ARLINGTON, Va. – National Guard members continue to provide aviation, security, and humanitarian assistance in support of efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan after explosions and gunfire rocked Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Thursday, killing 13 U.S. service members and wounding others.
“Terrorists took their lives at the very moment these troops were trying to save the lives of others,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “We mourn their loss. We will treat their wounds. And we will support their families in what will most assuredly be devastating grief.”
Service members remain focused on the mission, said Austin.
“We will not be dissuaded from the task at hand,” he said.
The mission continues to be an important one, said Lt. Col. Charles Ohrel, with the New York Air National Guard, who played a pivotal role in coordinating Air Force flights in and out of Afghanistan.
“Our mission is essential,” he said. “It is to return U.S. citizens and provide safe passage to our Afghan allies that served among us. We will continue Operation Allies Refuge until the mission is complete.”
On orders with U.S. Africa Command at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Ohrel was brought over to support coordination efforts to schedule the influx of crews and aircraft for Afghanistan evacuation flights.
“When the Afghan [evacuation] mission started, there weren’t enough people to run the missions,” said Ohrel. “It was just me.”
Ohrel and Master Sgt. Jeffrey Maldonado, also with the New York Air Guard, set the stage for follow-on support.
“We helped set up the Afghan [mission] stage crew managers that arrived and the crews that came in with them, and built the tracker for the Afghan mission,” said Ohrel.
That gave the six new stage managers and 10 new crews who arrived Aug. 15 the ability to jump right into the operation, he said.
Currently, 19 Air National Guard aircrews flying 11 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft have been flying out of Hamid Karzai Airport, providing Americans and Afghans safe passage out of Kabul.
“There are a lot of good people that I’ve met over the years, Afghans that worked with us, so it means a lot to be able to be directly helping with what’s happening in Kabul,” said Capt. Matt McChesney, a C-17 pilot with the 105th Airlift Wing, New York Air Guard, who has flown some of those evacuation flights.
On Aug. 13, McChesney and his crew, currently based in the Middle East, were at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York, awaiting orders to begin a routine cargo flight to Colombia. That changed to a cargo mission to a base in the Middle East and two days later, after the events unfolded in Afghanistan, the C-17 pilot found himself transporting hundreds fleeing the country.
“It was eye opening for us,” said McChesney. “We didn’t know the gravity of the situation until we landed and saw it on the news.”
Air Guard members have also been flying refueling operations over Afghanistan and remotely piloted aircraft are providing overwatch capability.
More than 1,100 Soldiers with the Minnesota Army National Guard’s Task Force 1-194, who was deployed to Kuwait, are on the ground in Kabul, providing security and humanitarian assistance at the airport.
“The Soldiers of Task Force 1-194 were called upon to execute a challenging mission, and they have done so with professionalism,” said Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, the task force commander. “They have shown strength, compassion, and resolve despite danger and difficulty.”
Additionally, A small contingent from the Vermont Army National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain) arrived in Kabul earlier this month to support security operations at the airport. Additional units from 3-172nd Inf. Regt. (MTN) are supporting Special Immigration Visa holders processing through locations within U.S. Central Command.