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C-17 crew cleared of wrongdoing after Afghans fell to their deaths during Kabul evacuation

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2021 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)
June 14, 2022

Military investigators and lawyers have cleared the U.S. C-17 Globemaster III crew that took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport while Afghan civilians clung to the aircraft — with some eventually falling to their deaths — during President Joe Biden’s botched evacuation from Afghanistan last year.

The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations told Military.com on Monday that the crew worked “during an unprecedented evacuation where resources were constrained to on-going security and evacuation activities.”

“The Staff Judge Advocate offices from both the Air Mobility Command and the United States Central Command conducted a review of the inquiry findings and rendered concurring opinions that the aircrew was in compliance with applicable rules of engagement specific to the event and the overall law of armed conflict,” office spokeswoman Linda Card told the outlet in an emailed statement.

Air Force officials immediately launched an investigation into the incident last year after an Afghan’s body was discovered in the C-17’s landing gear.

American Military News previously reported that after leaving Kabul, the C-17’s landing gear started malfunctioning, prompting the crew to declare an emergency. Upon landing at another airport, human remains were discovered in the wheel well.

“Before the aircrew could offload the cargo, the aircraft was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians who had breached the airport perimeter,” the Air Force said in a statement at the time. “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible.”

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, defended the crew in a statement to Military.com.

“The aircrew’s airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft,” Stefanek said in an emailed statement. “After seeking appropriate care and services to help cope with any trauma from this unprecedented experience, the crew returned to flight status.”

One C-17 pilot who served during the evacuation told the outlet that OSI, as well as the crew at the time of the incident, made “the right call.”

“They’ve probably been on pins and needles since this happened,” the pilot said, speaking on a condition of anonymity. “There were no good options, but the crew made the exact right call.”

President Biden abandoned thousands of Americans in Afghanistan during the withdrawal and evacuation and left behind $7 billion in military equipment, including aircraft, air-to-ground munitions, military vehicles, weapons, communications equipment and more.

Biden’s chaotic evacuation also led to the deaths of 13 U.S. troops, including 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier.