Operation Allies Refuge anniversary: McConnell Captain recalls deployment

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. John Gordinier
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

An explosion echoes across Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan. Reverberations shake the room and dust falls from the ceiling. Attack alarms go off and Capt. Adam Solomon, 22nd Operations Support Squadron airfield operations flight commander, is staring at five Taliban members across the conference table, all with armed support.
Confusion and shock in their eyes as tension and heat in the room become unbearable. Fingers are now on triggers.

Solomon’s mind races: “Okay, an attack is happening, somewhere just got bombed. This is a coordinated attack. These guys might be in on it. I'm in a confined room with one door and multiple armed people that can kill me at a second’s notice.”
He pushes his chair back and says, “We’re done here. You need to leave the area.”

“I show the Taliban my back to exit the door and thought, ‘That’s it! I’m going to be dead before I make it to the door.’” 

Solomon pushes the door open and exits the dark room. He diffused a tense and deadly situation to now enter the light of day and engage in a crisis event as the airport is under attack.

August 26 is the anniversary of a suicide bomber attack on Kabul’s airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan refugees trying to depart for better opportunities. Solomon, a Seattle native, was forward deployed to Kabul during that timeline to control the airspace and provide humanitarian assistance. His story is a reminder of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice as they came to the aid of U.S citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans who had supported the U.S. in its fight against violent extremist organizations over the last 20 years.

Solomon was deployed to a down-range location along with a few of his Airmen for airspace management when he received a request in early August 2021. Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) needed manpower for radar approach controllers in order to manage the airport airspace better as refugees were not exiting fast enough during Operation Allies Refuge.

Solomon has prior combat airfield management experience when he served in Iraq and has attended many courses in advanced airfield management. Also, he is a religious person and felt like this was a calling from God.

“I must be there for my Airmen and I wanted to help the refugees,” he said. “I felt like it was a prompting from God essentially saying that I needed to go.”

The team arrived to HKIA in the middle of the night on August 18, 2021. 

Solomon exited the ramp near the Passenger Terminal and saw a gate just wide enough for a Humvee and when it swung open, Solomon described a graphic scene of desperation and sadness.

“The (U.S.) Marines posted there were processing or vetting Afghan families,” he recalled. “I immediately noticed a foul smell as it was hot and in the middle of the summer. I couldn’t see too far, but I will never forget that smell. I didn't see all the people quite yet, but there were thousands of them crowded together in a very confined area. It was so depressing. I immediately focused on my mission to get these people evacuated.”

At one point, there were more than 10,000 Afghans in a very small area trying to process through HKIA. Department of Defense service members were moving as fast as they could with the resources and time available. 

“Operations were working 24/7,” said Solomon. “Many of us were averaging a few hours of sleep per day. My team and I were there to help evacuate refugees as fast as we could, which meant we needed to utilize airfield, airspace and air traffic as efficiently as possible.”

The primary function of the team was to control the air traffic flow, both in and out of the airport to include landing, parking on the ramp, and to create the process for loading and taking off smoothly, quickly and safely.

Solomon, a master sergeant and two senior airmen entered the Joint Task Force-Crisis Response Joint Operations Center in order to figure out who was controlling air space and air traffic as well as who was in charge of Air Force assets. There, they met U.S. Air Force Col. Gregory Cyrus who was the Joint Air Component Coordination Element (JACCE) and was in charge of the AFCENT personnel on the ground at HKIA.

Before Solomon’s team arrived to set up limited radar approach control, Marines were controlling air traffic and tower airspace in a tent-like pop up for shade and only able to control approximately a 5-mile radius. Solomon drafted a plan to improve operations, but it would require operational control.

“The (Turkish military) controlled the airfield at the time, but aircraft weren’t getting in and out fast enough,” he said. “We needed control, but we didn’t have the authority, so I studied current operations and drafted a plan for improvement. I went to Colonel Cyrus and informed him that at the current rate we would be lucky to evacuate 1000 people daily by the 30th (of August) deadline as it wasn’t feasible nor sustainable. I provided him information he needed and a proposed plan in order to make a decision.”

Cyrus requested permission through U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward and Department of State to assume Senior Airfield Authority (SAA) from the Turkish military. 

“Prior to assuming SAA, in coordination with the Turks, I was controlling ramp operations to include security, ground control frequency, aircraft movement, aircraft marshalling, and aircraft parking,” said Cyrus who is currently the 621st Contingency Response Group Commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. “After the night between 15 and 16 August, my team of four U.S. Marine air traffic controllers, seven AFCENT Quick Reaction Team port dawgs, and two other JACCE personnel were essentially running the entire airport until August 18, when I was finally granted SAA. I then put Captain Solomon in charge of the Airfield Operations Cell.”

Now that Solomon and his team had SAA, they directed air traffic and expedited Afghan refugee evacuations. They managed hundreds of aircraft in and out daily.

“(Solomon) was pivotal in negotiations securing SAA for me, which then allowed me to implement his recommendations and bring the unconstrained capability of the United States Air Force and our coalition partners to bear on HKIA,” Cyrus said. 

Seven days passed. Solomon and his team felt the effects of sleep deprivation as they worked 18 to 20-hour days. With the end of the month deadline approaching, turnover was the next step, but with whom. Solomon wasn’t expecting the answer he received.

“I was asked by higher headquarters to escort Taliban leaders onto the airfield and give them turnover training and guidance,” he said. “With sleep deprivation, I was like, sure, let’s just get this job done. However, as I was walking behind them, I thought, ‘this is crazy, I just shook their hands, treated them like any partner nation. Am I insane? They have been our enemy for 20 years. No, I must focus on the job and task. That is my priority."

The group toured the tower, radar facility, and passenger terminal. Solomon grabbed some paper and began to write out a list of “to-do” or “maintain” items. He wrote down things such as what are the basic needs to run an airfield safely, pavement conditions, trash cleanup, and the process to get people onto aircraft. After identifying a few computers and radios to run the airfield, they decided to go over everything in a conference room. 

Moments later, the August 26 explosion is heard and felt across the airport.

“After I exited the room abruptly, they left towards the south side of the installation and I never saw them again,” Solomon said. “I focused my efforts on the attack and ensuring my team was safe and able to continue providing operational support.”

The intelligence brief Solomon received later detailed a coordinated attack at multiple gates. The airport and base were on high alert. Solomon and his team evacuated August 28, 2021, just two days before the deadline and returned to their deployed location.

It was tiring, yet the team was motivated. Solomon even recalled joy amidst chaos.

“I remember walking half of a mile from office to office, daily, to check on my Airmen kitted up with armor and a helmet,” he said. “I would greet my team and ask, ‘Hey, did you get enough sleep? Are you hungry?’ I remember walking back from one of my visits smiling from ear to ear and genuinely filled with joy. I was truly happy to be there knowing our combined efforts were making a difference. The situation was sad, but my (team) was vested and committed to the mission of saving lives. We were working hard and it was paying off as thousands upon thousands of evacuees were departing daily.”

According to the Pentagon, by the end of the deadline on 30 August, 2021, there were more than 124,000 in total evacuated. Captain Solomon was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his actions and leadership. 

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Solomon said. “Deployments are not usually fun, but they really provide you a perspective on life and the world. We saved people and thinking about that is humbling and satisfying.”