JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, on Wednesday visited Joint Base Charleston (JBC) to thank service members for their roles in the Afghanistan evacuation mission.
While at JBC, Gen. Milley met with JBC Commander Col. Marc Greene as well as Maj. Gen. Brian Mennes, the deputy commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which was the unit tasked with coordinating the evacuation.
Operation Allies Refuge was the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in history, which saw approximately 124,000 US citizens, green card holders, Afghan allies, and vulnerable Afghans ferried to safety as the Taliban seized control of the country.
Being what Major Daniel Naske described as “the premiere air mobility place on the planet,” JBC was instrumental the mission.
SSgt Miller Assous, a loadmaster with the 14th Airlift Squadron, agreed. He said that the 437th Airlift Wing is uniquely situated because they train to be prepared for “any challenge, any situation.”
“Every single C-17 unit from across the country came through Charleston,” explained Maj. Naske, who remained at JBC to coordinate logistics. He said that JBC has “the most highly-trained air crews,” support personnel, and intelligence officers to brief teams before they shipped out.
Those crews were tasked with being some of the last American service members in Afghanistan after a 20-year war. As the retrograde was underway, crews were especially vulnerable to attack, with personnel and assets dwindling.
Lt. Col. Alex Pelbath, director of the 437th Airlift Wing Operations Group, flew MOOSE 94, the last C-17 out of Kabul. In the grainy, neon green and black image that has now become iconic, Major General Donahue is seen boarding that C-17. Lt. Col. Pelbath described the surreal moments following that photo:
“We had just taken the runway, the other four aircraft had departed, I could see all four aircraft in front of me. We took off five aircraft in about two and a half minutes. I had the entire picture of the final C-17 force departing Kabul. That, for me, was the moment when I realized… wow, this is really it.”
All agreed that the gravity of the mission had not yet hit them. They were laser focused on getting out as many people as possible as quickly and safely as possible. Those people, they say, are what sticks with them most.
“As soon as we landed we opened the door and ramp, and lines upon lines of Afghans, you could just see as soon as they started walking on our jet, they were just so happy, so hopeful… Every single one of them that got on my jet, they looked straight in my eyes, and every single one of them, I could tell, was just [saying] ‘thank you.'”SRA Chris Symes, 14th Airlift Squadron Instructor Loadmaster
“One of the reasons why a lot of us joined the service [is] to give back and to help people,” said Capt. Amanda Edgren, a pilot with the 14th Airlift Squadron.
The crew emphasized that although they are back home, the mission is not over. Service members at bases all over the country and the world are working to process Afghan refugees, and JBC stands ready to assist anytime, anywhere.