By Staff Sgt. Rachel Williams, 62d Airlift Wing Public Affairs.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Hundreds of Airmen, friends and family members gathered as U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Reed, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, recognized four Mobility Warfighters for their extraordinary aerial achievements during Operation ALLIES REFUGE with the Distinguished Flying Cross at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Dec. 20, 2022.
“This [award] isn’t anything that you set out to achieve,” said Reed. “When you were sent into uncertainty, when the battle, the war, life and the world presented something to us, you stood up at the moment.”
Reed presented the Distinguished Flying Cross with “C” device to the following Airmen:
- Capt. Thomas Jividen
- Capt. Bandna Choudhary
- Master Sgt. Eric Pietras
- Tech. Sgt. Justin Lyles
Three additional Airmen with the 62d Airlift Wing received DFCs at separate ceremonies within AMC:
- Maj. Jay Campbell received his DFC at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina
- Capt. Cody Apfel received his DFC at Travis Air Force Base, California
- Tech. Sgt. Chase Gautschi received his DFC at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina
The DFC is the highest award for extraordinary achievement in the U.S. military. All four of the honorees also received the “C” device for exceptionally meritorious service or achievement under combat conditions.
Choudhary, Pietras and Lyles represented crews MOOSE 81 and MOOSE 92; two of the five aircraft that departed Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar, on the final flight into Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021.
As the C-17 Globemaster IIIs were flying into the airspace surrounding HKIA, the crews observed air defense artillery, flares, and heavy machine gun fire on the approach, with further reports placing rooftop snipers in the area.
Despite these hazardous conditions, along with deteriorating weather and high terrain, all the crews sprang into action, maximizing the capabilities of the aircraft to tactically land on an unsecured airfield.
Upon landing, Choudhary, a pilot, secured the aircraft for the existing ground threat by expeditiously completing the complex ground maneuvering that was required. In just under 60 minutes, Pietras and Lyles, both loadmasters, loaded the remaining U.S. personnel and their highly sensitive equipment onto their respective jets.
At the completion of ground maneuvers and obtaining full accountability of all remaining American forces onboard the aircraft, it was time to depart the airfield.
Assuming the risk for a departure with no controllers and a compromised airfield, MOOSE 81 and MOOSE 92 were two of the last five aircraft to depart HKIA.
“We had some people who generated a tremendous amount of courage. They took a situation where everything was going wrong, and they were the difference to having something truly amazing go incredibly correct,” exclaimed Reed.
Jividen was recognized for his extraordinary actions on Aug. 15, 2021.
Jividen commanded a non-combatant evacuation mission in support of OAR. He was exposed to significant risk of hostile action while flying in and out of HKIA. A breach in the airfield’s security perimeter placed Jividen and his crew under a constant threat of small arms fire and dozens of people jostling to enter.
Jividen’s crew offloaded over 100 Soldiers with the 82d Airborne Division and loaded 200 vetted Afghan personnel, just 12 more than the aircraft’s designated maximum occupancy.
With the 82d AD leading the way, Jividen was able to safely taxi through hundreds of civilians on the airfield and safely execute a daylight tactical departure, despite dangerous runway incursions.
“While I wasn’t on the aircraft with you, I did have the honor, the joy, and to a certain extent the pain, of looking into the faces and the eyes of those you saved,” said Reed. “The one thing that they knew was that being on your airplane, they were safe; they had hope; and they were about to start a new future.”
Operations ALLIES REFUGE, the largest non-combatant evacuation in American history, resulted in the safe evacuation of 124,334 individuals from Afghanistan.
“It will be years before you truly understand just how big of a difference you made,” said Reed. “But thanks to you … we can take tremendous pride in the fact that our military, our Air Force, our members of McChord are ready any day of the week, any hour of the day or night, and we can trust that you’ll always get it done.”