Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge

Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge

By Dario Leone
Nov 24 2022
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Despite the dangerous conditions, crews successfully landed their aircraft without lighting and executed mission maneuvers to minimize time on the ground.

US Air Force (USAF) 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., on Nov. 21, 2022.

As explained By Senior Airman Sara Jenkins, 628th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, in the article JB Charleston hosts largest DFC ceremony in decades, recognizes 51 mobility Airmen for heroic efforts during Afghanistan evacuation, 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.”

Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge
Distinguished Flying Cross recipients pose for a photo in front of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft after receiving their medals from US Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Wing Command, at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on Nov. 21, 2022. With a total of 51 recipients, the DFC ceremony was the largest of its kind in decades. 

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 US 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 US 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.

Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge
Distinguished Flying Cross recipients pose for a photo in front of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft after receiving their medals from US Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Wing Command, at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on Nov. 21, 2022. The Airmen earned the DFC through heroism during the largest non-combatant evacuation in American history.

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. In fact Operation Allies Refuge saw to the successful evacuation of 124,334 individuals from Afghanistan.

In detail Operation Allies Refuge was a United States military operation to airlift certain at-risk Afghan civilians, particularly interpreters, US embassy employees, and other prospective Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants from Afghanistan during the final days of the 2001–2021 War in Afghanistan. US personnel also helped NATO and regional allies in their respective evacuation efforts from Hamid Karzai International Airport in the country’s capital of Kabul. The operation was concurrent with the larger American military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the multinational evacuation of eligible foreigners and vulnerable Afghans.

SIV applicants were airlifted to the United States, where they were temporarily housed by the US military while they completed their SIV requirements.

Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge
US Air Force Capt. Rhea McFarland, 14th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot, is interviewed by local media after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross during a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on Nov. 21, 2022. McFarland is the first-ever female African American to be awarded the DFC.

The DFC, authorized by congress on Jul. 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.

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 US 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.

C-17 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. C-17A Globemaster III 60th Air Mobility Wing / 349th Air Mobility Wing, 21st Airlift Squadron, 06-6160 – Travis AFB, CA

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

Largest Distinguished Flying Cross ceremony in Decades honors 51 Airmen for heroic efforts during Operation Allies Refuge
US Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Wing Command, speaks to 51 Distinguished Flying Cross recipients during a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on Nov. 21, 2022. The Airmen earned the DFC through heroism during the largest non-combatant evacuation in American history.

Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Alex Fox Echols III / U.S. Air Force


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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