US service members deployed on the Afghanistan withdrawal mission will receive the Presidential Unit Citation, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Thursday, the two-year anniversary of the withdrawal.
“In recognition of teams that operated and excelled under these difficult and dangerous conditions, I am proud to announce the approval of the Presidential Unit Citation for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, and Joint Task Force 82 of the 82nd Airborne Division and its supporting units,” Austin said in a statement.
“Today, our hearts and our prayers are with the brave Americans who volunteered to keep our country safe, with the Gold Star families whose loved ones fell in Afghanistan, with the military families who endured so much over those two decades, and with the veterans who still carry the memories and the scars of war,” Austin said. “The war in Afghanistan is over, but our gratitude to the Americans who fought it is unending.”
Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers will be among those who are receiving the citation, an Army spokesman told CNN. The Air Force does not appear to be included in the units receiving citations under Thursday’s announcement, an Air Force official said, though Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a news briefing on Thursday that more units could receive the citation in the future.
“So in the statement that we put out today, it highlighted the units that have currently been awarded that recognition. I’d refer you to the services right now for their current statuses. That’s not to say there won’t be others,” Ryder said. “That’s just where we’re at right now at this point in time.”
The US service members involved in the chaotic withdrawal helped evacuate thousands of civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. In his statement on Thursday, Austin recognized “the 2,461 U.S. service members who never made it home” from the war, “including the 13 courageous troops taken from us in the attack at Abbey Gate in the final hours of the war.”
The announcement of the citation comes just days after the families of some of those 13 service members were on Capitol Hill demanding answers and accountability over their children’s deaths. During a roundtable with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, convened by Republican Chairman Mike McCaul, parents of the troops killed at Abbey Gate claimed they’d been lied to by officials in the military and Biden administration.
The Biden administration conducted an after-action review of the Afghanistan withdrawal and released a summary of findings in April this year. The summary largely placed blame for the conditions that led to the frenzied withdrawal on the Trump administration, though a State Department after-action review released in June said both administrations made decisions that had “serious consequences” for security in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the security of Afghanistan fell apart in the weeks leading up to the withdrawal as the Taliban swept through Kabul and took over the presidential palace and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. What followed was days of chaos and confusion as civilians fled to the Kabul airport in hopes of being evacuated with the US and allied military partners.
US forces manning the gates of the airport were forced into impossible situations of deciding which civilians and families had the appropriate paperwork to be let into HKIA and ultimately out of the country. The mayhem culminated on August 26, when a suicide bomber detonated at Abbey Gate, killing 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and a soldier, along with more than 170 Afghan civilians.
The Defense Department has not released an unclassified after-action review, though the official investigation into the Abbey Gate bombing, conducted by US Central Command, was released last year.
On August 31, 2022, Austin announced that “all units” involved in the withdrawal mission would receive the Meritorious Unit Commendation “or its equivalent.” He also directed an “expedited review of all units” present during the withdrawal “to identify those units or individuals that meet the high standards of the Presidential Unit Citation or appropriate individual awards.”
The citation is used, Austin said in August 2022, to recognize extraordinary heroism for military units “in action against an armed enemy.”
Both the Army and Marine Corps applauded the unit citations on Thursday. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division “demonstrated heroic discipline and courage.”
“It is a privilege to recognize these soldiers for their actions during the tumultuous days of August 2021 and to honor their courage at a time when the entire Nation relied on them to complete their mission – which they did with great distinction,” Wormuth said.
A statement from the Marine Corps echoed the same, saying the citation is “a testament to the incredible dedication, sacrifice, and professionalism embodied by the men and women of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (Central Command), who rapidly deployed into harm’s way to protect and defend Afghan civilians.”
While the Air Force does not appear to be included in Thursday’s announcement, thousands of airmen have received other awards, including Distinguished Flying Crosses and Bronze Star medals for their actions during the withdrawal.