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Champion in the Skies: U.S. airman goes above and beyond to aid refugees as part of military operation in Afghanistan

Grace Tinkey (’21)*

As a senior airman with the United States Air Force for three years, Grace Tinkey (’21) helped evacuate refugees and fellow servicemembers at the end of the Afghan War in the summer of 2021.

“It was an experience I will never forget and was honored to be a part of,” she said. “I’ve been able to be a part of some amazing squadrons, do some incredible missions, and make an impact on those in need. It was a difficult time because we were in a situation that was not safe, and we were trying to help as many people as possible.”

Tinkey’s squadron flew a C-17 cargo transport into Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge, a mission to evacuate at-risk Afghan civilians from the country during the harrowing last moments of the United States’ military withdrawal. As a loadmaster, her role involved helping as many passengers, including fellow troops, board the aircraft as possible.

Tinkey said she knew that refugees boarding her plane were likely experiencing the worst day of their lives, having to flee their homes, so she looked for a way to ease their pain. After seeing their needs for water, food, baby formula, and other supplies, she reached out to her family and home church in Macon, Ga., for donations.

“I felt like it was my job to help make the process as easy for them as possible and do anything I could to make them feel more comfortable and safe,” she said. “I’m lucky to have an awesome mom and support system back in Georgia, and I was blown away by how many people wanted to help. We ended up having boxes and boxes of things coming in just about every day, about $15,000 worth of supplies.”

During this same period, 13 U.S. servicemembers were killed in an airport attack in Kabul while carrying out citizen evacuations. Tinkey said that was a powerful reminder of the severity of the military operation.

Grace Tinkey (’21)*

“You realize how short life is and how special it is, and I think it put a whole new perspective on serving for me,” she said. “People always say ‘freedom isn’t free,’ but when you live it and actually see people die (defending their country), it’s really difficult and makes you honored to keep fighting. I’m so grateful for the people I flew with and the people we were able to help.”

Tinkey was awarded the 816th Airlift Squadron and the 385th Air Expeditionary Group Airman of the Quarter in October 2021 for her resilient efforts to fly so many missions.

Tinkey said she has wanted to serve and defend her country for as long as she can remember. She enrolled in the Air Force Academy in 2013 at the age of 18. But after experiencing personal heartbreaks that same year — including the tragic deaths of a friend during the Boston Marathon bombing (Tinkey was participating too) and a family member from suicide — Tinkey moved to be closer to her family. The desire to join the Air Force never went away.

“I enlisted in 2019, but I feel like my military journey began when I left the Air Force Academy, not when I started, because I’ve learned so much over these past nine years that has led me to where I am today,” Tinkey said. “I like to say that it’s OK if your timeline is different from other people. It just means that you have a different story to tell.”

While deployed in the Middle East, Tinkey decided to continue her education as one of the first students in Liberty University Online Programs’ Master of Science in Aeronautics – Aviation Safety program. Launched in the Fall 2020 semester, the aeronautics master’s program offers four specializations to fit different areas of the aviation field: general, aviation education, aviation leadership, and aviation safety.

Grace Tinkey takes the Oath of Office during her commissioning ceremony last week. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant.*

Tinkey said she was especially drawn to the program for its relevant subject matter, fully online courses, and Christian values interwoven into the curriculum, along with the university’s longstanding support for the military.

“I saw that they had a really great partnership with the military, and I loved the Christian aspects of how the professors teach,” she said. “Liberty was incredible for me because I could learn from great teachers but also have a faith component built into it all. I’m very thankful for that side of Liberty and their connections and support for the military.”

Tinkey scheduled her coursework around her missions, sometimes working ahead, and participated with her classmates from the other end of the globe.

“Even though I was flying a lot and in a completely different time zone, I didn’t want to be the person who was asking for extensions because I wanted to be responsible and on time just like everyone else,” she said. “If I had a question, the professors always got back to me quickly, and the peer review with my fellow students was so helpful for me too.”

Tinkey was able to enroll thanks to Liberty’s Military benefits and the Air Force Tuition Assistance program for eligible service members, which fully covered her costs. Throughout her time with Liberty Online, the Military Affairs Office helped her register for classes and answer any questions she had.

“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get my master’s without that (tuition assistance), so I am beyond grateful for them,” she said. “I was really impressed by how Liberty helped me along the process, and I will forever recommend Liberty to the people I meet in the Air Force.”

Tinkey was selected in November to attend Officer Training School, where she was commissioned as a second lieutenant last week. She will soon move to Texas to begin pilot training.

“It’s hard for prior enlisted to go the officer route because it’s so selective, but it is awesome to see prior enlisted get picked up,” she said. “I’m very grateful to be able to cross over to the officer side, but whether you’re enlisted or an officer, you can make a huge difference at whatever rank you are.”


*Liberty University is not affiliated with the Department of Defense or any Military Service.