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From Saigon to Kabul, Part IILt. Col. Alexander Pelbath, USAF (ret.)

By Peg Eastman


Col. Alex Pelbath (right). IMAGE PROVIDED
 

Part I of the series honoring our military discussed how fortunate Charleston is to have two extraordinary military heroes living among us:  Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston (USMC ret.) and Col. Alexander Pelbath (USAF ret.), pilot of the last military flight out of Afghanistan.

The horrific images of the United States’ departure from both Saigon and Kabul will be forever etched in the memory of all Americans who watched it unfold on their television screens from the safety of their living rooms. However, there are drastic differences between the two events:  Saigon was a well-planned and well-executed evacuation mission with priority on the safety of U.S. civilian employees, contractors, officials and vetted Vietnamese locals included in the extraction plan. All primary and secondary locations were secured and properly coordinated with the air assets.

With thousands desperate to escape the oncoming North Vietnamese Army, a situation that could have been total chaos turned out to be one of controlled mayhem. The operation’s positive results were due to the right people being in command and in control of situation. Vetted persons were extracted according to a detailed plan and the military left last — without intentionally leaving Americans and their at-risk South Vietnamese allies behind.

In contrast, the evacuation of Afghanistan was a complete debacle from start to finish. There was no effective planning from the White House or political leadership, as evidenced by surrendering the more secure Bagram Air Base in favor of the less fortified (and minimally secure) Karzai Airport at Kabul. More than $80 billion dollars of effective and viable military hardware was intentionally left behind.

The pullout from Afghanistan was a politically expedient disaster that had no real military presence in command and in control, and the senior leadership did not seem to have a true grasp of the problem. The State Department appeared divorced from reality while the White House seemed unconcerned with who was being extracted or left behind. The troops on the ground did the best they could as the situation grew more tenuous. But remote viewing cannot possibly convey the desperate conditions and the poignant emotions of those who experienced the pandemonium in situ.

Sandwiched in between those two national debacles is the one image of which this nation can be inordinately proud, “the Miracle on the Hudson.” Unsurprisingly, this was due to another military man, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, USAFA Class of 1973, who retired from the Air Force and became a U.S. Airways pilot. His amazing landing of a heavy plane on the Hudson River saved 155 lives on Flight 1549. To immortalize this stunning aeronautical achievement, the Air Force Academy honors a graduate who distinguishes himself or herself with act(s) of singular bravery in a calendar year. The first recipient of this Award was Col. Alex Pelbath.

His citation was impressive, and his journey began at the Charleston Air Force Base, where he was director of C-17 Special Operations for the 437th Operations Group. The mission was unlike anything ever done before and it was performed in incredibly challenging conditions:  120-degree heat while operating in an unstable combat zone.


Col. Pelbath and his family. IMAGE PROVIDED

Officials in Washington micromanaged the operation, choosing politics over strategy, which served to cut short the allowable time to completely evacuate Americans and Afghan friendlies. Provinces fell like dominos as the Taliban took over the country. Kabul was the last bastion, and it was also captured in short order.

To complete the evacuation, Pelbath’s C-17 delivered ground forces to help secure Hamid Karzai International Airport. Before leaving, he asked if his plane could take some Afghans out of the country. In his words, “We were not expecting to be taking any folks out … and filled up our aircraft with Afghan evacuees, which I believe was the first evacuation. It was unplanned and unexpected.”

Within hours of his first flight, the airport was overrun with Afghans desperate to leave the country. Taliban fighters mingled with the crowd. It was chaos. Once order was restored, the evacuation continued. Pelbath personally led multiple missions in and out of Kabul. The planes were crowded beyond belief.

Then on August 26, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated a suicide vest outside of Abbey Gate, killing 13 servicemembers and 170 Afghans.

On the night of August 30, 2021, Pelbath piloted the last aircraft out of the country, ending America’s involvement in the 20-year conflict. In heroic fashion, the last man to enter the plane was MG Chris Donahue, 82nd Airborne Division Commander. Pelbath recalls the final image of his four C-17s in front of his plane “a moment etched in [his] memory forever.”

What the Air Force accomplished half a world away was staggering:  An estimated 124,000 Afghan refugees were successfully evacuated, 79,000 of whom were airlifted on C-17s out of Kabul in August 2021. It was the largest airlift evacuation in history.

Our armed forces have proven themselves again and again in all parts of the world. They remind me of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian warriors of old who defeated the mighty Persian Empire and continued all the way to the Punjab despite incredible odds.

So, once again, the Mercury salutes our modern military, their courage and their spirit. May God bless them in peace and in war.

 

My deep appreciation to Gen. Livingston for asking me to write these articles. Alex Pelbath, Susan Marlowe, Marianna MacIntyre, Ron Plunkett, Perry Smith, Colin Heaton, Jeff Jacobs and Peter Williams contributed.

 

A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.

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