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Joint Base Charleston crews share experience being on last flights out of Kabul

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 9:28 PM EDT
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JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Men and women from Joint Base Charleston’s 437 airlift wing spoke Thursday morning about what it was like in the last hours in Kabul as they were among the last folks out of Kabul.

Lieutenant Colonel Alex Pelbath was the air mission commander for the last five flights out of Kabul. He says the last flight left Afghanistan at 11:59 on August 30.

An iconic photo that has circulated the internet shows Major General Chris Donahue, ground force commander, boarding what Pelbath shares was a Charleston aircraft.

“He was the last person on the ground in Kabul on the last aircraft on the ground in Kabul,” Pelbath shared.

Pelbath says their flights out of Afghanistan averaged about 450 evacuees per flight, and throughout this time, they were focused on finishing an incredibly difficult job.

“It’s the hardest thing any C-17 air crew have ever had to do in their career, and probably ever going to have to do,” said Lt Col Alex Pelbath, the 437th Operations Group director.

Now, a few days after returning home, crew members like SRA Chris Symes, 14th Airlift Squadron Instructor Loadmaster, who was on one of the last flights out of Kabul, are reflecting on when they first realized the 20-year war was ending.

“As soon as we landed, we opened the door and ran. And lines upon lines of Afghans, you could just see when they started walking on our jet, they were just so happy, so hopeful,” Symes said. “Every single one of them that got in my jet, they looked straight in my eyes and just ‘Thank you,’ like this is finally coming to an end.”

Pelbath says he is not sure the end has really hit him yet, but one moment with a family of evacuees let him know it was all worth it.

“So I get down to help take this little boys shoes off, and as I look up his mom was looking at me and she just smiled,” Pelbath said. “And in her smile, I saw relief and I saw hope.”

He says because of their work, 124,000 people are now free.

Joint Base Charleston had teams of people working stateside in Charleston supporting the Afghanistan evacuation mission as well, including Major Daniel Naske.

“Joint Base Charleston being the premier mobility base on the planet, everyone came here to execute that mission,” Naske said. “We have the most highly trained aircrews, the most highly trained support personnel, most highly trained intelligence officers here to brief these crews to let them know this is what you’re going to be executing, we sent them all out the door incredibly prepared to do their job.”

He says how successful this mission was is a testament to how well prepared they were.

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