AFMC Command News

From impossible to possible

  • Published
  • By Jaima Fogg
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Wendi DiBartolomeo was recognized with the Bronze Star Medal, April 15, 2022, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for her efforts as the chief air traffic controller during Operation Allies Rescue.

DiBartolomeo, 88th Operations Support Squadron senior enlisted leader, had been serving on a regularly scheduled deployment as an air traffic controller at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait last summer when it was announced that the United States would pull its forces out of Afghanistan. She was initially not slated to go to Afghanistan but her experience as an air traffic controller and in radar operations made her the top pick.

Although the perimeter of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan had been secured by U.S. armed forces prior to her arrival, the air traffic control tower and radar had been ransacked and the equipment was not operational.

DiBartolomeo initially worked alongside the command post controllers communicating with aircraft and coordinating the evacuation of refugees. Aircraft would land either empty or with supplies to be offloaded and leave with 500 refugees on board.

In the midst of the refugee evacuation, and with an inoperable air traffic control tower in Kabul, the radios for U.S. Air Forces Central (AFCENT) at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina went down and DiBartolomeo was asked to do the impossible. She was told to stand up air traffic operations on the airfield with no operational radars, no maps and no training of the airspace.

DiBartolomeo’s team found a Humvee with two operational radios and set up shop. Normal air traffic control operations were tossed out the window and they were instructed to not let any of the aircraft collide.

“One of the Marine controllers, another Air Force controller and I figured out a plan of attack for the radar and the approach control function,” said DiBartolomeo. “My team stacked the aircraft above the airport and then shipped them to tower’s frequency so the other Air Force or Marine controllers could peel them off as needed to in order to land. It was really important for us to establish that plan because we had no maps and we had no knowledge of the airspace.”

Over the course of four days, and from the middle of Kabul airport, the air traffic control teams worked together to maintain vital aircraft arrival and departure corridors. DiBartolomeo felt lucky to have the security of the Humvee. The other controllers were operating under pop-up canopies or out in the open. The controllers communicated with the aircraft and AFCENT using only radios, cellphones and hand drawn charts.

In all, 634 aircraft landed and departed from Kabul and 124,000 people were evacuated during Operation Allies Refuge.

Operation Allies Refuge was a United States military operation to airlift certain at-risk Afghan civilians, U.S. embassy employees and other prospective Special Immigrant Visa applicants during the final days of the War in Afghanistan.

Col. Patrick Miller, 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander, presented DiBartolomeo with the bronze star.

“This is a testament to you; to your character and competence. You made choices throughout your career to listen and learn, to grow and develop, and to be ready so that when the extraordinary event happened, and the opportunity was thrust in front of you, that you capitalized on that experience,” Miller told DiBartolomeo. “You focused on taking care of the team and taking care of others and put yourself in harm’s way to do that. And we can’t say thank you enough. What you accomplished, what you achieved, the way you executed that mission, under fire, in a hostile environment, in a historic event is truly remarkable. Be proud, be very proud.”

The Bronze Star Medal is an award presented to United States Armed Forces personnel for bravery and acts of merit or meritorious service.