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She helped save lives in Afghanistan. Now, she's earned the military's top flight medal

 U.S. Air Force Capt. Katie Lunning, 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, critical care air transport team registered nurse, checks equipment on a C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Katie Lunning
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U.S. Air Force Capt. Katie Lunning, center, 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, critical care air transport team registered nurse, checks equipment on a C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021. Lunning participated in one of the largest human airlifts in United States history by providing medical care to evacuees or service members while onboard a C-17 Globemaster III.

Major Katie Lunning, who resides in Urbandale, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross following her acts of heroism in Afghanistan. She is the second nurse to ever be presented with the medal.

In August 2021, after finishing up a 24-hour-long mission and looking forward to some well-deserved sleep, Major Katie Lunning got an unexpected call. There had been an explosion in the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, the country where she was deployed as a critical care air transport nurse.

That day, Aug. 26, 2021, was during the U.S. armed forces' hasty, large-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan. A suicide bomber had bombed the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, killing civilians and U.S. forces and injuring many, many more. Lunning would soon find herself on a plane, serving as part of the air transport team responsible for caring for patients in critical condition and transporting them to medical care in Germany.

For her heroic efforts, Lunning was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this January, making her the second nurse ever presented with the military's top flight medal. She also received the "C" device, which distinguishes an award earned for achievement performed under combat conditions.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director of the Air National Guard, fastens the Distinguished Flying Cross onto Maj. Katie Lunning’s uniform.
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Amy Lovegren
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U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director of the Air National Guard, fastens the Distinguished Flying Cross onto Maj. Katie Lunning’s uniform St. Paul, Minn., Jan. 7. Loh’s visit was in honor of Lunning’s extraordinary actions during the evacuation of Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, 2021 which earned Lunning the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration.

Lunning works as an ICU nurse manager for the VA Central Iowa Health Care System. She's lived in Urbandale since 2018 when her husband got a promotion with the Iowa National Guard. Originally from Minnesota, she's been enlisted with Minnesota's Air National Guard for more than 20 years.

During her six-month deployment based at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Lunning spent her days transporting patients to different hospitals. On the day of the airport bombing that killed nearly 200, her Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) was tasked with transporting 27 Afghan civilians and U.S. service members who had been injured in the attack.

Prior to the bombing, Lunning had watched along with the rest of the world as the Afghan government collapsed and panic ensued. Thousands rushed to the airport to escape as the capital fell. While more than 100,000 were able to escape, tens of thousands were left stranded, many with no clear path to seeing their families again.

When she got the call about the bombing, Lunning wasn't sure what to expect. All she knew was sleep would have to wait — she had to go back to the plane, immediately.

"We had no idea who we were going to be picking up, what the patients were going to be like, how many patients, we had no clue. It was really flying in blind," she said. "The entire way there, we're just setting up the airplane in an every-case scenario, just kind of getting as ready as we could. Because we had no idea what we were going to be doing or what it was going to be like when we landed."

A liaison on the ground finally told them what had happened, estimating that 10 or 11 U.S. service members had died in a mass-casualty explosion.

"It was very sobering," she said.

The faces I think are what I'll always remember. Our patients' faces.
Major Katie Lunning, critical care nurse

A horrific scene awaited the crew. Victims ranged from young adults to an 18-month-old baby whose mother had not survived the explosion. Intense fighting that had broken out resulted in victims of gunshot wounds in addition to trauma from the bombing. Lunning cared for patients in need of immediate surgery. Some suffered brain damage, others broken bones or worse.

She says she distinctly recalls a soldier mouthing "thank you" to her after coming out of open-heart surgery once the flight had safely landed.

"The faces I think are what I'll always remember. Our patients' faces," she said.

Critical Care Air Transport Nurse Maj. Katie Lunning helping a patient at the Coalition Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Lunning and hospital staff are transferring the patient to their Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) equipment to transport him to the next echelon of care. Lunning is wearing a helmet and Kevlar because she will be walking him through the streets back to the airplane.
Courtesy of Katie Lunning
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Critical Care Air Transport Nurse Maj. Katie Lunning photographed in August of 2021 at the Coalition Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Lunning and hospital staff are transferring a patient to their Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) equipment to transport him to the next echelon of care. Lunning is wearing a helmet and Kevlar because she will be walking him through the streets back to the airplane.

Upon returning home, Lunning said she felt isolated at first. During her first drill weekend following her deployment, she said she almost felt like she was "playing dress up."

"I felt like no one could really understand or imagine what I saw," she said.

Still, she had her crew. They had all experienced the same things and seen what she had seen. She said getting to find out when her patients returned home helped her find peace as well.

When she discovered she would be receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, Lunning called the experience "humbling."

"I was just very proud to represent nursing, and especially international guard nursing," she said. "There have been, throughout history, wonderful nurses and international guard nurses, and I think it's amazing that we're getting recognized for the things that nursing can do."

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River