JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Colonel Robert Lankford, Commander of the 437th Airlift Wing stationed at Joint Base Charleston (JBC), sent a message Thursday to the men and women of the 437th AW, commending the group’s role in what the Pentagon believes may be the second-largest Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) conducted by the United States Military.

With 41 aircraft, the 437th AW oversees one of the US Air Force’s largest fleets of C-17s and plays a large role in sustaining Air Mobility Command’s Global Reach airlift capability, according to JBC.

Col. Lankford praised the group for living up to that task, saying “when our nation needed our team’s support, you made it happen within hours.”

“To say I’m proud of each of you would be an understatement,” Col. Lankford said. He continued, “you have my complete trust to make the right call when you’re faced with situations that no C-17 crew has ever faced.”

His words of encouragement come as crews on the ground in Afghanistan are tasked with safely evacuating US personnel and allies in the midst of what can only be described as chaos.

Images show desperate Afghans packed like sardines in the belly of a C-17 as they flee their country. Other videos show people clinging to the side of a C-17 as it took off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, which the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg has been tasked with securing to carry out the evacuations.

C-17s from JBC have been playing a critical role in the evacuation, transporting members of the 82nd Airborne to the Central Command area of operations for the mission. Over the past week, multiple JBC C-17s have appeared on radar around the Gulf of Oman.

Likewise, JBC crews have been facilitating the movement of cargo to the region to assist troops on the ground.

On Thursday morning, the Department of Defense announced plans to ramp up the operation, with the goal of evacuating more US citizens, Special Immigration Visa (SIV) holders, and vulnerable Afghans.

An additional 13 C-17s arrived to the area within the past day, and Army Major General Hank Taylor said that the capacity of each aircraft is expected to be maximized.

As the operation continues, JBC is likely to continue playing a significant role. With the future in mind, Col. Lankford had the following message for his troops:

“As we move forward and take on unprecedented and challenging times, it’s more important than ever to check on your wingman. Reach out when you need someone to talk to.”

Col. Robert Lankford, Commander, 437AW

Read Col. Lankford’s full statement below: