The Army and Marine Corps units that rushed to Afghanistan in August 2021 to oversee the evacuation of more than 124,000 civilians from Kabul in roughly two weeks will receive the Presidential Unit Citation, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Thursday.
Troops will be able to wear the award if they were assigned to those units for those missions. But some troops told Task & Purpose that the unit awards should be paired with further individual awards for so-far unacknowledged acts of heroism by individual service members.
Awarded for extraordinary heroism on vital missions, the Presidential Unit Citation is the highest honor that a military unit can receive. The award has gone to units that parachuted or stormed ashore on D-Day, the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama Bin Laden, and Coast Guard units behind that service’s full-throttle response to Hurricane Katrina.
“In recognition of teams that operated and excelled under these difficult and dangerous conditions, I am proud to announce the approval of the Presidential Unit Citation for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, and Joint Task Force 82 of the 82nd Airborne Division and its supporting units,” Austin said in a statement recognizing the second anniversary of the end of the Afghanistan War.
The move comes as belated appreciation for soldiers with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, who braved enemy fire to transport about 10,000 Americans and Afghans to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, from where they were flown to safety.
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Several soldiers who served with the brigade at the time told Task & Purpose last year that many helicopter crews who were initially nominated for Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Stars had their awards downgraded by the brigade’s leadership.
“Mike,” an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot who served with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade during the evacuation, told Task & Purpose on Tuesday that he and his crew were shot at as they flew missions, but his unit’s leadership refused to award the soldiers Combat Badges and other military decorations.
“I was recognized more by Boeing, the U.S. defense company that makes the helicopter that I fly, than I was by my own brigade commander,” said Mike, who spoke on condition of anonymity and is being identified by a pseudonym to avoid potential reprisal.
Mike said he feels the reason why soldiers in the brigade did not receive individual valor awards is that such recognition would underscore that U.S. troops had to step up in the absence of good leadership.
“I think the DoD internally recognizes it was a disaster, but it’s trying to move on and decided some hand-wave unit awards are the way to least-acknowledge it while still doing ‘something,’” Mike said.
“Ralph,” a helicopter crew chief during the evacuations, said he believes the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade deserves the Presidential Unit Citation because the brigade did amazing things during the evacuation.
But Ralph, who is also being identified by a pseudonym, said he also thinks the Presidential Unit Citation is not a substitute for individual awards.
“Many of the maintainers, pilots, and crew members did things above and beyond their scope of duty, and in my personal belief weren’t adequately recognized for it,” Ralph told Task & Purpose.
On Thursday, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth praised soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division and Joint Task Force 82, or JTF-82, for showing “heroic discipline and courage” during the Kabul evacuation.
“The bravery of the Soldiers on the ground and the dedication of those who supported every evacuation flight exemplify the ideals of service with honor and compassion,” Wormuth said in a statement. “Until the last aircraft departed, the 82nd Airborne Division and members of JTF-82 held the line and provided the safe passage needed to evacuate over 100,000 U.S. citizens, Afghan civilians, and family members. It is a privilege to recognize these Soldiers for their actions during the tumultuous days of August 2021 and to honor their courage at a time when the entire Nation relied on them to complete their mission – which they did with great distinction.”
The evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport was the last episode in America’s longest war. After the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, U.S. Marines and other troops flew in on close to no-notice with orders to guard the airport as thousands of desperate Afghans tried to make their way inside, desperate for a flight out.
“People were suffering from extreme malnutrition, dehydration, heat casualties, and infants were dying,” Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews told Congress in March. “Afghans [who] were brutalized and tortured by the Taliban flocked to us, pleading for help. Some Afghans turned away from HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] tried to kill themselves on the razor wire in front of us that we used as a deterrent. They thought this was merciful compared to the Taliban torture that they faced.”
In an iconic moment captured on video, six Marines standing on the airport’s wall lifted an Afghan baby over concertina wire to safety. Another Marine later told investigators how he rescued a 1 or 2-year-old girl in a red dress and her mother from the crowd to keep them from being trampled.
The Marines and other U.S. troops at the airport’s Abbey Gate were in a particularly vulnerable position. Marine Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who led the joint task force crisis response at Kabul Airport, wanted to close Abbey Gate on the evening of Aug. 25, but Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, who led the 82nd Airborne Division at the time, decided to keep the gate open until Aug. 27 to allow the British to complete their evacuation efforts, an investigation later found.
On Aug. 26, 2021, a fighter with the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan branch detonated a suicide bomb outside Abbey Gate, killing 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghans. Among those killed was Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, who had recently posted a picture on Instagram showing her cradling an Afghan baby along with the caption, “I love my job.”
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said on Thursday that the United States owes a debt of gratitude to the Marines and sailors who served with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command during the evacuation.
“These service members worked tirelessly to assist U.S. citizens, U.S. government officials, and thousands of desperate Afghan civilians trying to flee their country,” Del Toro said in a statement. “I could not be more honored to recognize these truly exceptional Marines and Sailors.”
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