Last year, jarring footage of civilians clinging to the side of a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III and then falling to their deaths at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 16 circulated online, highlighting the U.S. military's chaotic last days in Afghanistan.
When human remains were found in the aircraft's wheel well, the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations immediately announced it was reviewing the incident, leaving an uncertain future for the airmen who helped with one of the largest evacuation efforts in military history.
Nearly 10 months later, the Office of Special Investigations told Military.com on Monday that the crew, who worked "during an unprecedented evacuation where resources were constrained to on-going security and evacuation activities," had been cleared by military investigators and lawyers.
"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," Linda Card, a spokeswoman for the Office of Special Investigations, said in an emailed statement.
It is not clear when Air Mobility Command and U.S. Central Command made their decision to clear the crew; additional details on what possible punishments the crew faced while the inquiry was occurring have not been released.
Neither command responded to requests for comment prior to publication.
On Aug. 16, 2021, hundreds of Afghans desperate to escape the country as Taliban forces closed in on Kabul enveloped the C-17, which had been deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to drop off cargo for the evacuation efforts. The massive crowds forced the plane to depart before the crew could begin offloading cargo.
"Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible," the Air Force said in a statement at the time.
Grainy footage of the aircraft's departure -- which was quickly seen by millions -- showed civilians grabbing onto the C-17's wheel well before plummeting to the ground as the plane took to the skies, pictures that reminded many of what Americans saw at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Military.com in a statement Monday the crew made the right choice to take off from the airfield and that the crew members are flying again.
"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."
The operational leadership also agreed the crew had acted appropriately, Stefanek added.
When the plane landed at Al Udeid Air Base, or AUAB, Qatar, with human remains located within the wheel well of the aircraft, the Air Force began its investigation and looped in local authorities.
"Upon landing at AUAB, OSI processed and documented the aircraft and remains and released the scene to Qatari Police who declined further investigation," Card said.
A C-17 pilot involved with the evacuation mission in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told Military.com it was a relief to hear the crew was not punished by OSI.
"That's the right call," the pilot said about OSI's findings. "They've probably been on pins and needles since this happened. There were no good options, but the crew made the exact right call."
While the Air Force statement circulated to the media at the time of the deaths referenced the "loss of civilian lives," to date no specific number of casualties has been released by the service.
"This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased," Stefanek added.
The Afghanistan evacuation effort saw the final U.S. casualties of the war when a suicide bomber struck at the airport's Abbey Gate on Aug. 26, killing 13 troops -- 11 Marines, a sailor and a soldier; wounded more than 20 other troops; and killed or wounded hundreds of Afghans.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.