The Untold Stories: 23 McConnell Airmen receive medal upgrade for OAR

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tryphena Mayhugh
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

The call came in. Orders were made. Bags were packed. And they were out the door.

In a short 17 hours, 70-80 McConnell Airmen scrambled together and took off to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where they spent several weeks in August of 2021 supporting the 123,000 refugees evacuated from Afghanistan during Operations Allies Refuge.

“Basically, we went home, took a nap, grabbed our bags and flew over there,” said Maj. Ryan Sheive, McConnell airshow director and lead instructor pilot for McConnell Airmen during the evacuation. “When we were first told about the quick rapid deployment, my first thought was this is why we train the way we do. It was definitely a challenge, but we knew what had to happen.”

McConnell sent a tanker force comprised of six aircrews and four KC-135 Stratotankers to provide air refueling capabilities during OAR. Those 23 Airmen were awarded the Air and Space Achievement Medal for their actions during the evacuation, but in December of 2023, Air Mobility Command upgraded them to the Air Medal-Combat Device.

“Hopefully, it’s a big feather in everyone’s cap,” said Chief Master Sgt. Aaron Tessmann, 22nd Operations Group chief enlisted manager and senior enlisted leader for the McConnell Airmen during OAR. “They worked their butts off and they definitely deserve it. They did some pretty cool missions and I’m pumped for them.”

Not only receiving the accommodation, but then being upgraded to the air medal, meant a great deal to Sheive, who sometimes felt that their achievements went unnoticed.

“The theme of [our involvement] is untold stories, things that we did differently,” he said. “I felt that we were a forgotten squadron. We went to [the Airlift/Tanker Association] a couple months after all this happened, and we heard about all these tanker squadrons and the great and wonderful things they did, but they never mentioned us. It felt nice knowing we were finally recognized for being out there.”

Embarking into the unknown in the early days of OAR, the Airmen arrived at Al Udeid where they learned more about what was going on and what was expected of them. This was the first time in over a decade that McConnell Airmen were tasked with this type of real-world operation.

“I was one of the people who got sent out, I had no idea what we were doing until we got there,” said Senior Airman Devin Olmedo, 350th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator. “I showed up the day prior with my flight bag, I was supposed to do a local sortie, and as soon as I walked into the squadron everyone was running around, and they were like, ‘You! Turn around and go home, pack a bag, we don’t know where you are going or for how long!’

“There was a lot of excitement and some apprehension about not knowing the extent of the situation,” he continued. “It was pretty cool in the sense that we were actually going to put our skills to use. What we train for is important.”

The McConnell tanker force was separated from the others, having been tasked with Special Operations Air Refueling, they staged out of the special forces’ facility at Al Udeid. Working 16–18-hour days, the Airmen strived to keep up with a demanding workload as more aircraft and refugees came to Qatar.

“The thing that kind of caught us off guard was a majority of the refugees that they pulled out of Afghanistan they brought to the base we were at,” Tessmann said. “When we landed, there weren’t that many jets, but as time went on the entire ramp was full. It was some crazy times.”

The sheer number of flights and aircraft that were needed for the evacuation provided a number of challenges for the Airmen, who worked around the clock to provide much needed fuel.

“When the C-17s really started backing up, there were so many jets [at Al Udeid], they couldn’t land and so they had to hold,” Tessmann said. “Sometimes we had to refuel those guys just so they would have enough fuel to get down safely. We were kind of playing it by ear, thinking outside the box, to keep as much gas in the air as we could.”

The aircrew knew even before they left their home station that the refuelers they were taking were going to be worked very hard and would not have much time for repairs, even delaying one of their takeoffs to receive new tires. When told they could just get new ones at Al Udeid, they pushed back and said they would be hitting the ground running and would not have time. They got the new tires.

“Our maintenance people did a great job, a hundred percent maintenance turn of the jets,” Sheive said. “We took the most experienced people who know that [something might not be] working, but people’s lives are in danger. Untold stories of literally getting the mission done.”

Despite the fast-paced work tempo the McConnell Airmen faced day in and day out, they still found the time and energy to help out in other ways. At one point during the evacuation, they volunteered at night after returning from their flights to set up a large, empty warehouse to receive over 5,000 people.

With the flashes and glow of explosions and gunfire occurring all over the country lighting up their night vision goggles, they would refuel the C-17 Globemaster III’s transporting evacuees, land, then help inprocess the refugees, sometimes providing food and supplies to the very people who were on the jets receiving their fuel.

“We had some boom operators who were former linguists and were able to speak and communicate with the refugees,” Olmedo said. “Some of the people had medical backgrounds and were able to help administer medical aid. Handing out lots of resources – food, water, diapers, clothing, just everything. Cleaning up trash. Capt. Sheive has his forklift license so he was able to bring pallets of water to one of the hangars for the thousands of people who were coming through. A lot of people were contributing aside from the job, volunteering many times to do something to try and help.”

Despite the heavy workload and the overwhelming amount of refugees passing through Al Udeid, the McConnell Airmen gave every bit of themselves to complete the mission, sleeping on cots shoved into an office room and staying until the very end.

“Everyone had a pretty positive attitude, it was hard work, but we kept pretty positive,” Tessmann said. “We knew what we were doing was impactful, but it was hard to think about it while you were in the middle of it. When we got back, we had to step back and look at all the stuff we had done. The last jet leaving Afghanistan was a KC-135, we kept one out there just so it could give fuel if it needed to. It was pretty remarkable.”

The evacuation of 123,000 refugees from Afghanistan in so short of a time was an amazing feat, but not one without tragedy. On Aug. 26, 13 U.S. service members lost their lives during an attack on Kabul International Airport. Sheive and his fellow Airmen paid a tribute to their sacrifice as they made their way home.

“When the 13 people were killed in the bombing, we flew 13 flags [in our aircraft] that last night in Afghanistan,” Sheive said. “We flew all those flags on the last night of the war for them.”

While the Airmen involved in Operation Allies Refuge did not answer the call to receive awards and acclaim, because of the tireless efforts put forth by them, including 23 McConnell Airmen, they are well deserved.

“While long overdue, I am proud to recognize another group of mobility Airmen who accomplished heroic feats two years ago,” said Gen. Mike Minihan, AMC commander. “There is no clearer evidence that Airmen will always be the magic.”