"An incredibly human experience" how 388th FW Intel Airmen helped evacuees during Afghanistan airlift

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

August 2021 in Afghanistan was a desperate month. As NATO troops withdrew earlier in the year, the Taliban used the summer fighting season to reclaim much of the country. By mid-August, they encircled Kabul, and the capital fell as the Afghan government dissolved.

For American citizens, Afghan military members, and those who had worked for the coalition forces, there was real, immediate danger. They hoped they had months. Those hopes vanished as gunmen claimed the streets. There was only one way out – through a maze constructed of both terror and red tape – to the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and onto an airlift.

From Aug 14-30, nearly 800 civilian and military aircraft safely evacuated more than 123,000 people. 11,700 miles away, in Utah, Airmen in the 388th Operations Support Squadron experienced those last, harried days with a number of evacuees as they joined the largest non-combatant airlift operation in U.S. history.

Do The Right Thing

For much of August, Master Sgt. Alissa Corallo kept her phone with her at all times, made sure her personal laptop was always charged, and didn’t want to miss any notifications from WhatsApp, Zoom, Facebook or the message boards. A personnel specialist in the 388th OSS at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, she was moonlighting for Operation Sacred Promise, or OSP, an ad-hoc volunteer group of service members working to help endangered Afghans safely leave the country.

Corallo had served in the Kabul Air Wing as an advisor. For years, American air advisors worked alongside the Afghan military – from pilots to admin personnel, they trained and assisted the new Afghan Airmen on how to run their Air Force, fix, fly and tactically employ their aircraft – so they could be self-sufficient when the time came for American forces to leave Afghanistan.

Now, those Afghan Airmen, along with soldiers, translators and others who had worked with the coalition forces, needed to escape.

“At the time, they told Alissa that all the family members of the female Afghan pilots were going to be found and executed. Things were going south fast. It started getting really emotional for all of us,” said Lt. Col. Maxwell Cover, 388th OSS commander.

Afghans were reaching out in any way they could to American Airmen they had served with. Corallo saw a post in an air advisor Facebook group asking for help getting required documents organized and processed.

“Instead of sitting back, doing nothing and just watching all of this unfold, I decided to offer my service from the administrative side of things,” Corallo said, “We worked with these people every day. It was important to help them, to remember them and the interpreters and everyone who put their lives on the line, not only for their country, but for all of us while we were over there.” 

To get out, the Afghans needed to prove who they were, where they were. They needed passports, they needed visas, they needed the documents required by the State Department and the Defense Department to get into the airport and onto an airlift. 

“It was a lot of work. It felt like 24/7 collecting and maintaining a database for all these documents. Trying to figure out exactly what documents each person actually needed and trying to keep track of where everyone was in that process,” Corallo said.

As she worked, her fellow Airmen in the 388th OSS began to help her in their spare time. The walls and white boards in the main briefing room filled with names and lists of documents that went with them.

The online OSP network was working hard, passing information, and their communication had morphed into a continuous online video chat with people popping in and out asking for help with a new contact or following up on a document.  

“It was like, ‘Hey I know this person. I worked with her. I know what they look like. I know their age. I know where they are. I can vouch for them. They need these documents to get out,’” Cover said. “Alissa and our team were helping collect and correlate all that.”

That work went on for two weeks in the Airmen’s volunteer time. Then, a sergeant from another unit popped into the online chat and said her former Afghan interpreter and liaison had since become a U.S. citizen, had a passport, had a family, and was stuck in hiding in Kabul.  

“Corallo came to us with that person’s information and that’s when everything changed for us,” said Capt. James Cunningham, 388th FW acting senior intelligence officer.  “We vetted this sergeant. Talked to her. Made sure this was legit and not a false flag by the Taliban or someone trying to gather intelligence.”

Assisting U.S. citizens was outside the scope of OSP and collecting information and intelligence on U.S. citizens (even if they asked for help) is generally outside the scope of the intelligence community. But, this man, who the team called “Bob,” served alongside the U.S. military and was now an American. He and his family were isolated and the worry was he could be found and killed.

“When it came to using our resources and getting more involved in this effort, I talked to our leadership. We went over the risks and discussed if this was within the guidelines,” Cover said. “They told me, ‘Do the right thing, and we’ll figure it out.’ So we did.”

Where is Bob?

As Bob and his family waited in hiding on Aug. 18, the Taliban combed Kabul and the surrounding areas for those who had opposed them or their ideology. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, house by house. Government workers, teachers, military members, police officers, female university students, all waited for the bullhorn, or banging on the door, or gunshots outside of it. The collapse of the government and the pending withdrawal of American troops only emboldened other terror groups like ISIS Khorasan, who were also looking to inflict damage wherever they could.

“We knew Bob needed our help and weren’t sure any other agency over there was aware of his location or existence, so we cracked open the personnel recovery handbook and found a ‘15-line’ checklist.” Cunningham said. “We have limited authority as intelligence analysts in the U.S., but we thought we could at least collect this info and pass it along to the Joint Personnel Recovery Center.”

Cunningham and the 388th OSS Combat Intelligence Cell were in the middle of an exercise and working 24-hour operations. Bob became their priority just after midnight local time and they began working to get in touch with him. They could not establish direct communication.

“He was talking to the staff sergeant he had worked with over messenger who was relaying that information to us, and we were able to run the interview that way,” Cunningham said. “To verify his identity, he sent us some photos of himself, of him and the staff sergeant together, and a photo of him holding his U.S. passport. We had to be certain that this wasn’t an enemy spoof if they sent friendly forces in to pick him up.” 

They needed to establish his location. Bob sent them a screenshot with an approximate pin, along with pictures from the window of his “hide site.” In their secure vault, the Intelligence Cell was able to correlate his exact location by cross-checking what they saw in the images – a commercial space, a roundabout, a highway – with satellite imagery. They knew the window, the floor, the building, said Staff Sgt. Samantha Remkus, an intelligence analyst with the 388th OSS.

They used that imagery and put together what they call a “walk-on package” similar to targeting information they would give a commander if they had a fighter pilot down in an area with no GPS or jammed communications. The team never thought they would be using the same playbook in a non-combatant evacuation operation.

“We did all that in under 30 minutes.” Cunningham said. “We bundled it and sent it to the JPRC and they told us that based on the fidelity and timeliness of the information, he had moved near the top on their priority list.”

The experience with identifying and locating Bob established the team’s capabilities and lines of communication with the JPRC and Department of State, said Lt. Col. Christopher Seidler, 388th Plans and Programs director, who was wing intelligence officer at the time.

“It set the stage for what was to come.”  

Checkpoints and Terror

The streets surrounding Hamid Karzai International Airport became chaotic after the fall of Kabul. On Aug. 15-16, panicked civilians flooded the runway and tried to force their way onto departing aircraft. The Taliban set up checkpoints leading to the airport and entry into the airport was secured by more checkpoints, manned by American and allied forces.

On Aug. 26, a terrorist shredded the crowd clambering outside HKIA’s Abbey Gate. He was strapped with ball bearings packed in 25 pounds of high explosives, killing 13 U.S. service members, more than 170 Afghans, and wounding nearly 200 more. Every day brought more verified threats surrounding the airport from ISIS K and other extremist groups. For those looking to escape, getting to the airport meant weighing the risk of the journey against staying and trying to survive. As the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. withdrawal approached, that decision became more urgent.

The capability developed by the 388th OSS spread through State Department and DOD networks, Seidler said.  By Aug. 27, more and more American citizens, or families of American citizens, were coming forward and needed the same help and assistance the team provided Bob.

Many of the evacuees were people who had worked for America and pursued American citizenship, or worked as legal permanent residents in the U.S. and had a child born in the states – an infant or toddler who is a natural-born U.S. citizen.

“Things were getting bad there, and when their information started coming to us, it was coming fast,” said 1st Lt. Joshua Price, an intelligence analyst in the 388th OSS. “We were primarily using messaging apps to communicate to the people who were identifying these folks as U.S. citizens and then talking to them to verify who they were.”

Once the team collected the initial information and started assisting an “AMCIT” (American citizen), they collected all the data they needed to set up an evacuation plan. From their experience with Bob, they knew it would give them a better chance of making it through the Taliban and American checkpoints and onto an airlift.

“As we talked to the evacuees, it became clear right away that they had this level of trust in us, and once that relationship was established, they didn’t really want to talk to anyone else,” Price said.

Hour after hour, call after call, text after text, form after form – running back and forth between the secure and unsecure areas of the squadron. They worked around the clock collecting and relaying information between the evacuees, the Department of State and the DOD. They slept on couches, skipped showers, shared meals brought in by squadron mates, said 1st Lt. Kassidi Nudd, 419th OSS Intel Analyst. Their leadership made it clear that it was an all-volunteer effort for the nearly 20-person team – Airmen, NCOs and officers were all-in.

“We had to figure out all the forms they needed. You could have the information to get them to the right Taliban checkpoint, and then the forms to get them through the U.S. checkpoint, but if you didn’t have them manifested for their seat on the plane, it’s all for naught,” Price said.

Many of the evacuees the squadron was handling had been in the Abbey Gate blast. Their cell phones were damaged, screens cracked or not working and they had small, scared children in tow.

“They didn’t have the ability to fill out a PDF document, especially when the required documents changed hourly. This agency wanted one version of the form, but that agency wanted another version.” Price said. “Because we had done all these interviews and collected all the data we were able to fill out those forms for them.”

Later that day, the team had their first success when a family of six made it through the checkpoints and onto a plane.

“This guy was just tenacious. He knew the gravity of the situation, but it seemed pretty random on who was getting through the Taliban checkpoints and who wasn’t,” Price said. “After we sent him the information on the first gate, he went silent. I was calling him and texting him and no response – no response for hours. Then he called me, ecstatic, and said, ‘We made it!’”

“But listen, do you have your forms? Do you have seats on the plane?”

“Yes, yes, they have all of it, everything you sent!”

“When that happened, it was a great feeling for all of us, we knew that the process we had was working, if they could just get to the gates,” Price said.

Over three days, the OSS team collected information and handled documents for dozens of Americans. When it was over, the amount of paperwork that had been filled out (and re-done when forms changed or families had to move to a new location) was mind-boggling – more than 1,250 forms. 

Aside from the labyrinth of red tape, there was the constant threat of terror attacks or harassment from the Taliban. The intelligence flight had split into two groups – one handling information with the evacuees and another watching over them, on classified systems alongside other intelligence agencies, looking for threats.

The State Department had established rally points near the airport for evacuees. For the AMCITS handled by the 388th OSS, one of the first rally points was a gas station. They sat huddled all night under the lights, families with infants, toddlers, pregnant women – waiting for their chance to move through the checkpoints and into the airport.

“We start thinking that this is a prime target for another attack. There were a lot of extremist organizations that could target them. So, we had a group of folks working on threat indications and passing that information to those folks who were handlers,” Cunningham said. “We suggested they move to a more secure location. We passed that information to the Department of State and we made the right call on that. There was an attack imminent. Now we had to re-accomplish all their paperwork, but we didn’t lose anyone.”

Working with the Department of State and the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which was manning the airport gates, the team established a new rally point for their evacuees. Throughout the weekend, the Afghans had been sending the team cell phone videos of the Taliban checkpoints. It seemed like it was a roll of the dice if they would be let through, taken somewhere else, beaten, or simply turned away.

“Once our folks go to the Taliban checkpoints, they would come out and take them into this shed type thing and we don’t really know what happened in there,” Price said. “Most of them didn’t make it through. They were sent back because the Taliban didn’t believe they were who they said they were, or we’re not sure why. It all seemed pretty crazy.”

As the clock ticked down, closer to the final airlift, the crowds at the checkpoints grew. The Taliban stepped up their intimidation. They beat people, including one pregnant woman the team was working with. They fired shots into the air to break up the crowd, or scare them away. It was a constant cycle, Cunningham said. As the OSS team communicated with the evacuees, they often heard yelling, screaming, gunshots – sometimes in the background, sometimes close and terrifying.

“That’s when we started to get more videos, and we’re asking them, ‘Are they shooting into the air or into the crowd?’ and all of them are saying ‘They’re shooting into the crowd,’” said Cunningham. “That was very different from what we had seen up to this point. We got on the phone with the air operations center and they started to move some more over-watch capability into the area.”

There were evacuees on both sides of this Taliban checkpoint, some waiting for final entry into the airport. The Taliban started closing it down, getting very physical, confiscating and destroying documents.

“Everyone was frantic because there wasn’t likely going to be another chance to get out,” Cunningham said. “We’re just working to reassure them that we still have all their documentation and they have all been passed to the Department of State.”

After that, there were more terror threats. They suggested the group be moved away from the airport again. Another attack. Another good call, but it was clear given the looming withdrawal deadline, and the number of flights left, no one else was getting out.

“We had our Survive Evade Resist and Escape specialist come in on that final night, (the eve of Aug. 31 in Afghanistan),” Cunningham said. “He starts working on bed-down plans for each family, the same way we would for a downed pilot. ‘This is how you stay safe, this is how to secure your location, this is how you authenticate as a U.S. citizen.’ We’re passing that to them and telling them, ‘Don’t lose heart. Keep faith. The U.S. has your information.’ We took everything we had, bundled it up and sent it to the Department of State.”  

Then the clock struck midnight. Thirteen of their evacuees made it. Dozens more Americans were bedding down, waiting for the follow-on State Department effort to get them out of Afghanistan.

Full Circle

For Nudd, Price and others who had been directly handling the evacuees, the ping of a messaging app notification brought with it a pang of disappointment in the hours, days and weeks following. The end of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan meant that answering those messages was crossing a boundary. The reality was that without airlift, there was nothing a group of Airmen in Utah could do anymore.

“It sucked. I’ve been in the Air Force a long time,” said Price, who is a prior enlisted member. “I’ve seen a lot of death, but this was hard. There is still uncertainty, like why couldn’t we get everyone out? But I keep going back to the fact that we did our best and we also didn’t lose anyone under our watch.”

In the days following, Airmen came to Cover’s office in tears. They talked to each other. They talked to the chaplains. They processed what they had just seen, what they had done, what they had been unable to do. They thought about their own children, their own families, and the families in Afghanistan. They felt the weight.

“I joined the Air Force in part because of 9/11. I was in the D.C. area and I saw smoke from the Pentagon. I have done two combat deployments to Afghanistan. I have spent a lot of my career thinking about Afghanistan,” Seidler said. “I wish this wouldn’t have happened, that we had a better way than trying to get them through a Taliban checkpoint to the airport in the middle of the night, but I’m very thankful that we had the team we did to help them. For me, and some of our other folks who spent years of our lives in Afghanistan, it felt right to be involved in the end of the mission. To bring it full circle.”

The American evacuees had lived a desperate month, culminating in a terrifying four days, and the Airmen in the 388th OSS had lived it vicariously with them, connected by hope and faith that felt unfulfilled to some.

“It’s hard, but I have to keep reminding us that we did an amazing thing, we did the best we could and we saved a number of people. Even if we didn’t get them all out, they were safe and secure because of our team,” Cover said. “We were just a small part of a massive effort.”

The day-to-day job of an intelligence analyst takes place behind locked doors, in windowless rooms, pouring over technical data, deciphering images, correlating weapon systems, developing targets. It can be cold, analytical.

“This wasn’t weapon system to weapon system. This was different,” said Remkus. “This was human to human. It was just an incredibly human experience.”

The Kabul Airlift was the largest in military history. In 16 days, the United States and its allies evacuated approximately 123,000 American Citizens, allies and other vulnerable Afghans. The Department of Homeland Security, along with the State Department continues the effort “to help lawful permanent residents, as well as the many Afghans who have stood with us over the years, who are seeking to leave Afghanistan.”