Air Force colonel recalls the last flights out of Kabul in one of the largest evacuations in history
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One year ago, Col. Colin McClaskey was on one of the last U.S. military flights out of Kabul. He was the Air Force Colonel responsible for the control, operation and maintenance of the airfield and runways during the messy Afghan withdrawal.
McClaskey was a critical piece to what became the largest evacuation in history, as 778 flights evacuated 124,334 people over 17 days. On average, 7,500 civilians were evacuated daily with the high point being on Aug. 23, when more than 21,600 left aboard all types of aircraft departing every 34 minutes.
McClaskey had been on a mission in Africa when he got the call to go to Afghanistan. Instead of going home, he would be sent to help end the 20-year war.
“I got a phone call that said, ‘This is going on in Afghanistan. We need you to go,’” McClaskey explained to Fox News.
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Aug. 16 was the day the airfield was overrun with people desperate to get out. It was also the day McClaskey and his team tried to land.
He was seated in the cockpit of a C-17 flying over Kabul watching the pilots try to land. “Those folks tried everything they could to get into Kabul, short of landing on people,” McClaskey said.
The crew coordinated a tanker to try to get some extra loiter time, as the people below were clinging onto planes. Hours later, early on the morning of Aug. 17, McClaskey and his team touched down and got to work. He and his team had to rapidly repair radars, airfield lighting, refueling capabilities, ground servicing equipment and vehicles.
McClaskey assessed the situation on the ground: “These are families running away with whatever they have, whatever they can carry. And our troops. And when I saw our troops, not just Americans, but over 30 nations had folks there, too. So, trying to protect them and then finally to protect our aircraft.”
Crowd control was a huge concern after the images he had seen on TV. Instead of shooting into the crowd, McClaskey decided to use C-wire, a type of barbed wire that unrolls very quickly. “If someone wanted to jump over it, they probably could. But it’s enough of a deterrent that it could help reduce some of that crowding,” he said.
C-RAM, a counter-artillery system, would also be used to shoot down incoming artillery rounds. A huge concern of McClaskey’s was protecting all the desperate people from threats like the Taliban and ISIS-K.
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Then there were the operations of the airfield itself. “I had a damaged air traffic control tower, but I didn’t have the air traffic controllers that I needed or the communication systems that I needed,” he related.
The air-traffic controllers that were there ended up operating out of a tent called “Kabul Tower Two,” an ode to the damaged and unusable air traffic control tower.
Junk had also piled up on the runway. “Suitcases, mattresses, personal belongings, China sets, you name it, were just dropped on the ramp. Well, the more of those that piled up, the less aircraft could park there,” McClaskey explained.
Forklifts were used to move some of the equipment and other heavy items. The 621 Contingency Response Wing Airmen serviced, unloaded, repaired and loaded 721 of the 778 aircraft that transited Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), servicing an average of four aircraft simultaneously 24/7.
McClaskey is proud of the work they did: “Our organization prides itself on having the ability to work two aircraft at the same time. And there were times we got up to 17 aircraft at the same time.”
McClaskey highlighted the bravery of U.S. servicemembers and what Americans being there meant to the people trying to escape.
“Imagine people come across a barrier with their families and everything they have, and they’re doing whatever they can to get to safety. In this case, safety had a big American flag on the back of it,” he said.
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Roughly half of the U.S. Air Force fleet of 222 C-17s were used during this operation. Three children were born onboard evacuation flights, with a dozen others born shortly after landing. Operation Stork was born.
McClaskey used his skills as a father to help with the logistics of taking care of babies.
“Whether it was figuring out the formula problem set… How do we make sure that we have safe, clean water to mix with powdered formula, so it has the longest shelf life? And then working with some of our young folks who haven’t had children to help them understand the importance of making sure there’s clean diapers and lots of baby wipes and things like that. It was powerful,” he said.
But it was not only infants and women. There were plenty of elderly people struggling in the crowds, as well.
“There were so many elderly or very disabled people that couldn’t walk or couldn’t get out there. And we didn’t have wheelchairs or whatever else, but we had thousands of caring people,” McClaskey said.
By far the hardest day for McClaskey and his team was when a suicide bomber blew up at Abbey Gate, killing 13 young American servicemembers. At one point, the airfield lost electricity and several thousand Afghans were sitting in the dark. A young girl approached McClaskey. He tried to reassure her.
“She was just bawling and bawling and bawling,” said McClaskey, who gave her hope and made sure she got out with her family.
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“‘And I can tell you, you will be in California,’ which is where she wanted to go and stay with her uncle. I said, ‘You’ll be back in California before I am,’ and she was. She left within an hour after that.”
He also noticed how good the young girl’s English was. It was better than her brothers. McClaskey believes some of these young girls that escaped the Taliban are going to make it big one day.
“I will be shocked if we don’t see one or two of those young ladies make it big, whether that’s in pop culture or media or something. But they were driven and they are now unbound. They will go have great lives,” he said.
McClaskey and his team were among the last American servicemembers to fly out of Kabul on Aug. 30.
Later that night, the final five C-17s flew into HKIA under the cover of darkness and loaded specialized equipment and more than 800 remaining U.S. military personnel in a period of three hours before departing at 11:59 p.m. local time.
“We made a very determined push several days prior to make sure that any ammunition, anything of that nature, anything that could be used for a military purpose was either disabled or not there anymore,” said McClaskey.
Sitting in the back of the plane headed for Germany, the servicemen and servicewomen with him were exhausted from what they had just accomplished. But McClaskey couldn’t sleep. All he wanted to do was call his wife, so she could let the other military families know that he and his team were OK.
“I couldn’t wait to call her and let her know that not that I was out and safe, but that every single one of our American airmen were out,” he said.
McClaskey’s team was headed to Ramstein, Germany, because he wanted them to have a three-day mental health check to decompress and unpack everything they had just seen with professional help.
“I’ve seen a lot of things from the disaster in Indonesia in my career, but I hadn’t seen anything like this, and I knew if this was shocking to me, this was going to be very difficult for a lot of our young folks,” he explained.
McClaskey said he is thankful he did it, but the trauma of how the war ended and the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate still haunts him. He says it is important to talk about the mission they accomplished and what they experienced.
“People need to just talk about it, especially those of us that were involved in it,” said McClaskey.
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Reflecting on those weeks, he said, “I think every day about those young Americans who are still living with the scars from that and will the rest of their lives. And I just hope that they know that we didn’t give up.”
Still, McClaskey is grateful for the mission he helped to accomplish: “I look back on that and I was like, man, I was tired, but God, I was grateful that we got all of those Americans out of there safely and then so many other people.”
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