Six airmen received the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors for their effort last summer to airlift military personnel and an MH-47 Chinook helicopter from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan while Taliban forces closed in.
The fliers – Capt. Matthnew McChesnney, Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend, Capt. Jonathan Guagenti, Tech Sgt. Joseph Caponi IV, Staff Sgt. Evan Imbriglio and Staff Sgt. Corey Berke, also received the Air Medal with V Device and Meritorious Service Medal. A seventh airman, Tech. Sgt. Byron Catu, had previously received the Meritorious Service Medal for his role in the mission.
They are members of Reach 824, a New York Air National Guard unit. Records show the crew had been on a mission to South America when they diverted to Afghanistan to airlift the helicopter and 22 personnel to Hamid Karzai from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. Even though a preflight briefing indicated that Taliban forces were perhaps months away from reaching the airport, the situation had “deteriorated” considerably by the time they arrived there, according to the Air Force.
They landed without secure communications from air traffic control, hearing sounds of small-arms fire in the background. Panicked civilians were scrambling across the airfield, while military and civilian aircraft continued to take off all around them. The chaos led them to abort their mission and divert to Al Dhafra. They got some rest and then headed back to Kabul under cover of the night, landing again without air traffic control or ground-based intelligence. They had to refuel in the air before determining that they should try to land.
Once on the tarmac, they immediately were surrounded by Taliban vehicles. The Taliban escorted them through the cluttered airfield and were able to offload their cargo, which special operations forces used to find and recover American personnel seeking evacuation.
“We found out … that they were able to get over 800 people out from the countryside that otherwise would not have made it out of Kabul,” said Gaugenti, the copilot.
Even with that accomplishment, their mission was not done. They returned to Kabul two more times during the next two weeks, as part of Operation Allies Refuge – rescuing 348 people in the process.