NEWBURGH, N.Y. – Flying into a “hornet’s nest” is how one of the crew members of Reach 824 described the scene as their C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft approached Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as Taliban forces took the capital city last summer.
The crew of seven Airmen from the 105th Airlift Wing, New York National Guard, did not grasp the magnitude of their heroism at the time: Their successful completion of this airlift mission would earn them the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, each donned with the V device for valor, or the Meritorious Service Medal.
“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 June 4 at a ceremony to recognize the crew’s heroism.
“It is nothing short of inspiring to be in your company.”
Recognized were Capt. Matthew McChesney, Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend, Capt. Jonathan Guagenti, Tech. Sgt. Joseph Caponi IV, Staff Sgt. Evan Imbriglio, and Staff Sgt. Corey Berke.
The seventh member, Tech. Sgt. Byron Catu, on board the aircraft as a flying crew chief, was previously recognized with the Meritorious Service Medal.
“The Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Valor have been awarded to other great Americans such as Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr.,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard. “Today, the Air Force adds to this distinguished list of American Airmen heroes the crew of Reach 824.”
Reach 824’s extraordinary achievement and commitment to their mission, which put them at great personal risk, was recognized during a ceremony at Stewart Air National Guard Base.
“For more than 20 years, Air National Guard Airmen have been flying airlift missions into the Middle East and specifically into Afghanistan,” Loh said. “Guard aircraft were some of the first in theater, supporting a multitude of operations, and some of the last out of theater. Fittingly, it was our C-17s that were the last aircraft to leave Bagram and Kabul air bases during the withdrawal.”
Reach 824 diverted from a normal operations mission in South America to this Air Mobility Command mission to airlift 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.
Once on the ground, the rescue personnel were to seek out American assets in Afghanistan and recover them from the Kabul airport for immediate evacuation during Operation Allies Refuge.
The tactics and intelligence briefings the crew initially received indicated Taliban forces were approaching Kabul but would not be in position to overtake the city for a month or two. By the morning of their flight Aug. 15, the situation had drastically deteriorated and the Taliban were on the outskirts of the city.
Despite this, the crew pressed on.
“The situation was rapidly changing so we were going into this not knowing what was going on,” said McChesney, the aircraft commander. “We were just pressing forward because, honestly in my opinion, what other choice did we have?”
On their final approach, the crew had no secure communications with air traffic control, only with a C-17 Globemaster already on the ground. This aircraft’s crew reported heavy small arms fire, both military and civilian aircraft taking off in every direction, and panicked civilians overrunning the airfield. Reach 824 was forced to abort the mission and divert to Al Dhafra Air Base.
“After we turned around that first night, the whole crew felt disappointed, discouraged, upset because it was a hard decision to make, and I have no doubts that it was the right decision,” McChesney said. “I feel like that discouragement and disappointment only motivated us to want to get in there even more.”
After the minimum required crew rest, Reach 824 pressed on with a heightened sense of urgency. Despite limited information on whether the airfield was open or closed and a maintenance issue resulting in a two-hour delay, the crew pressed forward.
Under cover of night, Reach 824 navigated mountainous terrain on the approach to Kabul, passing a half-dozen C-17s unable to land due to the airfield closure, minimum fuel, or threats.
With no air traffic control or onsite intelligence, McChesney engaged with other Chinook pilots to glean real-time intelligence and establish a landing window when the runway would be cleared of civilians.
The Reach 824 crew orbited within a 10-mile radius, making them vulnerable to surface-to-air threats until they were forced to divert due to reaching minimum fuel.
In a critical turning point, efforts made earlier in the day by copilot Townsend to secure air refueling paid off when a KC-10 Extender aerial refueling tanker crew reached out. Knowing that securing additional refueling would continue to be challenging, McChesney coordinated for the tanker to fly in formation with them back to Kabul to increase their chances of success as much as possible.
“That changed everything because we knew how serious [our mission] was,” Catu said. “We knew the cargo we were carrying was really desperately needed by the people on the ground.”
Now, with enough fuel to orbit Kabul until the airfield opened, the crew set up for a 15-mile visual landing. On this final approach, they witnessed multiple instances of small arms fire under their flight path, one round damaging their left winglet. With no landing clearance, no terminal lights, and no building lights, the crew was given one simple instruction:
“Land at your own risk.”
Against all odds, Reach 824 safely landed at last. Once they touched down, they were confronted by 12 vehicles with heavily armed Taliban who escorted them to the allied side of the airfield. They made their way through taxiways littered with garbage, rocks, personal effects, stray animals, and abandoned cars and eventually lost radio contact with all controllers due to jamming.
Despite these hurdles, the crew offloaded the high-value cargo in an unprecedented 40 minutes, enabling the special operations team to conduct their mission of seeking and recovering American personnel for immediate evacuation.
“We found out through our contact with the unit that we brought in there that they were able to get over 800 people out from the countryside who otherwise would not have made it to Kabul,” said copilot Gaugenti. “So, if we did not complete our mission, that’s 800 people who would be stuck there still.”
However, Reach 824’s job wasn’t done yet. Over the two weeks of Operation Allies Refuge, the crew returned to Kabul to complete two additional missions to help evacuate 348 people, the youngest a 17-day-old girl.
In their final mission, the crew transported 13 service members killed in action in a bombing at the airport from Kabul to Kuwait.
“That was at the end of a long two weeks trying to figure everything out,” Guagenti said. “We were all exhausted. We thought we were going home. ... Not one of us hesitated, even as exhausted as we were.”
Reach 824’s steadfast commitment to the mission is just another example of their shared devotion to duty. This and the crew’s ability to problem-solve enabled their success and are qualities instilled in every Airman.
“The American military, the U.S. Air Force … we train our people to be thinking individuals, right?” said Townsend. “You have to train your people and trust that they’re going to get the mission done.”
Professional competence and the ability to produce creative solutions is something passed down through generations of Airmen at Stewart Air National Guard Base.
“There were so many guys before me, so many instructors who had taught me on missions how to make common-sense decisions,” McChesney said. “So, it was the guys who came before me who really molded me to be able to make these decisions.”
While McChesney emphasized the timing was just right for his crew to be assigned this mission, any of the 105th Airlift Wing’s Airmen would have jumped at the chance to help however they could.
“There’s a squadron full of pilots back at Stewart that would have done the same exact thing I did,” said McChesney. “I know there are guys that wanted to be there with me so bad that they would have done anything. There were guys actively trying to get to Afghanistan because all they wanted to do was help out.”
Service members make two choices, Hokanson said.
“The first choice is to serve,” he said. “The second choice is how we live. How we respond to a crisis. Do we fight? Do we run? Do we freeze? What do we choose to do when lives are on the line?”
It isn’t until a pivotal moment, a crisis, that we know for sure how we will respond, he said.
The crew members of Reach 824 know how they respond to extreme tests.
“You met crisis with conviction,” Hokanson told them. “With purpose. With valor.”