EWU Student Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross

January 18, 2024
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Derin Durham, Fourth Air Force commander, pins the Distinguished Flying Cross medal on Master Sgt. Jodi Signer, loadmaster, 313th Airlift Squadron, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Oct. 15, 2023. Signer earned the medal for her heroism during Operation Allies Refuge's 17-day evacuation of 124,000 people from Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Paolo Felicitas)

Jodi Signer, a student in the EWU Regional Initiatives in Dental Education Program (RIDE), received one of our nation’s highest military honors last fall.

Master Sergeant Signer, a loadmaster in the United States Air Force, was among a team of U.S. Air Force reservists who received the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for heroism during Operation Allies Refuge.

Master Sgt. Jodi Signer is pictured third from the left with the other members of the flight team. Thank you to Staff Sgt. Palo Felicitas, photographer, and the 446th Airlift Wing for the use of the photos.

Their perilous mission was part of a 17-day effort that successfully evacuated more than 124,000 children and adults from Kabul, Afghanistan, during the 2021 Taliban offensive. Operation Allies Refuge became known as the largest non-combatant evacuation in American history.

Signer and five other reservists from the 446th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Tacoma, Washington, were ordered into the air immediately after receiving notification that a Taliban attack at an airport checkpoint had killed 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

“During ground operations or in critical stages of flight, accomplishing the mission safely was the only thing on my mind,” says Signer.

The team flew a C-17 Globemaster III from Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, transporting a 13-person Aeromedical Evacuation and Critical Care and Transport team, along with 23,000 pounds of critical base supplies and caskets for the deceased service members, according to Stars and Stripes, the military’s official news organization.

They landed amid a hail of gunfire while approaching the airport and kept the engine of the C-17 running as they performed their rescue work.

“We were repeatedly surrounded by visible threats, both while flying and on the ground with engines running,” Signer says. “I remember watching a rocket, aimed directly towards us and the airfield, get shot down in front of me.”

The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to an enlisted person for extraordinary achievement and heroism during aerial flight, and must involve operations that are not routine.

The citation accompanying the award said Signer assisted with tactical maneuvering of the aircraft to avoid sporadic machine gun fire, navigating through congested air space with limited air traffic control guidance.

Once the aircraft landed, Signer risked her own life to save the lives of civilians, the citation says: “On the ground, she directed the emergency evacuation of the wounded Afghan nationals, including three children on life support-systems.”

Art DiMarco, director of the EWU RIDE Program and a former officer in the U. S. Air Force, notified the university about Signer’s outstanding work.

“I am deeply humbled by her courageous actions and her skillful management of a rescue operation that had a high potential for a disastrous outcome. Her selfless acts of bravery and courage under fire reflect highly on her character, and bring great honor to our program, to Eastern Washington University, and to the profession,” DiMarco says.

As a pre-doctoral student in the EWU RIDE program, in Spokane, Signer is co-enrolled at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. This program focuses on producing dentists who will serve patients in rural and underserved areas of the Northwest.

“The Air Force has instilled a higher level of respect, self-discipline, and compassion that I wouldn’t have obtained otherwise. Through travel, my perspective on equality has grown as I’ve witnessed economic disparities not only in other countries but within our own communities,” Signer says.

“I joined the RIDE program because of the mission of the program, to help provide dental care to underrepresented areas, directly aligned with my personal goal to serve rural communities.”

Signer is expected to graduate with the class of 2027.

To learn more about the heroic work that led to Signer’s Distinguished Flying Cross, visit Stars and Stripes or the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service online.