POPE ARMY AIRFIELD, N.C. --
U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) to 51 mobility Airmen for their actions in Operation Allies Refuge (OAR) during a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 21, 2022.
In one of the largest DFC ceremonies in more than a decade, Pope Army Airfield’s Maj. Justin Cherry was one of the recipients. Cherry, the 43d Air Mobility Operations Group Chief of Weapons and Tactics was a C-17A pilot during the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“For 17 days, men and women gave their all to achieve a goal that seemed impossible, risked their lives to rescue people they didn’t know, and ultimately saved more than 124,000 lives. I am honored to have played just a small part in this historic event,” said Cherry.
During the ceremony Minihan commended the recipients for their valor and actions 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 from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“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.”
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 to a blacked-out runway and executed specific maneuvers to minimize time on the ground.
Cherry completed four evacuation flights out of Afghanistan, but it wasn’t the danger that stood out the most to him. “It was the looks in the eyes of more than 400 men, women, and children as they boarded the aircraft for a chance at something better. Outfitted with just a single bag and the clothes on their backs they left their homes with this indescribable look of fear, desperation, and hope,” he recalled.
As the pilot of the last plane to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport, Cherry described the final night as organized chaos.
“The final night went as well as you could ask,” he said. “The plan provided flexibility to execute, we did what we trained for. The goal was to be successful in each phase, focused on the next task at hand so that everyone makes it home. Weather pushed us below the original plan and towards terrain. Small arms fire was all around us that night, and upon landing the fires frequency reported unknown actors breaching security multiple times and snipers on nearby buildings. Less than an hour on the ground the perimeter was collapsed as the final five aircraft taxied for takeoff. As the last aircraft, when I lifted off the ground, I had the full picture of the other four in front of me departing into the night.”
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. Approved in a September awards board held by U.S. Air Forces Central Command, the awards presented by Minihan on Nov. 21 are among 96 DFCs and 12 Bronze Star Medals being bestowed upon U.S. Air Force personnel for their actions during OAR.
“In the mobility community you have the unique opportunity to deliver hope or hate,” Cherry mused. Without a doubt, the feats accomplished by mobility warriors during OAR were a delivery of hope.