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Air Force Wrestler Led Final Flight Out Of Afghanistan

Air Force Wrestler Led Final Flight Out Of Afghanistan

Former wrestler Alex Pelbath led the last jet off the ground from the War in Afghanistan, and he says wrestling taught him to be ready for anything.

Feb 21, 2022 by Kyle Klingman
Air Force Wrestler Led Final Flight Out Of Afghanistan

The final flight out of Afghanistan following a two-decades-long conflict left the tarmac on August 30, 2021, at 11:59 p.m. Lt. Colonel Alex Pelbath was the commanding officer of the flight — and he is a wrestler. 

Pelbath is a 2001 graduate from the United States Air Force Academy where he competed under three-time Olympian Wayne Baughman. The attacks on 9/11 meant Pelbath would spend most of his time in the Middle East — and he took his wrestling career with him. 

“Being a Division I wrestler was an awesome experience,” Pelbath said. “Wrestling changed me as a human being — like it does for most wrestlers.”

The former Falcon wrestler grew up in Southern California and found the sport as a freshman in high school when coaches said he would quit. It was the right thing to say since Pelrath wanted to prove them wrong. 

He placed fourth at the California state championships as a senior before heading to Colorado Springs. Pelbath was a decent college wrestler, winning two all-academy titles and being named team captain as a senior — an honor he still cherishes. 

Following graduation, Pelbath coached wrestling for a year at Air Force before training as a C17 pilot. By 2003, it was getting hot and heavy in Afghanistan, and — like most military personnel — he made several deployments. 

None was quite like the one he took last year. 

Pelbath woke up on the morning of August 16, 2021, and learned that the president of Afghanistan had fled the country following months of turmoil. An hour later, he received the call to launch forces to Kabul. They flew into the country when things started getting bad then and were asked to fly troops out.

“It turns out we didn't know what was about to happen in the next 12 hours,” Pelbath said. “That was the first evacuation flight. We did the first evacuation and we wound up being the last jet off the ground several days later.

“I was named the air mission commander for that mission. On the night of the 30th, I took my five C17s in there, loaded everybody up, and got out of there. We took off right at 11:59 p.m. local time. As the mission commander, I was the last guy to get off the ground.”

During an earlier fight, Pelbath noticed someone from the army with a cauliflower ear. He asked him where he wrestled and, as it turned out, he went to Army West Point and graduated in 2001 — the same year as Pelbath. And they both wrestled at 165 pounds. 

“There is something about wrestling that transcends the mat,” Pelbath said. “We can always pick each other out. What’s great about our sport is that nobody understands our sport like we do. There’s an instant bond or kindred spirit or an understanding when you’re in the military and you run into other wrestlers. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that guy. You know exactly what kind of person they are if they were a wrestler.

“I don’t know if we wrestled each other but we were in the same weight class the same year. If we did wrestle, I’m pretty sure I kicked his ass — but I did not bring that up. He could probably kick my ass today.” 

Pelbath has a simple but direct message when he speaks to the Air Force wrestling team in several weeks: be ready. The lesson learned in Afghanistan was that you can’t predict the future and you don’t know what will happen so you have to be prepared at all times. 

“Nobody could have predicted that it was going to end the way it did,” Pelbath said. “We were calling it the Zombie Apocalypse because that’s what it looked like to us. It’s never happened before. It’s the largest airlift evacuation in history. It’s the first time doing this so how can you possibly plan or prepare? You can’t. The takeaway is to be ready.

“Wrestling does straight-up prepare them for all that. All the wrestling teams at the military academies have a little bit more that they need to think about. The mental toughness, the physical toughness, and the leadership that they’re developing will carry them through to whatever the future holds if they decide to make a career out of the military.”

(This column first appeared in WIN Magazine. To subscribe, go to or call 888-305-0606.)