Maj. Katie Lunning stood on a stage Saturday at the Minnesota Air National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing, the head of the Air National Guard affixing the Distinguished Flying Cross to her dress blues.
The room was filled with dignitaries and pomp and circumstance. The lieutenant general called Lunning a "true American hero." Hundreds of her fellow Guard members burst into applause alongside her husband and 9-year-old daughter, as the 40-year-old intensive care nurse who grew up in Hastings was awarded the fourth-highest medal in the U.S. military.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is the top medal for heroism during aerial flight, previously given to such prominent American as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and George H.W. Bush.
But in the midst of her big moment, Lunning couldn't help but think back to exactly 500 days before — Aug. 26, 2021 — to the moment of chaos and tragedy and heroism that led her to Saturday.
Lunning, an intensive care unit nurse at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center before her family moved in 2018 to Iowa, where she now manages the ICU at the Des Moines VA hospital — had volunteered for deployment to Qatar. She'd served nearly two decades in the Minnesota National Guard, and while she had been activated before — on a humanitarian medical mission in rural Kentucky, during Minnesota's civil unrest after George Floyd murder and for various pandemic-related duties — she'd never done a traditional overseas deployment.
When she landed at Al Udeid Air Base in July 2021, she figured the deployment would be a relatively easy one: a well-appointed base in a peaceful country. Then the Taliban reasserted control over nearby Afghanistan. Watching CNN, her commander told Lunning's three-person specialized medical team for aeromedical evacuation — essentially a flying intensive care unit — that it must be ready for anything.
The day after the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was evacuated, the team flew to Afghanistan, but the Kabul airport runway had been overrun; its members turned back to Qatar. Two days later, they returned to Kabul, where U.S. Marines and soldiers had secured the runway to ensure evacuation flights continued.
For days, Lunning, without security transport and armed only with her pistol, picked up severely injured Afghan refugees from a coalition hospital, wheeled them on stretchers 2½ blocks through Taliban-controlled streets, loaded them onto planes and shuttled them to Qatar. When they heard intelligence briefs indicating potential suicide bombers were roaming Kabul, Lunning simply called the reports "scary stuff you can't control."
"What we can control," Lunning said, "is doing our jobs." Each roundtrip mission lasted 20 to 24 hours. She treated gunshot wounds, delivered babies and helped special-needs children. She barely slept.
Then came Aug. 26, the day that led to Lunning becoming the first Air National Guard nurse to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Suicide bombers at a Kabul airport gate killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. troops. Within minutes, Lunning and a dozen other medical team members dashed back to their C-17 military aircraft on the Qatar base. Three hours later, they landed amid the bombing's eerie aftermath.
Lunning heard gunfire. She sprinted to the coalition hospital, passing Taliban on trucks. She wheeled one blown-up and badly injured Marine to the plane, then a paralyzed Marine, then a Afghan toddler with a traumatic brain injury. The aeromedical evacuation team loaded up 22 severely injured Afghans and Americans and took off for a U.S. military hospital in Germany. The flight was eight hours of triage, ensuring five ventilated patients could breathe, doing a lifesaving blood resuscitation on an Afghan man, obtaining intravenous access on a 2-year-old despite no pediatric medical resources.
All 22 survived.
"It almost seems unimaginable," Gov. Tim Walz said Saturday. "A lot of folks get so used to watching fiction, they don't realize who is walking amongst them. In a world that is so hungry for role models, I can't tell you how good it feels to be here today."
Lunning returned to Kabul one more time and was on the last U.S. plane to leave Afghanistan early in the morning of Aug. 30.
Before Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, affixed the medal to Lunning's uniform , he spoke of her selflessness.
"When Katie was asked to share the best of what she witnessed from our country during her deployment, she simply replied, in her humble manner, 'The care for humanity, 100%,'" Loh said.
"Thank you, Maj. Lunning, for your dedication to the mission, for your bravery under fire, for serving our nation with your medical expertise, and your care for humanity."
For Lunning, it wasn't even that day's harrowing events that stick with her most. It's one face from days before the bombing.
Lunning doesn't remember the pregnant Afghan woman's name. She doesn't know what country the woman and her family would settle in, or what name they would choose for their baby. But she remembers rushing her from a hospital on the lawless streets of Kabul to the airport. She remembers the woman, effaced and dilated, crying. And she remembers feeling this family's love and desperation as the woman, her husband and their 18-month-old daughter headed toward a new life.
They were just another family, no different than her own. The international political crisis had upended their life in the worst moment possible.
"We got to help, though," Lunning said, "so I think that's what made all the difference. I'm able to look back on it positively. Because we were able to help."