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JBLM C-17 aircrew acted appropriately

Not at fault for Afghan deaths clinging to aircraft last year

U.S. Marines with the Evacuation Control Center help Afghan evacuees as they board a plane at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Sept. 1, 2021. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kyle Jia

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On Aug. 16, 2021, thousands of Afghani citizens, desperate to depart the country as Taliban forces closed in on Kabul, surged out onto a runway as a Joint Base Lewis-McChord-based C-17 taxied in to deliver needed supplies.

"Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to continue taxiing and depart the airfield as quickly as possible," reported Air Force officials at the time.

Video footage showed a number of people clinging to the fuselage, sponsors and landing gear. As the aircraft gained speed, many let go before takeoff; however, two or three individuals fell from the aircraft from several hundred feet up as it gained altitude.

When human remains were discovered in the wheel well when it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the Air Force immediately launched an investigation.

Ten months later, the Office of Special Investigations told that the crew, which served "during an unprecedented evacuation where resources were constrained to on-going security and evacuation activities," had been cleared of any wrongdoing by military investigators and lawyers.

The Air Force announced the results of its investigation by the judge advocates of Air Mobility Command and U.S. Central Command, as well as a review by the aircrew's operational leadership.

Based on the evidence gathered by the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), it concluded that the aircrew had "acted appropriately and exercised sound judgment in their decision to get airborne as quickly as possible," said spokesperson Ann Stefanek.

The aircrew "faced an unprecedented and rapidly-deteriorating security situation," continued Stefanek, and the crew's "airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft."

A C-17 pilot involved with the evacuation mission commented anonymously that it was a relief to hear that the crew would not be punished.

"That's the right call," the pilot stated about the Office of Special Investigation's findings. ... There were no good options, but the crew made the exact right call."

Stefanek added that members of the aircrew have sought care and the services needed to help cope with any trauma from this event and that all have been returned to flight status.

It is not clear when Air Mobility Command and U.S. Central Command came to their decision to clear the aircrew, nor have any details been released of what type of punishment the aircrew faced during the investigation.

The Air Force evacuated more than 200,000 Afghan nationals from the country between the 14th and 25th of August. One C-17 departed with more than 800 refugees on board.

"This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased," concluded Stefanek.

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