Last Flights Out: Serving in the Kabul airlift

The day before the final American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, Tea Nguyen ’15 boarded a C-17 military transport at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Her fellow passengers included about 30 joint service members and 120 Afghan refugees. 

“We let the elderly and the parents with children take the seats while we stayed on the floor,” said Nguyen, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve and former cadet in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at MBU.

There was a sense of relief during the three-hour flight to Bahrain. Troops lightened the mood by letting children play with their luminescent green ChemLights and improvising games.  

Tea Nguyen ’15 served in the Kabul airlift as a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve. A former cadet in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at MBU, she is now based out of the Camp Arifjan Army Base in Kuwait.

The feeling in the air was profoundly different from what Nguyen had experienced over the past 12 days on the ground. She’d arrived in Afghanistan for the first time on August 17, two days after the Taliban had regained control of the country.

“All I can say is that it was intense,” she said.

Nguyen was deployed to Kabul to assist the Naval and Marine forces that were spearheading evacuation efforts before the 82nd Airborne Division arrived.

“As part of the Joint Task Force Crisis Response, we took care of everything from logistics to medical to movement in and out of the airport,” she said. In her role as the unit’s environmental health officer, Nguyen used preventive medicine techniques to protect the health of American forces. For instance, she conducted continual quality and vulnerability assessments to secure steady supplies of drinking water.  

Nguyen took the above photos on the C-17 military transport out of Kabul: her group of joint service members toward the back of the aircraft (left) and looking forward to about 120 Afghan refugees (right), sitting beneath the American flag.

On August 26, she was on duty when suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the crowds desperate to escape the country, killing more than 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.

“I remember trying to help calm a 4-year-old girl whose mom didn’t survive the blast,” said Nguyen. “Her father was in the U.S. and personnel with the Department of State were trying to reconnect them.”

Nguyen said her task force assisted thousands of families and children — including undocumented minors — escape the country. Now that she’s returned to Kuwait’s Camp Arifjan Army Base, she has time to reflect on the airlift and the challenge of carrying out a mission that left some behind.  

“What really stood out to me were the eyes of all the people I saw,” said Nguyen. She remembers the look of desperation and fear in evacuating adults and children; the tear-streaked expressions of servicemen and women at a ceremony for their 13 fallen comrades. 

“People’s eyes were the most haunting part of the entire operation,” she said.

Nguyen serves as an industrial hygienist (left) with the 792 Medical Detachment (Preventive Medicine) in the Army Reserve. She received the Sustainer of the Week award from 1st Theater Sustainment Command (right) within a month of her deployment to Kuwait.

When Nguyen deployed last May as an industrial hygienist with the 792nd Medical Detachment, she had no idea she’d play a role in one of the largest evacuation operations in history. Despite the dangers, she said she’s grateful for the opportunity. 

“When I commissioned [into the military] my number one goal was to get deployed and do what I was trained to do,” Nguyen said. She feels proud and blessed that she “got to serve and help take care of people across all nationalities and services.”