Moody and the Afghans: Base has long history with war-torn country

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Aug. 29—VALDOSTA — Moody Air Force Base has had a long history with the violent, troubled nation of Afghanistan — a history of blood, sweat and tears.

In the wake of President Joe Biden's decision to pull U.S. troops out of the country after two decades of fighting, chaos erupted as thousands of Afghans tried to flee the country, clogging the capitol's airport in an effort to escape the Taliban's brutal rule. U.S. military personnel and dozens of Afghans were dead late last week after suicide bombers attacked the airport.

The Taliban traces its roots back to the lengthy Soviet-Afghanistan war of the 1980s, said Joe Robbins, professor and head of the department of political science at Valdosta State University.

He said the Taliban's operations are influenced by sharia, a form of Islamic religious law. Taliban followers oppose women in schools and in most jobs outside the home, he said.

The Taliban rose to power in the 1990s on a platform of combating corruption in the government, Robbins said.

In late 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. accused the Taliban of harboring the al-Qaida terrorist group that carried out the attacks, and launched an invasion of Afghanistan intended to overthrow the Taliban, which became an insurgent front fighting the U.S. as invaders. That battle has lasted 20 years. With Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country to focus on security threats elsewhere, the Taliban launched an offensive that has overrun most of Afghanistan.

In the beginning

Moody Air Force Base entered Afghanistan's picture in March 2002.

The 41st Rescue Squadron, based at Moody, headed for Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Flying HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, the 41st specialized in saving downed air crews.

"The aircraft were involved within 12 hours and the crews were involved within 48 hours," former 41st RQS commander Lt. Col. Lee dePaulo said in a 2014 interview.

This was the beginning of many deployments of 41st RQS assets to Afghanistan.

On March 4 of that year, Sgt. Jason Cunningham of Moody was a pararescueman with a search-and-rescue team searching for two airmen downed in al-Qaida and Taliban territory.

When enemy fire brought their helicopter down, the SAR team formed a hasty defense, while Cunningham worked inside the helicopter's burning wreckage to treat wounded men.

The sergeant began carrying the critically wounded to a place of safety, braving small-arms fire and rocket attacks. He was mortally wounded in the process.

The citation for his Air Force Cross, awarded posthumously, credited him with saving 10 lives. He was buried March 11, 2202, at Arlington National Cemetery.

'That Others May Live'

Cunningham was not the last of the Moody personnel who would die in Afghanistan.

On March 23, 2005, another rescue helicopter from Moody crashed into a mountain seconds after detaching from an in-flight refueling aircraft.

The crew of the Pave Hawk helicopter had been on an urgent mercy mission to pick up two Afghan children with serious head wounds.

All six people aboard the helicopter died instantly, a review board found.

They were Lt. Col. John Stein, 1st Lt. Tamara Archuleta, Staff Sgt. John Teal, Staff Sgt. Jason Hicks, all of the 48th Rescue Squadron; and Master Sgt. Michael Maltz and Senior Airman Jason Plite, both with the 38th Rescue Squadron.

No clear reason for the crash was ever given. In 2008, a learning center at Moody AFB was named for Maltz.

Archuleta's death hit home hard for children in Lake Park; she had written letters and sent a package including an American flag to third-grade students at Lake Park Elementary School. Taylor Thomas, then age 9, cried when students were told of Archuleta's death. "I was very sad, because she was the very first person who had sent a letter to us."

Separately, Moody Airman First Class Jesse Samek died that year during a rescue mission for a United Nations worker. The UN operative survived and the Air Force named a camp after Samek.

On June 9, 2010, another helicopter crash in Afghanistan impacted the Moody community. Killed were 1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz, Tech. Sgt. Michael P. Flores, Staff Sgt. David C. Smith, Senior Airman Benjamin D. White and Capt. David A. Wisniewski.

Moody in Combat

In 2007, the 23rd Fighter Group moved from Pope AFB in North Carolina to Moody. A descendant of the legendary "Flying Tigers" American Volunteer Group of World War II, the 23rd was fitted out with A-10C "Warthog" planes for low-level air-to-ground combat. Squadrons from the 23rd Fighter Group were sent to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, providing close air support for ground forces in battles against the Taliban, racking up 23,000 combat hours.

Keeping bases secure

During the last 20 years, it became routine to hear that members of Moody AFB's 823rd Base Defense Group were being deployed "to Southwest Asia."

Their mission was to protect air bases and support base operations. It wouldn't be until the units returned months later that the Air Force would announce they had been in Afghanistan.

In 2016, two sergeants with Moody's 824th Base Defense Squadron — Master Sgt. Aaron Frederick and Staff Sgt. Bradley Mock — won the Bronze Star with Valor, the Air Force Combat Action Medal and the Purple Heart for dealing with a suicide bomber the previous year.

Frederick, a patrol leader, was with his team of 13 men at six kilometers from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Dec. 21, 2015, when a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle stopped nearby. Frederick lunged toward the bomber just as he detonated his explosives, killing six airmen and wounding five others.

Despite his injuries, he organized a landing zone for a medical evacuation and refused treatment until he knew everyone else was accounted for, according to a formal citation.

Mock, a radio operator in the same patrol, summoned help, provided first aid and secured important gear even though he had taken facial injuries.

Winning bronzeand silver

There were other medals awarded to Moody personnel; other tales of heroism in Afghanistan to be told.

Capt. Yonel Dorelis, a co-pilot with the 41st RQS, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery on March 2, 2002.

In another case, Staff Sgt. Aaron Metzger, 38th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, carried two Afghan partners who were severely injured by a grenade to safety despite danger to himself in 2019. He was honored with the Bronze Star with Valor for his efforts.

In February 2020, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Brunetto, 38th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, Brunetto performed a lifesaving procedure on a wounded teammate and managed the evacuation of nearly a dozen patients while under attack. These actions earned Brunetto a Silver Star.

Training Afghan pilots

In 2014, Moody was tapped to support 20 A-29 aircraft, 17 USAF instructor pilots, and 24 maintenance and support personnel to train Afghan pilots and maintenance personnel.

The training program came to an end in November 2020 when the last class of Afghan A-29 pilots graduated. More than 30 pilots and 70 support personnel were trained at the base in the program.

On Dec. 7, 2015, two Afghan personnel were reported missing from Moody. The Department of Homeland Security, Air Force investigators, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law-enforcement agencies began searching for the two men after they failed to report for duty.

In the years since, the federal government has never clearly stated what happened to the two men.

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