‘If It Has To Be Someone, Make It Me’; 8th AS commander details personal, squadron involvement in Operation Allies Refuge
Senior Airman Zoe Thacker, of the 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, at Joint Base Lewis-McCord is retelling the story of airlifting 9,100 individuals from Afghanistan and more than five million pounds of cargo. Thacker speaks with the 8th Airlift Squadron commander at JBLM, who recalls the mission he and his Airmen completed recently.
“The first thing that went through my mind when I was notified was that my crews are uniquely prepared to prevail in this kind of environment,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kyle Stewart, 8th Airlift Squadron commander.
He was describing his mindset prior to his unit participating in the Operation Allies Refuge, a U.S. military operation to airlift at-risk Afghan civilians, military personnel and cargo.
As the 8th AS commander, Stewart leads approximately 140 Airmen in executing the nation’s worldwide power projection capability. In August, he got the opportunity to be one of the first aircraft commanders to leave Joint Base Lewis-McChord and fly airlift missions to and from Kabul, Afghanistan, in support of the operation.
“We’ve been operating in Afghanistan for over two decades now and it is where my crews have cut their teeth in combat,” Stewart said.
The 8th AS, also known as the Workhorses, are very proficient in everything related to the C-17 Globemaster III. However, this was a unique operating environment considering the breach in airfield security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, continued Stewart.
From active-duty Airmen to all Total Force partners in Air Mobility Command, each individual played a crucial role during a sometimes exhausting, uncomfortable and time-sensitive situation.
“The way the crews overcame the challenges they were faced with to carry out our mission was inspiring and I think that’s something really special about Mobility Airmen,” Stewart said. “You put us in challenging environments and we figure out a way to get the job done.”
And get the job done, they did. In total, the 8th AS airlifted 9,100 individuals from Afghanistan and more than five million pounds of cargo.
“To me, being part of Operation Allies Refuge meant delivering hope and freedom to people who needed it,” Stewart said. “When I would go downstairs during flight and take a look across the faces of the passengers, it wasn’t hard to see similarities to my own family. I really felt for the hardship and desperate situation of these families.”
Not only did Stewart take pride in the ability to help those evacuating Afghanistan; he also took pride in watching 62nd Airlift Wing crews learn, plan and execute the mission.
“There was a point in time where we were operating C-17s out of Kabul every 34 minutes,” Stewart said. “We always found a way to get the mission done, despite many challenges thrown our way, and I would say that is a unique strength of C-17 crews.”
While pilots and copilots were engaged with safely operating the aircraft, loadmasters and Phoenix Ravens were occupied with managing the passengers.
“I would say the most challenging thing our crews had to overcome was floor-loading the hundreds of passengers in the aircraft, sometimes more than 700 passengers at a time,” Stewart said. “The amount of human suffering that can occur when these passengers – including desperate Afghan evacuees who have spent days waiting in line outside of the airport largely without food or water, some suffering from gunshot wounds or blast-related injuries, very pregnant women and people in desperate medical emergencies – are crammed into the plane was challenging. But we had to get as many people out as we could.”
Stewart credits the loadmasters who were “truly at the tip of the spear,” solving every complex problem that came their way. They overcame significant challenges during the on loading of passengers, the flight itself and the extended ground times while waiting for passengers to be escorted from the aircraft after arriving to the secondary location.
Stewart is proud of not only the way his Airmen executed the mission, but of the way they dove in wholeheartedly once they received word of the happenings in Afghanistan in early-August.
“My crews, no matter where they were – [whether] on leave, on other missions or at formal training — were calling and saying, ‘Send me,’” Stewart said. “That mentality is very unique to service members and my Airmen especially, because when our nation called and needed them, they were the first to stand up and say, ‘If it has to be someone, make it me.’”
Featured Image: U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kyle Stewart, 8th Airlift Squadron commander, leads approximately 140 Airmen in executing the nation’s worldwide power projection capability. In August, he got the opportunity to be one of the first aircraft commanders to leave Joint Base Lewis-McChord and fly airlift missions to and from Kabul, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Allies Refuge. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Zoe Thacker)