When Brandon Droney was told he had 12 hours to pack his bags for his first deployment to Afghanistan to help end America’s longest war, he had no idea what was ahead.
Droney, a Struthers native, is a U.S. Air Force senior airman who works as a mobile C4 technician, providing communication services for Air Force crews.
But on Aug. 15, when the Afghan government collapsed after a nearly 20-year war with the Taliban — allowing the group to regain control of the country — he was called to his first emergency deployment.
“On our way there we were getting more and more reports of the Taliban starting to seize Kabul, and [that] it might not look too great over there,” he said. “So, we knew when we were going over there that we were going to get people out."
The goal was to evacuate Afghan allies and American civilians. Droney said he was amazed at how many lives were saved in the two-week mission at the airport.
“We had no clue how many people we were actually going to save. We were ballparking low numbers. … We didn’t think we would get out as many people as we did,” he said. “By the end of it when we heard the final number of over 120,000 people evacuated, everyone was like, ‘Whoa, all right.’”
Droney said if his crews would have stayed longer than two weeks, the risk of danger would have been higher.
“If we would have had two months, we could have gotten way more people out, but we would have endangered both them and us,” he said.
When Afghan evacuees entered the airport and began the process of evacuation, a sense of relief and calmness came over them.
“They were just scared, and they wanted to get out. They knew that they would be targeted by different extremists there and leaving was their only option,” Droney said.
Droney touched down in America from his deployment on Sept. 3. He said many Afghan evacuees were housed at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the United States Air Force base in New Jersey, for a time.
Droney said other crew members stayed back to escort refugees to different housing and dorm areas.
“I haven’t heard too many things on what the plan is for after their housing here, all I know is we are keeping them here and safe,” he said.
Brandon’s mother, Nancy Droney, said when she got the call of her son’s first deployment to Afghanistan, she instantly started crying.
“I was in a little bit of contact with him, and he would send us a text here and there, but [there was] no real conversation because things still weren’t too safe over there.”
Every day was a battle with her emotions, and Nancy said she needed her community to help get her through the rough patches.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go through any of that without my support system and people there to look at me and tell me, ‘He’s OK,’” she said. “I broke down daily because it was just too much. You worry sick.”
The minute Droney hit American soil, Nancy said she instantly felt relief knowing her son was finally home. Prior to his deployment, Droney had plans to join his family for summer vacation.
Ultimately, Droney had to forfeit his vacation with his family, but in the end, he knew this was most important to him.
“He even told me as bummed as he was to miss out, he knew he was doing the right thing and helping people get out of [Afghanistan] so they don’t die,” Nancy said.
Brandon said he hasn’t been back to Youngstown in a while, but has been adjusting to his new home on the Air Force base in New Jersey.
“I don’t live too far from [Youngstown], like six hours, so if I want to go home and visit, I can,” he said. “I enjoy the freedom and responsibility of what I do. Honestly, I probably will extend my work at this base.”
Hearing how many lives were saved made him feel proud to have been a part of this mission.
“We turned a bad situation, and we kind of gave it some good endings here,” Droney said. “The [number] of kids housed at the refugee area — their smiling faces all playing and having a good time — we gave them a chance.”