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A year ago, Colonel Colin McClaskey was on one of the last US military flights out of Kabul. He was the Air Force colonel responsible for the control, operation and maintenance of the airport and runways during the messy Afghan retreat.
McClaskey was a key piece in what became the largest evacuation in history, as 778 flights evacuated 124,334 people in 17 days. On average, 7,500 civilians were evacuated each day with a climax on 23 August, when more than 21,600 left aboard all types of aircraft departing every 34 minutes.
McClaskey was on a mission to Africa when he received the call to go to Afghanistan. Instead of going home, he would be sent to help end the 20 Years’ War.
“I got a phone call saying, ‘This is happening in Afghanistan. We need you to go,'” McClaskey told Fox News.
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August 16 was the day the airport was flooded with people desperately trying to get out. It was also the day McClaskey and his team tried to land.
He was sitting in the cockpit of a C-17 flying over Kabul watching the pilots attempt to land. “Those people tried everything they could to get into Kabul without landing on people,” McClaskey said.
The crew coordinated an oil tanker to try and get some extra time, as the people below were clinging to the planes. Hours later, early in the morning of August 17, McClaskey and his team landed and got to work. He and his team had to quickly repair radar, airport lighting, refueling capabilities, ground maintenance equipment, and vehicles.
McClaskey assessed the situation on the ground: “These are families who run away with everything they have, everything they can carry. And our troops. And when I saw our troops, not just Americans, but over 30 nations as well, they had people. there. So, trying to protect them and finally to protect our planes. ”
Crowd control was a big concern after the images he had seen on TV. Instead of shooting at the crowd, McClaskey decided to use C-wire, a type of barbed wire that unwinds very quickly. “If anyone wanted to jump on it, they probably could. But it’s a sufficient deterrent that it could help reduce some of that crowding,” he said.
C-RAM, a counter-artillery system, would also be used to take down incoming artillery rounds. McClaskey’s huge concern was to protect all desperate people from threats like the Taliban and ISIS-K.
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Then there were the operations of the airport itself. “I had a damaged air traffic control tower, but I didn’t have the air traffic controllers I needed or the communication systems I needed,” she said.
The air traffic controllers who were there ended up operating from a tent called “Kabul Tower Two,” an ode to the damaged and unusable air traffic control tower.
Trash had also piled up on the runway. “Suitcases, mattresses, personal effects, Chinese sets, you name it, were just dropped onto the ramp. Well, the more those piled up, the fewer planes could park there,” McClaskey explained.
Forklifts were used to move some of the equipment and other heavy objects. The 621 Contingency Response Wing Airmen served, unloaded, repaired and loaded 721 of the 778 aircraft transiting at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), serving an average of four aircraft simultaneously 24/7.
McClaskey is proud of the work done: “Our organization prides itself on having the ability to operate two aircraft at the same time. And there have been times when we have achieved up to 17 aircraft at the same time.”
McClaskey highlighted the courage of the US military service members and what the Americans were there meant for the people trying to escape.
“Imagine that people run into a barrier with their families and everything they have, and they are doing everything they can to get to safety. In this case, security had a large American flag on the back,” he said.
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About half of the US Air Force’s fleet of 222 C-17s was used during this operation. Three babies were born aboard the evacuation flights, with a dozen more born shortly after landing. Operation Cicogna is born.
McClaskey used his skills as a father to help with the logistics of childcare.
“If it was about understanding the formula set problem … How can we make sure we have clean, safe water to mix with the powdered formula, so that it has the longest shelf life? And then work with some of our youngsters. who didn’t have babies to help them understand the importance of making sure there were clean diapers and lots of baby wipes and stuff like that. It was powerful, “she said.
But it wasn’t just about babies and women. There were also many elders fighting in the crowd.
“There were so many elderly or very disabled people who couldn’t walk or could not get out. And we didn’t have wheelchairs or anything, but we had thousands of caring people,” McClaskey said.
By far the hardest day for McClaskey and his team was when a suicide bomber exploded at Abbey Gate, killing 13 young American soldiers. At one point, the airport lost electricity and several thousand Afghans were sitting in the dark. A girl approached McClaskey. She tried to reassure her.
“She was just crying, screaming and crying,” said McClaskey, who gave her hope and made sure she was dating her family.
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“‘And I can tell you you’ll be in California,’ and that’s where she wanted to go and stay with her uncle. I said, ‘You’ll go back to California before I do,’ and she’s gone. Within an hour.”
He also noticed how good the girl’s English was. He was better than her brothers. McClaskey believes some of these girls who escaped the Taliban will grow up one day.
“I’ll be shocked if we don’t see one or two of those young women grow up, whether it’s pop culture or the media or something. But they were driven and now they’re not tied up. They’re going to have a great life,” He said.
McClaskey and his team were among the last US troops to fly from Kabul on August 30.
Later that night, the last five C-17s flew into HKIA under cover of darkness and loaded up specialized equipment and more than 800 remaining US troops over a three-hour period before departing at 11:59 pm local time.
“We made a very determined push several days earlier to make sure that any ammunition, anything like that, anything that could be used for military purposes was either disabled or no longer present,” McClaskey said.
Sitting in the back of the plane bound for Germany, the soldiers and maids with him were exhausted from what they had just accomplished. But McClaskey couldn’t sleep. All he wanted to do was call his his wife so that she could let the other military families know that he and his team were fine.
“I was looking forward to calling her and letting her know that I was not out and safe, but that all of our American airmen were out,” he said.
McClaskey’s team was headed to Ramstein, Germany, because they wanted them to undergo a three-day mental health check to decompress and unpack everything they had just seen with professional help.
“I have seen a lot of things about the disaster in Indonesia in my career, but I hadn’t seen anything like it, and I knew that if this was shocking to me, it would be very difficult for many of our young people,” he explained.
McClaskey said he’s grateful he did, but the trauma of how the war ended and the Abbey Gate suicide bombing still haunts him. He says it is important to talk about the mission they have accomplished and what they have lived.
“People just have to talk about it, especially those of us who have been involved,” McClaskey said.
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Reflecting on those weeks, he said, “I think every day of those young Americans who are still living with the scars of it and will do it for the rest of their lives. And I just hope they know we haven’t given up.”
However, McClaskey is grateful for the mission he helped accomplish: “I look back and I was like, man, I was tired, but God, I was grateful I got all those Americans out of there safely and then so many other people.”