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Fort Liberty units that deployed during the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal and noncombatant evacuation mission will receive the Presidential Unit Citation, Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced recently.
The Presidential Unit Citation is the nation’s highest award for units that display “gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign.”
"In the war’s final days, the United States, along with our allies and partners, safely evacuated more than 124,000 civilians from Afghanistan, in the midst of the pandemic and in the teeth of danger,” Austin said in a statement issued on the two year anniversary of the withdrawal Aug. 31.
Austin said units “that operated and excelled under these difficult and dangerous conditions” and approved for the citation include Joint Task Force 82 of the 82nd Airborne Division and its supporting units, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command.
According to an Army news release, other Fort Liberty units receiving the citation include:
• Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division.
• 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
• 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
• 1st Attack Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
• 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
• 82nd Airborne Division Artillery.
• 82nd Sustainment Brigade.
• 16th Military Police Brigade.
• 8th Psychological Operation Group.
• 95th Civil Affairs Brigade.
• U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said in a statement Aug. 31, that the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and Joint Task Force 82 “demonstrated heroic discipline and courage during the execution of the non-combatant evacuation operations in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.”
“The bravery of the soldiers on the ground and the dedication of those who supported every evacuation flight exemplify the ideals of service with honor and compassion. Until the last aircraft departed, the 82nd Airborne Division and members of JTF-82 held the line and provided the safe passage needed to evacuate over 100,000 U.S. citizens, Afghan civilians, and family members," Wormuth said.
"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.”
Fort Liberty Gold Star mother speaks out
The mission that marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan came at a cost.
On Aug. 26, 2021, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 service members near the airport’s Abbey Gate, which included 11 Marines, a sailor and then-Fort Bragg soldier Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss
Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tennessee, was assigned to 9th Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Force Command.
In his statement, Austin said his thoughts are with the 2,461 American service members who died during the war in Afghanistan including "the 13 courageous troops taken from us in the attack at Abbey Gate in the final hours of the war.”
The loss is not forgotten by Gold Star families who testified during an Aug. 23 House Foreign Affairs Committee roundtable meeting.
Staff Sgt. Knauss was represented by his mother, Paula Knauss Selph.
Selph said Knauss was the youngest of her two sons, who she described as a comedian, an influencer who “always wanted to be cool,” and “could light up a room” and was smart.
“It takes a smart man to want to be in the military because you have to be not just boots on the ground, but you have to use your head to stay quick and sharp,” Selph said.
Selph said after Knauss served his first tour in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division as a new recruit, he “came back a little different.”
“He had seen things, things that he might not talk about for years to come, and he didn’t talk about them initially,” she said.
After the deployment, he completed the Psychological Operations Assessment and Selection Course and the Psychological Operations Qualification Course,
Once her son was assigned to the 9th Battalion, Selph said, her son told her he was in his element.
“He volunteered for that second tour to go back to Afghanistan … He didn’t have to go,” she said. "'I begged him not to go as his mama ... He said, ‘Mama I’ve trained so hard. I’m ready to deploy at any time,’ and I said, ‘Son, be careful and come back home.’”
Selph said her son was a “go-getter” who earned numerous awards and decorations before his death and after.
“But I can tell you this, I’d trade every medal, every award to have my son back,” she said through tears. “But he would go again if he knew, even knowing the danger, 'cause that’s what a good soldier does. They face death, and they’re willing to do that for our country.”
Selph said it wasn’t necessary to lose her son and that the others who died with him shouldn’t have been lost.
She said there shouldn’t have been "so many Afghan refugees clamoring onto our planes by the wheel or any other way or throwing their babies across a fence.”
“There had to be something that was causing the chaos,” Selph said. “Our men and women on the ground have order. Ryan trained and was ready, but what he wasn’t ready for was the politics that came with it.”
Reviews and reports of withdrawal mission
In congressional testimony in March, paratroopers described the withdrawal mission as chaotic as thousands of Afghan nationals, American citizens and diplomats rushed to the airport after the U.S. announced it was leaving and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
Selph said she’d like to see President Joe Biden and his administration publicly accept responsibility “for the chaotic withdrawal at the end of the 20-year war.”
“Several presidents preceded Mr. Biden in this 20-year war, but none of them are to be held accountable for the withdrawal, that is he and he alone,” she said.
While a White House review of the withdrawal released in April stated that then-President Donald Trump’s administration left no plans for the withdrawal and created issues, a State Department review released in June stated that the decisions of both presidents “to end the U.S. military mission posed significant challenges for the Department as it sought to maintain a robust diplomatic and assistance presence in Kabul and provide continued support to the Afghan government and people.”
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at an Aug. 31 press briefing the U.S. Central Command’s investigation of the attack found it “was not preventable without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees and that the leaders on the ground followed proper measures and procedures.”
In his statement, Austin said, “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.
The war in Afghanistan is over, but our gratitude to the Americans who fought it is unending."
During the roundtable with other Gold Star families last month, Selph said she still wants to see policies changed.
“No mother or father needs to sit at this table again with you and tell you that you failed in some way, somebody did,” she said. “Now, let’s find out who those people are and let them be held publicly accountable.”
Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3528.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Why Fort Liberty units are receiving the presidential citation