On April 1, 2022, the US Air Force honored four airmen with the Distinguished Flying Cross for their efforts and bravery during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many, however, are upset that one crew member onboard the C-17A Globemaster III didn’t receive the award: flying crew chief, Staff Sgt. Dennis Gonzales-Furman of the 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is presented to service members who distinguish themselves in combat. The four airmen awarded it during the most recent ceremony were:
- Lt. Col. Dominic Calderon, 301st Airlift Squadron (commander)
- 1st Lt. Kyle Anderson, 301st Airlift Squadron (copilot)
- Master Sgt. Silva Foster, 301st Airlift Squadron (loadmaster)
- Senior Airman Michael Geller, 517th Airlift Squadron
During the US withdrawal of Afghanistan in August 2021, the aircrew were tasked with flying in members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, who were helping to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport. However, when the Taliban seized control of the airport on August 15, their mission changed to one of evacuation.
When they arrived, no air traffic control systems were working, meaning the crew had to land the aircraft blind. They then got word that Americans and other individuals on the ground needed to be evacuated, despite the C-17A not having enough fuel to sustain the heavier load. Additionally, the jet had also suffered from what the award citation deemed “several… abnormalities.” As there were no longer any ground crews at the airport, the issues needed to be either patched or deferred.
Geller, then an airman 1st class, prepped the C-17A for the influx of people, while Foster readied the aircraft for takeoff. The crew knew they had enough fuel and liquid oxygen to reach their next destination, but they still had to compensate for the added weight. Caldron was able to bypass this by “flying at optimum altitudes and ‘maximum endurance’ for nearly all the flight.”
Through their efforts, the aircrew were able to rescue “153 U.S. citizens, allied partners and vulnerable Afghans.”
Speaking at the award ceremony, Maj. Gen. Matthew J. Burger, deputy commander of Air Force Reserve Command, said, “Within the Reserves, we only have 45 people right now who have received this award. Only five of those were mobility airmen. The last time a mobility airman was awarded this award was in 2004. This is a unique and special, and an extraordinary achievement while conducting flight operations.”
Not wanting to omit Gonzales-Furman, who was onboard the C-17A, from the ceremony, Calderon requested he join the group on stage, saying that “if he had a game ball for this mission, he would have given it to” his comrade. The staff sergeant served as the aircraft’s flying crew chief, a role that involves taking care of the C-17A when it’s not in flight. His job also requires him to remain with the aircraft while in flight, as opposed to other crew chiefs, providing technical expertise and additional help.
While Gonzales-Furman was recognized for his contributions to the success of the operation, he was not awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
According to an article published to Task & Purpose, an anonymous Air Force official revealed that Gonzales-Furman had been up for consideration for the Distinguished Flying Cross, but was denied, the exact reasons for which are unknown. The official also said that a second request has been submitted on his behalf, which is still under consideration.
According to current and former airmen, a likely reason Gonzales-Furman didn’t receive the honor is because it’s only awarded to rated flyers. However, the Air Force Personnel Center fact sheet doesn’t specify a difference between ground troops and air group members.
Many have taken to posting on the unofficial Air Force subreddit about their disbelief over the snub, with one user writing that “he was practically Chewbacca in A New Hope,” and another saying, “The load gets it, but the FFC doesn’t? That’s messed up.”
“DFC is a big f*****g deal. These airmen deserve it. Without airmen like this, it would have been a lot worse,” added a third user. However, upon learning that Gonzales-Furman didn’t receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, they added, “We didn’t fly unless our crew chiefs had their s**t together. And they always did.”
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As Task & Purpose points out in their article, a primary reason for the outrage is due to the fact that many feel there’s injustice toward the Air Force’s maintenance community. According to numerous reports and sources, these workers are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, such as depression, and have a higher rate of suicide than others within the military branch.