By Rick Lott
Special for the Effingham Herald
Flying into the Kabul, Afghanistan airport while taking gunfire from the ground, Tech Sgt. Ethan Schaffner and his air crew members landed to begin their part in Operation Allies Refuge in August 2021 during the evacuation of American personnel, civilians and allies from Afghanistan.
Because of the actions of Shaffner and the crew, the Effingham County native was awarded the Air Force’s Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest award for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial fight. Shaffner was honored with the Flying Cross during a ceremony Nov. 21 at the Joint Base Charleston by Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command.
Schaffner graduated from South Effingham High School in 2010 and his father, Billy Schaffner, still lives in Effingham.
Schaffner was the aircraft maintenance lead for the aircraft that were forward deployed during the first few hours of the operation and helped ensure the successful takeoff and landing of the aircraft throughout the course of the evacuation. Schaffner said that the journey from their Charleston, S.C., base spanned nine countries and required three mid-air refueling operations.
During the mission, crews flew more than 2,000 hours on 500 sorties and safely transported more than 30,000 Afghan evacuees.
“I was part of the crew that dropped the first group of Rangers to secure the airfield and then I was part of the crew that picked them up on that last night in pitch black darkness,” Schaffner said.
He said that he had been to that airfield previously and thought he knew what to expect, but when he opened the aircraft doors and looked out, Shaffner said the airfield was trashed and vehicles racing in every direction and with no air traffic control on site.
When it finally came time for final departures from Kabul, Schaffner said all the lights were out and the pilots and crews had to wear night vision devices to operate. The Rangers guarding the mission left their posts to board the aircraft, leaving entrance security to the Taliban due to an agreement.
In receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, Schaffner said, “I feel like we pulled off a tremendous achievement there. We didn’t have a lot of time and the fact that we were able to pull out over 127,000 Afghani’s during the evacuation, it just speaks for itself.
“As for the Flying Cross itself, typically it’s something that’s reserved for air crew members and as a Flying Crew Chief, I’m not considered an air crew member.”
He added that receiving the award is a “huge honor.”
Gen. Minihan said, “The men and women from this installation were ready to do whatever it took to deliver the forces needed to secure the Kabul airport and then to evacuate and save as many lives as possible. (They) displayed heroism and selfless devotion to duty – the reason for today’s ceremony.”
Most of the ceremony’s Flying Cross recipients were aircrew from the 437th Airlift Wing, recognized for their participation in the final U.S. flights in and out of Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021.
As they entered the airspace surrounding Hamid Karzai International Airport, crews observed air defense artillery, flares, and heavy machine gun fire, as well as reports of rooftop snipers in the area.
Despite the dangerous conditions, crews successfully landed their aircraft in total darkness and executed maneuvers to minimize time on the ground. A compromised airfield meant a risky departure, but they took off in formation with all remaining U.S. military forces accounted for and safely on board, according to the Air Force.