Two years after the chaos of the Afghanistan evacuation, the Pentagon has announced that many of the Marine Corps and Army units involved in the effort will be honored with a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest distinction that a military unit can receive.
Members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, and Joint Task Force 82 of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division will be recognized with the citation for their efforts during Operation Allies Refuge, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
Besides the Army and Marine Corps units, elements of 20 other units including active-duty and National Guard troops were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, according to an update from the Army Thursday evening.
As the final American soldier stepped onto an aircraft on Aug. 30, 2021, and the final C-17 Globemaster III prepared to depart Kabul, more than 124,000 people ranging from government employees to Afghan refugees had been flown to safety and more than two decades of U.S. military involvement in the country was left behind.
That massive and historic evacuation effort from Hamid Karzai International Airport also came at a major cost. When a suicide bomber struck at the airport's Abbey Gate during the rescue mission on Aug. 26, 13 troops -- 11 Marines, a sailor and a soldier -- were left dead, marking the final American casualties of the war. More than 20 other troops were wounded, and hundreds of Afghans also died or were harmed.
"Throughout America's longest war, our troops showed great courage and compassion," Austin said in a statement. "In the war's final days, the United States, along with our allies and partners, safely evacuated more than 124,000 civilians from Afghanistan, in the midst of the pandemic and in the teeth of danger."
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth praised the soldiers involved with the evacuation effort.
"The bravery of the soldiers on the ground and the dedication of those who supported every evacuation flight exemplify the ideals of service with honor and compassion," Wormuth said in a statement. "Until the last aircraft departed, the 82nd Airborne Division and members of JTF-82 held the line and provided the safe passage needed to evacuate over 100,000 U.S. citizens, Afghan civilians, and family members."
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Marines and sailors involved in the Afghanistan evacuation showed courage during what became the final collapse of the U.S.-backed government and order in Afghanistan as the Taliban, a longtime foe of American forces, took control of the country.
"For their courage and resolve in the face of a terrorism and human calamity, this nation owes our service members a debt of gratitude," Del Toro said. "I could not be more honored to recognize these truly exceptional Marines and sailors."
Austin also mentioned "supporting units," but it was not immediately clear which other groups would also receive the honor or whether others involved in the evacuation effort, such as National Guard units and Air Force support that helped evacuate civilians, would be included.
Among the U.S. military troops on the ground for the evacuation were National Guard units, such as the Minnesota Guard's Task Force 1-194 Armor and a small contingent from the Vermont National Guard 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry (Mountain), 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has given out hundreds of awards connected to airmen involved in the operation. The Department of the Air Force public affairs did not comment on Thursday's announcement and referred questions to the secretary of defense's office.
The Presidential Unit Citation dates back to 1941, when it was awarded for exceptional heroism and bravery in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is judged with the same intensity as individual awards for valor such as the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or Air Force Cross.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told Military.com on Thursday that the awards are an ongoing effort.
"In the statement that we put out today, it highlighted the units that have currently been awarded that recognition," Ryder said. "I'd refer you to the services right now for their current statuses. That's not to say there won't be others."
The citations are the latest in the saga of Afghanistan, which carries a complex and often painful legacy. The military withdrawal and earlier fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, stirred an array of emotions and strained the mental health of many of the troops and veterans who served in the longest war in U.S. history.
Military.com reported last year that a survey of 1,450 military community members who helped with the evacuation found that 41% of those who answered reported suffering from trauma as a result of the withdrawal. The survey was conducted by the Association of Wartime Allies, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Veterans for American Ideals.
That pain has not been erased for the families of those service members who were killed in the bombing at the airport either. This week, in testimony at a roundtable hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, many of those parents expressed their sorrow and concern over how President Joe Biden's administration handled the evacuation.
"The United States of America will again be called on to evacuate and to rescue vulnerable groups of people," said Christy Shamblin, the mother-in-law of fallen Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, according to CNN. "Please help us make positive changes so that we don't have to watch another parent walk through the hell that we are walking."
Editor's note: This story was updated with information from the Army on additional units receiving the award.
-- Konstantin Toropin and Steve Beynon contributed reporting.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.