The service members who carried out the military missions to evacuate and resettle Afghans during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal last year will receive the Meritorious Unit Commendation award, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.
The uniform ribbon is awarded by the individual services -- the Air Force calls it the Meritorious Unit Award -- and it can signify valorous or meritorious service in combat, non-combat or a support role.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he has also ordered an expedited review of all units deployed to Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport from Aug. 15-30, 2021, to determine if they or individual troops will receive the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation.
The announcement comes as many troops grapple with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. military withdrawal that ended a 20-year war, the nation's longest. Service members evacuated about 124,000 people from Afghanistan and helped resettle many in the U.S., but the historic airlift was complicated by the suicide-bombing deaths of 13 service members, a botched U.S. strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians and a complete and swift Taliban takeover.
"This is a significant recognition for those who served in Afghanistan and participated in this very significant event," Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said during a public briefing Wednesday. "From the secretary's standpoint, really the key message here is that it's meant to express the gratitude of the Department of Defense and our nation for what it is that our men and women serving in Afghanistan during this very challenging time, what they accomplished."
President Joe Biden ordered the awards and the review following a meeting with the defense secretary and Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, according to Austin.
The Presidential Unit Citation, or PUC, is awarded for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy, and the unit must show "gallantry, determination and esprit de corps" that exceeds other units in the campaign, according to an Air Force description of the award. It can be worn permanently by recipients on their uniforms.
The PUC is analogous to the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross, which are the second highest awards for military valor after the Medal of Honor.
"Since World War II, the nation has recognized the extraordinary heroism of military units in action against an armed enemy with the Presidential Unit Citation," Austin said in a statement Wednesday.
The Meritorious Unit Commendation will go to service members involved in two related operations, one to get Afghans out of the country through the Kabul airport and the second to process and resettle them.
Operation Allies Refuge, the official title for the mission to help get Americans and Afghans eligible for residence in the U.S out of Afghanistan, managed what has been called the largest non-combat evacuation in U.S. history. Troops worked feverishly to process the deluge of Afghans that turned up at the airport and get them on flights to third countries such as Bahrain and Germany, where an "instant city" of refugees was run by airmen and soldiers.
"No other military could have protected so many lives under such challenging circumstances in such a short amount of time -- not just because of our airlift or our logistics capabilities, but most of all because of the immense compassion, skill and dedication of American Service members," Austin said in his message announcing the awards.
The military also assisted in resettling about 80,000 Afghans in the U.S. following the evacuation as part of Operation Allies Welcome. The refugees were temporarily housed at eight military bases around the country where troops provided basics such as housing, meals and internet, but also educational services, soccer games and shura councils, traditional tribal councils that settle disputes.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.