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JB Charleston hosts largest DFC ceremony in decades, recognizes 51 mobility Airmen for heroic efforts during Afghanistan evacuation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sara Jenkins
  • 628th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, awarded 51 Distinguished Flying Crosses to mobility Airmen for their actions in Operation Allies Refuge, during a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., Nov. 21, 2022. 

Not only was the DFC ceremony the largest of its kind in decades, but also, according to the Distinguished Flying Cross Society’s president and board, Capt. Rhea McFarland, 14th Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot, and Capt. Leslie Green, 375th Air Expeditionary Squadron flight nurse, are the first female African Americans to be awarded the DFC in the 96-year history of the award.

“The men and women from this installation were ready to do whatever it took to deliver the forces needed to secure the Kabul airport and then to evacuate and save as many lives as possible,” Minihan said. “It’s what they did next that displayed heroism and selfless devotion to duty – the reason for today’s ceremony.”

The DFC recipients consisted of pilots, loadmasters, flying crew chiefs, and a flight nurse.

Most of the day’s DFC recipients were aircrew from the 437th Airlift Wing, recognized for their participation in the final U.S. flights in and out of Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021. As they entered the airspace surrounding Hamid Karzai International Airport, crews observed air defense artillery, flares, and heavy machine gun fire, as well as reports of rooftop snipers in the area.

Despite the dangerous conditions, crews successfully landed their aircraft without lighting and executed mission maneuvers to minimize time on the ground. A compromised airfield meant a risky departure, but they took off in formation with all remaining U.S. military forces accounted for and safely on board.

During the ceremony, Minihan also presented DFCs to a 315th AW aircrew for successfully delivering a baby while in flight. With limited medical equipment and only one trained medic on board, the team delivered the baby and cared for the mother and child while also evacuating 456 vulnerable Afghans.

The remaining DFC recipients, from the 437th AW, heroically executed OAR missions despite multiple dangerous and chaotic breaches of HKIA. During one mission, when thousands of people breached the airfield, they were ordered to depart immediately. As aircrew quickly prepped the aircraft for departure, they discovered an electrical malfunction. The quick and decisive maintenance actions taken by the flying crew chief got his crew out of a perilous situation.

During OAR, the largest non-combatant evacuation in American history, each of these 51 Airmen went into a dangerous environment to evacuate tens of thousands of refugees in just 17 days. The DFC, authorized by congress on July 2, 1926, is the fourth highest award for extraordinary achievement and is the highest award for heroism while participating in aerial flight.

“I’m honored to have received the Distinguished Flying Cross alongside my crew, and to have played a role in a team of service members and allies to evacuate over 124,000 people,” McFarland said. “I’m grateful to help showcase what mobility warriors bring to the fight!”

Most of the DFCs were awarded with the “C” device, which was established in 2016 to symbolize that the medal was earned for exceptionally meritorious service or achievement performed under combat conditions.

“Today is a powerful day to honor the giants among us. It’s been 15 months since our nation’s sons and daughters displayed their selfless duty,” Minihan said. “To the warriors of the front rows today, and to the families whose pride has always swelled for your Airman, who instantly recognize their heroism and valor, this recognition is long overdue.”

The awards presented by Minihan on Nov. 21 are among 96 DFCs and 12 Bronze Star Medals approved in a September awards board held by U.S. Air Forces Central Command. A total of 57 JB Charleston Airmen are being recognized with the DFC. The remaining DFC recipients who were unable to attend this ceremony will be recognized at a subsequent ceremony scheduled for Jan. 4, 2023.

Minihan presented the DFC to the following Airmen:
Lt. Col. Trey Adams, 701st Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot
Lt. Col. Braden Coleman, 15th AS C-17 pilot
Lt. Col. Alexander Pelbath, 437th Operations Group director of C-17 special operations
Maj. Jay Campbell, 8th AS C-17 pilot 
Maj. Justin Cherry, 43rd Operations Support Squadron C-17 pilot
Maj. William Cuchens, 701st AS C-17 pilot
Maj. David Gantt, 701st AS C-17 pilot
Maj. Joseph Granatelli, 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron C-17 pilot
Maj. Ryan Versen, 156th AS C-17 pilot
Maj. Kirby Wedan, 14th AS director of operations and C-17 pilot
Capt. Mark Altobelli, 15th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Charles Armstrong, 16th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Howlett Cohick, 16th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Dennis Connor, 701st AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Spencer Dewey, 437th OSS C-17 pilot
Capt. Kenneth Di Giovanni, 16th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Amanda Edgren, 14th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Derrin Gelston, 437th OSS C-17 pilot
Capt. Leslie Green, 375th Air Expeditionary Squadron flight nurse
Capt. Kevin Hart, 14th AS C-17 pilot
Capt. Chris Hoffman, 15th Airlift Squadron C-17
Capt. Rhea McFarland, 14th AS C-17 pilot
1st Lt. Jon-Michael Hollarn, 16th AS C-17 pilot
Master Sgt. Joshua Martin, 437th OG loadmaster
Master Sgt. Liam McPhail, 14th AS loadmaster
Master Sgt. Leah Schmidt, 701st AS loadmaster
Tech. Sgt. Jerry Daniels, 16th AS loadmaster
Tech. Sgt. Chase Gautschi, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief
Tech. Sgt. Dennis Gonzalez-Furman, 354th Special Warfare Training Support Squadron student and flying crew chief
Tech. Sgt. Jacorey Grimes, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief
Tech. Sgt. Dennis Hiott, 701st AS loadmaster
Tech. Sgt. David Riggins, 437th OG loadmaster 
Tech. Sgt. Ethan Schaffner, 437th AMXS MASOP
Tech. Sgt. Brett Yoakum, Air National Guard, 155th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Kevin Coleman, 437th AMXS flying crew chief
Staff Sgt. Robert Gillespie, 437th OG loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Emmanuel Gomez, 14th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Alexander Herman, 16th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Zach Lewis, 14th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Matthew Link, 16th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Brandon Malacara, 437th OG loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Sean McPadden, 437th AMXS MASOP
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Miller-Assous, 14th AS loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Dane Schulte, 728th AMXS, MASOP
Staff Sgt. Cody Schultz, 437th OG loadmaster
Staff Sgt. Tyler Slavin, 437th AMXS MASOP
Staff Sgt. Samuel Weaver, 736th AMXS MASOP
Staff Sgt. Trevor Woods, 437th AMXS MASOP
Senior Airman Christian Hoffman, 16th AS loadmaster
Senior Airman Christopher Symes, 14th AS loadmaster
Senior Airman Christopher Warman, 437th OSS loadmaster