JACKSONVILLE, NC -- "When we found out that the Taliban had moved into the center city right outside of our tower, that's when all hell broke loose," said U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Kevin W. Haunschild, former Air Traffic Control Mobile Team Leader with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron-162, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "Afghan aircraft began attempting to take off our runway without listening to any commands from our air traffic controllers. It was chaos; it looked like a bee's nest."
In July of 2020, Master Sgt. Haunschild had assumed the Staff Noncommissioned Officer in Charge position of his team while attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit for what seemed like a typical deployment.
That all changed in August of 2021.
"Leaving felt like any other deployment," said Haunschild. "It's never easy having to say goodbye to your family, big or small, and not knowing how long you're going to be gone for, knowing that you're going to miss birthdays, holidays, and significant events in your family's life."
Before Haunschild knew it, he was landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 13th, 2021, with VMM-162 where he'd soon experience the largest noncombatant evacuation operation in military history. His mission would be to coordinate with Air Force Crisis Response Group and Special Operations Command Team Kabul to provide effective tower and ground ATC services at HKIA.
"When we got there, everything seemed to be going relatively smooth," said Haunschild. "On Aug. 15th, that's when we got a call from our colonel who told us to get our things and move into the main airport."
That day, civilian air traffic controllers spotted a possible Taliban element conducting suspicious activity near the main control tower Haunschild occupied. While this activity occurred, an Afghan Cessna aircraft with a blown tire had to abort its takeoff, which obstructing the airport's runway, ceasing all aircraft movement while civilians crowded the area and fled to the nearest hangars.
"A Marine, two Army Special Operation soldiers, and I jumped into a pickup truck while Afghans were running out of the aircraft back into the hangar," said Haunschild. "We managed to attach ratchet straps to the aircraft and tow it off of the runway."
After things seemed to be relatively normalized, Haunschild had to go outside the wire to recover radio equipment from a stranded Afghan air traffic controller. As he was returning to his ATC tower, Haunschild started receiving enemy small arms fire. Luckily, he arrived safely with the critical radio equipment.
Two weeks after arriving at HKIA, Haunschild and 230 other Marines were extracted for their eventual flight back home. Haunschild returned home Sept. 22, 2021, reporting back to Marine Air Control Squadron-2, Marine Air Control Group-28, on Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“The fact that he was able to pull his team together without much guidance or resources was amazing,” said Lt. Col. Robert D. Barbaree III, commanding officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, MCAS New River. “He shows up, he’s professional, he cares about his Marines and makes sure the mission is completed thoroughly.”
Haunschild, a Kingsville, Texas native, graduated from Kaufer High School in Riviera, Texas, where he would later attend Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College before enlisting in the Marine Corps as an Air Traffic Control Specialist in Nov. 2004.
“He is a truly selfless leader and a great mentor for myself and the Marines,” said Sgt. Ian M. Chryst, crew chief for ATC, MCAS New River. "He could lead me into a burning pit and I’d follow him right in.”
For his extraordinary actions at the airport, Haunschild received the Bronze Star Medal during a ceremony held at the air station headquarters on Jan. 20, 2023.
The Bronze Star is awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.