New Haven Register, Conn.
WEST HAVEN — Stationed in Qatar, half the world away from his native West Haven, Mike Raucci found himself thinking quickly.
Moments earlier on Aug. 26, 2021, a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan killed 183 people, including 13 members of the United States military. Afghans seeking to escape the country as it came under Taliban rule populated the airport before the attack, and Raucci was part of the first U.S. Air Force flight crew charged with going in to evacuate survivors. As a C-17 engine mechanic, it fell to Raucci to ensure the jet had enough fuel to carry out the mission without enough time to fill the tank.
“Normally these missions take a bunch of planning and we have everything planned out: where we get fuel, how much fuel we get. We didn’t have any of that planned, we didn’t have any time to plan it. It was too hot at the airfield we were taking out of to take our full fuel load or we wouldn’t have been able to take off,” Raucci said. “We’re not going to take fuel in Kabul because at the time it was like an active combat scenario and we didn’t know if there would be a secondary attack, so we pretty much took off and said we’ll deal with the fuel tank later.”
About three hours later, the jet landed safely and survivors boarded with their luggage where they were evacuated to Germany. Sixteen months after that, Raucci and his crew received the Distinguished Flying Cross for acts of bravery during aerial flight. Raucci said that, despite feeling honored, it was surprising, as his job pertains to getting the jet ready for takeoff while still on the ground, and his in-flight duties are mostly limited to scanning for threats outside of the windows.
Although Raucci, 27, had long considered joining the military, his father said if he had listened to him it would have never happened.
His father, Paul Raucci, a retired West Haven Police Department detective, said he had tried to discourage his son from enlisting in the military from when Mike was in middle school.
“My opinion was there were better things in life for him than the military,” he said. “Skip forward to today, it turns out he was 100 percent right.”
It was only at a ceremony this month for Distinguished Flying Cross recipients on Mike’s base in California, that Paul Raucci heard the full narrative of his son’s actions in Afghanistan. Prior to that, he said his son had downplayed the danger and impact of his mission.
“His crew was the first crew sent in to the airport after the explosion, and when they got there it was the middle of the night. The explosion knocked out all the lighting, the airport was surrounded by the Taliban and they had to fly in the dark with no lights on the aircraft. The pilots used night vision goggles to make the landing and they evacuated a whole bunch of injured Marines and civilians and had a three-hour flight out of Afghanistan to a safe base in Germany and with only an hour’s worth of fuel,” Paul Raucci said. “Every single obstacle that could be was stacked against them, they should’ve had no chance. They got out, everyone survived and that was the general basis for the awards that were given.”
Although he is now a technical sergeant, at the time of his pinning, Mike Raucci was a staff sergeant; Paul Raucci said he learned from his son’s commander that it is extremely rare — down to about 10 people — to receive such an honor at that rank.
Paul Raucci said his son had not shown much natural ability for tinkering as a child.
“He’d come to me to put the chain on his bicycle,” he said. He said he was amazed to learn the full extent of his son’s knowledge and capability and how he managed to quickly put enough fuel in a C-17 to evacuate was moved to tears recounting how his son, “this little boy who grew up on the beach in West Haven from the humblest of beginnings,” was so capable of heroics.
“It blew me away,” he said.
Mike Raucci credits the training he received in the Air Force for that knowledge.
“I don’t have any background in aviation, no one in my family is a pilot. The Air Force taught me all I know about planes,” he said. “My official job is a C-17 engine mechanic, but I know pretty much all there is to know about that aircraft.”
Recalling seeing his son accept the medal for acts of bravery during aerial flight, Paul Raucci’s voice began to shake.
“He always told me I was his hero for all the things I did. He’s my hero,” he said.
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