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Leaders say troops were heroic in evacuation effort

778 flights successfully moved more than 124,000 civilians out of Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's top leaders are praising military members - calling them "heroic" - for completing the largest evacuation of civilians in American history.

The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke Wednesday for the first time since 20 years of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan concluded.

"Our troops were tireless, fearless and selfless," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The numbers from the war's final chapter are just staggering.

In 17 days' time, the U.S. military and coalition partners flew 778 evacuation sorties, successfully removing some 124,000 civilians - more than 6,000 of them Americans - from Afghanistan.

Austin said this has been a busy time for the Department of Defense, "a proud one and a solemn one, too."

Sadly, the war's last days also brought with them the war's final casualties: 13 U.S. service members killed in ISIS-K suicide bombings at the Kabul airport.

"The United States military will always honor their heroism," said Austin.

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley said he understands fully the anger and frustration that some veterans have voiced in recent days as the U.S. completed its exit.

"This is tough stuff," he said. "War is hard. It's vicious. It's brutal. It's unforgiving. And yes, we all have pain and anger. And when you see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger."

Lawmakers point out, there's still work to do.

"The mission's not done because we still have Americans there," said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia, 2nd District). "We still have Afghan allies who assisted our troops over two decades."

Milley vowed, "We will continue to evacuate American citizens under the leadership of the Department of State as this mission has now transitioned from a military mission to a diplomatic mission." 

Not everyone is happy with how Austin and Milley have performed.

A conservative-leaning group of retired military officers is calling for them to resign.

"Flag Officers 4 America" sent a letter -- signed by 87 former generals and admirals -- accusing them of "negligence" over the withdrawal.