97 AMW Airmen Share Operation Allies Welcome Experiences

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Trenton Jancze
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

From overseas in Qatar to stateside at Holloman and McGuire Air Force Bases, from medical operations to lodging, many Airmen from the 97th Air Mobility Wing were called upon to assist in Operation Allies Welcome.

According to U.S. Northern Command, the Department of Defense was tasked with providing temporary housing, transportation and general support to up to 50,000 Afghan refugees during Operation Allies Welcome.

On Jan. 21 and 28, several of these deployed Airmen had the opportunity to share their stories and experiences during open-panel discussions at Altus AFB, Oklahoma.

The panelists were divided into Airmen currently stationed at Altus AFB and others that had been previously stationed at Altus AFB, whether as an instructor or student in training.

The panel on the first day was composed of: U.S. Air Force Capt. Nicholas Martin, 97th Medical Group doctor, 1st Lt. Isaac Chung, 97th Operations Support Squadron intelligence officer, Senior Master Sgt. Byron Ball, 97th Training Squadron first sergeant, Master Sgt. Matthew Sims, 97th Force Support Squadron superintendent of manpower and organization, Tech. Sgt. Andrew Hayden, 97th Civil Engineer Squadron NCOIC of asset management, Staff Sgt. Kevin Campbell, 97th Medical Group NCOIC of occupational health, and Airman 1st Class Dominic Avila, 97th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller.  

During the operation, medical care played a part in supporting the refugees as they transitioned stateside, and Martin was one of the medical care professionals that met with those in need of care.

“I did have some of my most rewarding experiences as a physician there,” said Martin. “I actually saw people’s lives change.”

Martin said he had the opportunity to help an Afghan paraplegic athlete whose goal is to make it to the Olympics. He also helped many individuals with their anxiety and depression, but with that came excitement for their new future.

Campbell shared a similar sense of emotion during his deployment as well.

“It was humbling and surreal,” said Campbell. “One of the people I worked closely with was at Ground Zero. Him being at Ground Zero was the whole reason he enlisted. Being with someone who was there when everything started, and working side by side with him, seeing how he threw himself into the mission, that made it very humbling and rewarding.”

Across the panel, there were many stories with different senses of emotion. According to the reaction of the audience, the second panel discussion included just as wide a variety of emotions as the first did. 

On Jan. 28, the second group of panelists spoke, which included Lt. Col. Eric Kut, 6th Airlift Squadron aircraft commander and former instructor pilot at Altus AFB, Capt. Cory Jackson, 6th AS aircraft commander, and Capt. Mark Lawson, 6th AS copilot. The three pilots received their training at Altus AFB during their careers.

These Airmen, who flew as a crew on a C-17 Globemaster III last fall, shared how they directly supported Operation Allies Welcome.

One of their more memorable flights was one that changed the mission entirely. 

“We were supposed to do a simple mission,” said Kut. “We were supposed to drop off cargo and pick up a couple military working dogs… You can see stuff going on around the perimeter.”

Kut said a wave of people were coming at the plane, heading towards them with bullets flying overhead. Instead of enemy combatants, however, these were men, women and children trying to escape their country. 

“There were several memorable moments,” said Lawson. “When we went wheels up, everyone cheered. Wheels down, everyone cheered… I remember someone said ‘only America would come and save us.’” 

Even with the quickly changing conditions, the Airmen were able to adapt and overcome the circumstances. 

“When something happens that all this (training) didn’t specifically cover, it really gets you into the basics,” said Lawson. “When things happen dynamically, you can always go back to your basics. Remembering what it is that you can do, giving yourself options and moving forward because you never want to be placed into a corner where you don’t have options.”

A record-setting 823 Afghan evacuees were lifted that night out of Kabul. The aircrew’s training and adaptability contributed to safely and effectively accomplishing their mission as well as achieving an additional objective

The 97th Air Mobility Wing’s vision is to be “A premier installation forging the world’s most inspired, proficient and adaptive mobility warriors to deliver airpower for America.” 

“Listening to the panel was such an inspiration,” said Staff Sgt. Jeff Michal, 54th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator. “These Airmen had to make a split second decision that wasn’t a part of their primary mission, but they remained agile and were able to save hundreds of people in the process. We don’t know what the future fight will bring, but Airmen like these are a great example of proficiency and adaptability.”