For more than two weeks in August 2021, during the frenzied evacuation of more than 124,000 at-risk Afghans and Americans from Kabul, it was United States Marines who ran a key part of the operation: air traffic control.
The Air Force led the evacuation, ferrying people out on roughly half of its 222 C-17 transport jets and caring for evacuees throughout their journeys out of Afghanistan. Airmen have since gotten widespread recognition for the central role they played in the airlift, even as the Biden administration has come under criticism for its handling of the evacuation.
But more than 2,000 Marines, a majority of them from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, also assisted in the evacuation, providing security for Hamid Karzai International Airport and processing the many evacuees.
And a small team of Marines from the 24th MEU, using one hand-held radio to coordinate with aircraft, helped manage the chaos as planes flew in and out of the airport at all hours.
Three Marines so far have received Bronze Stars for efforts coordinating air support; they, along with a fourth Marine air traffic controller, spoke with Marine Corps Times in interviews in fall 2022.
At first, on Aug. 13, 2021, only four Marines from the 24th MEU’s Marine Air Control Group-28 Detachment flew to Kabul from Kuwait after having sailed to the Arabian Sea on amphibious assault ships.
The information available to them at that point had given them only a “vague understanding” of the airport’s operations, said Gunnery Sgt. Julio JoseMendez, one of those four Marines. But the Marines did what they could to prepare with the time and resources they had.
The Marine Air Control Group-28 Marines had gained much of their knowledge about Hamid Karzai International Airport online while on the ship that had taken them east, using laptops connected to the ship’s spotty Wi-Fi, according to JoseMendez.
Air traffic controllers typically have to be much more familiar with the particular airspace before they are qualified to operate there, said Master Sgt. Kevin Haunschild, one of the four Marine Air Control Group-28 Marines deployed on Aug. 13, 2021.
But meeting with the civilian contractors handling air traffic control helped give the Marines a better sense of air traffic control at the airport.
“And then August 15 happens, and everything goes crazy,” JoseMendez said. “That’s when the Taliban took over Kabul.”
The Marines helped the civilian air traffic controllers relocate to a more secure control tower. As a crowd of evacuees started to encroach on that tower, the Marines held them back — using “non-lethal crowd control measures,” according to the summary of action for JoseMendez’s Bronze Star. At the same time, U.S. military helicopters also flew over the crowd to disperse them.
Capt. Zackary Dahl, the officer in charge of the Marine Air Control Group-28 element said the Marines did it as humanely as possible: by talking with them and telling them to push back. The people in the crowd were scared and just trying to get help, he stressed.
On Aug. 15, 2021, Haunschild was tasked with rescuing an Afghan air traffic controller who was stranded in a crowd of people that included both Afghans desperate to flee the country and some members of the Taliban. Haunschild and a soldier wended their way through the crowd, bringing body armor to the civilian and taking him to their tactical truck.
While they were on the way back to safety, gunfire from an unknown source sprayed the truck, Haunschild recalled. But the mission was successful. Both the civilian and his “mission-essential radio equipment” were safe, the Marine Corps later said in a news release about a Bronze Star Haunschild received.
By Aug. 16, 2021, the civilian controllers had evacuated the airport altogether. That left two Marine Air Control Group-28 air traffic controllers — Haunschild and JoseMendez — to coordinate planes’ arrivals and departures.
That day, thousands of people swarmed the runway, according to Haunschild. Marines tried to grab onto some of them to prevent them from getting in front of the planes. But as one C-17 was about to take off, the crowd surged forward again.
Despite Marines’ best efforts, some Afghans, desperate to leave their country, clung to the bottom of the plane.
Haunschild remembers hearing lots of yelling as it became clear what these people were trying to do. But as the plane took off and they dropped from the sky, a silence fell.
At one point that night, small arms fire hit the dirt and portable toilet six feet from where the Marines were operating, according to JoseMendez’s summary of action.
Already tired from barely sleeping the past few days, the two nevertheless monitored the radio and the sky nonstop except for occasional short naps, until 10 more troops from Marine Air Control Group-28 flew in on Aug. 17, 2021.
With the arrival of then-Sgt. Ian Chryst, an air traffic controller who is now a staff sergeant, the three Marines could work in 12-hour shifts. The long, busy days blurred together, JoseMendez said.
“That’s a long time to control aircraft, especially with the amount of aircraft that was coming in and out of the airport,” Dahl said.
On Aug. 20, 2021, a few air traffic controllers from the Air Force joined the team, according to Haunschild, who said the additional controllers provided a great relief for the Marines.
The Marines slept in barracks at the airport, and on the way to the control point, they would walk through the processing facility where the refugees awaited their futures with all their possessions in small bags, Chryst recalled. He said it was like a small cardboard city. Walking past it was a humbling reminder for him of the adversity the refugees were going through, and of what privilege he had in being a U.S. citizen.
Working under a tailgate-style tent to shield them from the baking sun, the Marines handled about 110 flights per day with no aircraft mishaps, according to JoseMendez’s written justification for his Bronze Star. They were close to the aircraft, close enough that the landing and taking off were loud in their ears, according to Chryst.
Dahl coordinated the sharing of information from the air traffic control tent to the airport’s joint operations center to 33 agencies representing 31 allied and coalition nations, according to his award citation.
The captain likened the process to a game of telephone: A Marine would sit in the tent, take notes on what the radio communications and send that information to the joint operations center, which would relay it to the agencies.
“[It] was instrumental to the entire operation — knowing where aircraft are at, how many people are on the aircraft, how much fuel is on the aircraft, how much cargo was on the aircraft,” Haunschild said of Dahl’s work. “That’s the kind of information that was being passed around in real time, and he was able to create that.”
One persistent challenge the air traffic controllers faced was preventing vehicles from crossing the runway. The Marines had the ability to communicate directly with airplanes but not with other vehicles, JoseMendez said. At times, vehicles and people crossed onto the tarmac with little heed for the airplanes.
An entire platoon of soldiers was about to across the tarmac one day as aircraft were scheduled to be landing soon, according to JoseMendez; he caught their attention and told them to walk on the grass on the side of the taxiway and watch for even the smallest of dots in the sky before crossing.
In one extremely close call, three vehicles veered onto the runway just as a British Royal Air Force plane was taking off. The pilot later told news outlets that he had to speed up his takeoff to avoid a deadly crash. As it was, the plane missed a bus full of evacuees by approximately 10 to 15 feet, the pilot told Sky News in September 2021.
JoseMendez and Chryst watched the near miss unfold. The hair on JoseMendez’s chest and back stood up.
“All I could do, honestly, was pray, because, at that point, it was too late to say anything,” Chryst said.
‘Never be forgotten’
On Aug. 26, 2021, MACG-28 Marines heard what sounded like an explosion and saw a cloud of smoke rising from the south end of the airport.
Dahl immediately radioed to the joint operations center.
“Hey, we saw some kind of explosion — I don’t know what it is — at Abbey Gate,” Dahl recalled saying.
The Marine Air Control Group-28 would later learn that an Islamic State affiliate had set off a bomb at the gate, killing as many as 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American service members: 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman and a soldier.
One of those Marines, Sgt. Nicole Gee, was part of the 24th Marine Expeditiona
ry Unit. Some of the Marines had gotten to know her on their amphibious assault ship, the Iwo Jima.
Gee’s death was tragic in its own right, JoseMendez said, and it changed the way Marines from her MEU perceived their own security.
“It kind of hit home,” said Chryst, who had had limited interactions with Gee but had heard that she was an exceptional Marine. “I was like, ‘I know her.’ It was one of those things you don’t expect to happen. We thought we were just going there to get people out.”
The Marine Air Control Group-28 team left Kabul on Aug. 31, the deadline the Biden administration set for the evacuation.
Leaving Afghanistan came with complicated feelings for Chryst.
“I was relieved, for sure, getting out of there, but we felt like we could have gotten more people out,” he said. “But we were given a deadline we had to meet.”
“We weren’t thinking about it as much when we were there — we were worried about our mission — but as soon as I got back home, it was actually set in how large of a deal it was that my Marines saved all of those lives,” Dahl said.
In fall 2022, Dahl and JoseMendez received Bronze Stars for meritorious service in recognition of their efforts in Kabul. In January 2023, Haunschild also received a Bronze Star for meritorious service.
That makes it a total of 11 Marines who have received that award for the Kabul evacuation, according to spokesman Maj. Jordan Cochran. Two more Marines — Maj. Benjamin Sutphen and Cpl. Wyatt Wilson — have been awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” to designate valor in combat, according to Cochran.
Approximately 2,100 Marine Corps personnel participated in the operations at Kabul International Airport, according to Marine spokesman Capt. Ryan Bruce.
JoseMendez said that while he appreciated the award, he felt his actions weren’t deserving of a Bronze Star.
“The award I wanted was a 12-pack of a nice IPA and a crisp high five,” he said.
It has now been more than a year and a half since the conclusion of the airlift.
On Aug. 26, 2022, Chryst said, he took time to reflect on the 13 service members who had died in the Abbey Gate bombing.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice, and it’ll never be forgotten,” Chryst said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a year that’s going to go by that I’m not going to sit back and think about it.”
With the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, the evacuation remains a source of controversy in the United States. Critics continue to call out a lack of planning at the highest levels of the Biden administration, emphasize that tens of thousands of Afghan allies remain trapped under Taliban rule and question — given the Taliban’s resurgence — whether it was worth intervening in Afghanistan in the first place.
But Haunschild said that he was still proud of the work that American troops did during the evacuation: “They did a phenomenal job for what they had to work with.”■
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.