Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, have for the first time spoken about their gruelling work evacuating Australians and visa holders from Kabul airport last month.
Major Timothy Glover said his team worked 20-hour days to help get as many people as possible out of Afghanistan before the 31 August deadline.
“People would do anything to help their families, including throwing their babies to our soldiers to hold on to while they returned for the rest of their family,” he said.
The nine-day RAAF-led operation rescued a total of 4,100 people, and all personnel left before a terrorist attack on 26 August that killed more than 170.
MAJ Glover was the officer commanding B Company of 1 RAR and said the situation was “bigger than anything we were expecting”.
“We got off the plane late at night and were met by an advanced team which had already been there for a day or so,” MAJ Glover said.
“As we walked through the terminal there were hundreds of evacuees lying around waiting to get on a plane.
“The soldiers were operating for 18 to 20 hours a day every day to get these evacuees processed.
“The team I was with down at Abbey Gate were pulling people out of some really horrible conditions and our guys showed a lot of resilience under pressure.
“They were tired, but were still able to make sound decisions. There was a great feeling that we’d managed to do a good job on the ground.
“We recovered more than 4,000 evacuees so we were able to save 4,000 lives essentially and that was a good feeling.”
Private Carl Von Stanke was tasked with helping pull people over fences from a dirty, crowded canal to have their documents assessed by Australian officials at checkpoints within the perimeter of the airfield.
He was previously deployed to Kabul just months earlier and said the airport was unrecognisable.
“It was very chaotic,” PTE Von Stanke said. “There were thousands of people around the airport trying to get in.”
Lance Corporal Aaron Gould said he and other soldiers stayed focused on the task by watching the number of evacuees they had assisted grow each day.
“We wanted to get as many people out as we could, so that’s what was driving us forward the whole time," LCPL Gould said.
“For the short amount of time that we were there, I feel like I did more work than I did in four and a half months on my last Afghanistan deployment.
“It was definitely a lot harder.”
The RAAF used its C-130J Hercules, KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and two C-17A Globemasters as part of its operation, with other ADF personnel assisting.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month hailed the teams on the ground as “real heroes”.
“They are going through what is an extraordinarily tense time and they are getting people out,” he said.
“We’ve been going like we won’t be able to get another flight in the next day, so we’ve been trying to make every flight as successful as possible.
“We’ll keep doing that for as long as we can. If that deadline [31 August] is able to be pushed out, we’ve made it clear to the United States we support that.”
The Taliban repeatedly insisted the last day of the month was a “red line” for withdrawal, with its forces then allowing evacuations to take place without interference.