanitarian operations in U.S. military history” by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The Air Force has given out hundreds of awards connected to airmen involved in the operation,

but the units involved with the evacuation did not make the first announced list.

One pilot who flew during Operation Allies Refuge told Military.com the delay in getting awards has frustrated many airmen.

“The delay in recognizing aircrews and support personnel involved in the Kabul evacuation is unfortunately par for the course,” said the pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. “The initial round of recognition took over a year and only gained traction when the press started asking questions.”

Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told Military.com last month that the awards are an ongoing effort.

“In the statement that we put out today, it highlighted the units that have currently been awarded that recognition,” Ryder said. “I’d refer you to the services right now for their current statuses. That’s not to say there won’t be others.”

Air Mobility Command assets played a major role in the evacuation efforts from Hamid Karzai International Airport. Those involved with the operation just want the recognition they believe they earned.

“It’s not rocket science — take care of your people and they’ll make the mission happen,” the Operation Allies Refuge pilot told Military.com. “In terms of Kabul, the timing of recognition and the politics behind who is recognized has left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.”

The military-led evacuation also came at a major cost. When a suicide bomber struck at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate during the rescue mission on Aug. 26, 13 troops — 11 Marines, a sailor and a soldier — were left dead, marking the final American casualties of the war in Afghanistan. More than 20 other troops were wounded, and about 170 Afghans were killed.

“The amazing work the team did during Operation Allies Refuge will never be forgotten and neither will the amazing airmen who made it happen,” Brown said.

— Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Army and Marine Corps Units Awarded Presidential Unit Citation on 2nd Anniversary of Afghanistan Withdrawal

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