C-17 Guard Crew Honored for Valor During Kabul Airlift

One New York Air National Guardsman received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, and five of his fellow Airmen were awarded an Air Medal with Valor on June 4 in recognition of their actions aboard a C-17 during the noncombatant evacuation out of Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021.

Capt. Matthew McChesney, an instructor pilot with the 137th Airlift Squadron and a pilot with Delta Airlines in his civilian life, served as the aircrew commander for the mission and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation’s fourth-highest award for heroism.

Other members of the crew—Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend, Capt. Jonathan Guagenti, Tech. Sgt. Joseph Caponi IV, Staff Sgt. Evan Imbriglio, and Staff Sgt. Corey Berke—got Air Medals, and Tech. Sgt. Byron Catu, the flying crew chief for the mission, previously received the Meritorious Service Medal.

As part of Operation Allies Refuge, the Airmen from the 105th Airlift Wing and their C-17 were diverted from a previous mission in South America to fly a Special Operations Aviation Regiment MH-47 Chinook helicopter and 22 personnel from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, to Hamid Karzai International Airport, according to an Air Force release.

Initially, the C-17 had to turn back from Kabul, as the Taliban overran the capital city, the Afghan military collapsed, and hundreds of desperate civilians swarmed the air field.

But on their second attempt, the flight crew, call sign Reach 824, was able to position their aircraft to circle Kabul waiting for an opening to land—in part thanks to refueling from a KC-10 and its crew.

On final approach, the C-17 faced small arms fire from the ground, with one round striking a winglet. Upon landing, the crew unloaded its MH-47 Chinook and 22 personnel within 40 minutes amid a chaotic environment.

Gaugenti, one of the copilots on the mission, said in an Air Force release that the crew was later informed that the helicopter and personnel they transported into Kabul were able to move “over 800 people out from the countryside who otherwise would not have made it to Kabul.”

Over the next two weeks, Reach 824 returned to Kabul several times, evacuating 348 people, and, in their final mission, transporting the bodies of 13 service members, killed in a suicide bombing, from Kabul to Kuwait.

“I am grateful there are Americans who step forward to serve our nation, to kiss their families goodbye to join the fight, to tell their employers, ‘I know what we do is important, but right now my nation needs me, and I have to go,’ ” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during the ceremony recognizing the crew of Reach 824. “It is nothing short of inspiring to be in your company.” 

Reach 824 is the latest group of Airmen to be recognized for their bravery and valor during the airlift out of Kabul. Four Airmen who crewed a different C-17 were awarded DFCs in April after flying out 153 U.S. citizens, allied partners, and vulnerable Afghans as crowds still swarmed the flightline in some of the most chaotic moments of the operation.