Last flight from Afghanistan: Maj. Katie Lunning’s daring journey of rescue

Last flight from Afghanistan: Maj. Katie Lunning’s daring journey of rescue

Last flight from Afghanistan: Maj. Katie Lunning's daring journey of rescue

In honor of Military Appreciation Month, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS highlighted a local woman who volunteered to serve in May 2021.

Maj. Katie Lunning, with the 133rd Airlift Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, unexpectedly found herself in Afghanistan — saving lives and facing down the Taliban as the United States ended its longest war ever.

Like most citizen soldiers and airmen, Lunning has two jobs. She’s a critical care nurse at the VA Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa, and is chief nurse of the 133rd Medical Group of the Minnesota Air National Guard.

“I think people are always surprised on what all the Guard is involved in,” Lunning said.

In May 2021, Lunning was asked to fill in on a Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) going to Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar. It was her first deployment.

“I was a critical care nurse, so I qualified and decided to kind of take on that adventure,” she said.

Lunning said goodbye to her husband, Josh — a command sergeant major in the Iowa Army National Guard — and her then-7-year-old daughter, Addie.

She arrived in Qatar on July 17 and her deployment quickly turned into chaos.

In early August, they watched the news as the Taliban raced across Afghanistan toward the capital city of Kabul. Her CCATT was one of the closest in the region.

“So we knew that we were going to be used,” said Lunning. “They told us to get ready. And as casualties were going to be happening, we would be helping in evacuating and getting those casualties.”

On Aug. 15, the president of Afghanistan fled the country as the Taliban took control of almost everything except Hamid Karzai International Airport. The airport was secured by 2,100 U.S. service members, including 400 members of the Minnesota National Guard’s Task Force 1 of the 194 Armored Regiment.

On Aug. 16, Lunning and her team started making flight after flight on giant C-17 aircraft from Qatar to Kabul and back to evacuate patients from the coalition hospital and as many Afghan refugees as possible.

“We had to leave the aircraft and walk into the city without a security team and go to that hospital and package our patients and then get them safely back to the airplane,” Lunning remarked.

When asked if the Taliban were firing their weapons as they were pushing patients through the streets, Lunning said, “At the gates they were. Not at us. But at the gates, they would fire into the crowds.”

Lunning said there were C-17s at the airport as far as the eye could see.

“It was very overwhelming to witness that amount of airpower. It was historic,” she said. “Nothing like that had ever been done before.”

Thousands of terrified Afghans who feared the Taliban came to the airport to try and get out.

“They saw that flag and they rushed the airplanes. And the symbol of freedom on the tail of every single aircraft was their hope and what they turned to,” said Lunning.

Each round trip took about 20 hours with little time for rest.

“CCATT just has to keep going,” she added. “So when there’s a mission, you just go again and again.”

Lunning returned to Qatar on Aug. 26 and was going to bed after being up for 30 hours when they were ordered back immediately.

A suicide bomber attacked the crowd outside the airport’s Abbey Gate. Thirteen U.S. troops and 170 Afghans were killed.

Lunning said they dealt with a variety of injuries, including blast injuries from the bomb. “We had a Marine who they had to open up his chest to stop internal bleeding. We had a patient we took right off the surgical table that was barely resuscitated.”

A little boy was one of the casualties in the bombing.

“It was an 18-month-old. And my heart just sank because, you know, I work adult critical care, peds, you know. It was terrifying to take a baby … but there isn’t time to be scared.”

When asked what motivates her, she responded, “My daughter is my why. She’s the reason that I continue to serve. It’d be a lot easier for me just to be home. And not working this dual life where I am a nurse on my civilian side and a nurse in the military. But I want to be a good example to her.”

On Aug. 27, faced with many serious casualties, they made a seven-and-a-half-hour flight directly to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. It was their seventh flight in 10 days.

When they got back to Qatar on Aug. 28, Lunning had been awake for 50 hours. On Aug. 29, with no medical assets left in Afghanistan, they were ordered back one last time.

“So we went and we set up kind of like an ER, if you will, on the back of an airplane,” Lunning said. “After the last troops were safely up on the airplane and tails up, then we circled around them and left Afghanistan.”

That ended up being the last American flight out of Afghanistan.

“It was a very surreal feeling,” Lunning stated when asked if she realized the weight of that moment. “I’m of the generation — I joined after 9/11. So, we’ve always had a presence in Afghanistan. So it was a surreal feeling to know that we didn’t anymore.”

By the end of the mission, more than 120,000 people had been evacuated to safety in one of the biggest airlifts in history.

On Jan. 7, 2023, Lunning made history herself, becoming the first Air National Guard flight nurse to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

She gives all the credit to her family, her team and her training with the 133rd Airlift Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard.