Commander who led final flights out of Kabul describes his 'surreal' experience on 'America's Newsroom

Commander says Afghanistan withdrawal was ‘hardest three weeks of our lives’

Lt. Col. Alex Pelbath describes the ‘gratefulness’ of people being evacuated from Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Alex Pelbath, who led the final U.S. flights out of Kabul, provided a unique perspective on the U.S. withdrawal. On “America’s Newsroom,” he described the experience as surreal and rewarding, but noted it was one of the most challenging periods of his life. 

Pelbath, the airborne commander for the final five C17 missions out of Afghanistan, was in Kabul the day of the attack when 13 U.S. service members were killed.

“The feelings we had were disappointment,” Pelbath said. “Being so close to the end that we could we could have such a tragic loss of American lives. And we in the military felt that, I think just like many Americans did, that we lost some brothers and sisters. Particularly so close to the end.”

The method of withdrawal has received harsh criticism for having left many American citizens and Afghan allies behind, with private groups taking action to evacuate people the U.S. government failed to.

Pelbath, however, said his crew had a different viewpoint in the final hours of the withdrawal.

“None of that was on the forefront of our minds,” he said.

“What we were seeing was 450 people on each one of our C17s. We were seeing young families, a lot of little kids, a lot of grateful and hopeful smiles. So we had, I would say, a unique advantage of being in a position where all we saw was gratefulness and goodness and success in what we were doing.”

While he maintains that the evacuation mission was a rewarding experience, Pelbath said it was the most difficult three weeks of his crew’s lives.

“This was the largest airlift operation in history,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done it. And we were sort of building this operation as we were executing. So a lot of challenges.”

Pelbath noted the ease of their mission, despite the emotional and physical challenges of flying every day in 120-degree heat. 

“We put together a very, very good plan, and I didn’t see any chaos whatsoever once we got into the throes of the operation,” he said.

“An honor to have been able to serve.”

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