Kate Middleton Formed an 'Instant Connection' in 'Priceless' Time with Afghanistan Evacuation Heroes
The Duchess of Cambridge visited an air base which welcomed hundreds of evacuees to the U.K. last month
Kate Middleton stepped out on Wednesday to thank some of the heroes who helped thousands of people flee Afghanistan last month.
The Duchess of Cambridge made her first outing since her long summer break from public duties to visit an airbase where she met members of the armed forces and civilians and volunteers who had taken part in the mammoth humanitarian effort to evacuate and help resettle people from Afghanistan.
Kate arrived at the base, which is about 80 miles north west of London, by helicopter before being driven to the hangar where the volunteers and service personnel were gathered.
Kate, 39, was praised today for her empathy with young aircrews and service members who'd helped hundreds of people flee Afghanistan.
Wing commander Calvin Bailey, officer commanding 70 Squadron, said she wanted to hear the young air men and women's stories — something that will help them cope with the after effects of the harrowing mission they lived through.
"They want to tell their story. They want to say, 'This is hard. I did this. This is what I feel proud about.' And she gave that to them today," Wing Commander Bailey told PEOPLE at RAF Brize Norton. "They were just so important. And so for us there's a lot of necessary catharsis. We need to share our stories and we need to get them out. And that's what the media allows us to kind of do — because it means, for them, their parents will see them on the news tonight and hear their stories. It was priceless."
He added, "You can tell her, you can have a joke with her and there's stuff there that will always be between them. She was having a very personal discussion with them. Some of that would never leave that crowd."
Some of the engineers and other airport support staff were working almost non-stop through the intense two-week spell as the missions were flown around the clock. "So for the guys that didn't really see any of that to have a royal come and chat to them and to speak to them like a human being. She's so engaging and she's so lovely. She wanted to show that she had knowledge and understanding of the planes. We knew some people her husband [Prince William] worked with, and they got in touch. And there was one guy who part of the course behind her husband. So, you know, there's an instant connection there."
The mission presented many "emotional challenges," he said and it was unknown how it will have effected the servicemen and women. "We don't know yet really. I did quite a lot of crying because it was pretty emotional. The thing we don't talk a lot about is the feeling of moral injury," he says.
Kate "was very sympathetic and she wanted to know exactly what were the reactions of the people coming on board," Wing Commander Kevin Latchman told PEOPLE.
And Loadmaster Sergeant Mark Curtis, who was in charge of the evacuees on the plane, added of today's event: "To meet the Duchess and for her to be so interested in and engaged with our stories was brilliant. We're serving our Queen, our country, the royal family. And obviously to have that level of the 'boss' coming along and patting you on your back for the hard work was amazing."
Providing an awe-inspiring backdrop to Kate's arrival earlier in the day was one of the huge C17 Globemaster transporter planes that helped with the airlift.
Around 850 of the 15,000 evacuees taken out of Kabul airport by the British in two weeks in August arrived at RAF Brize Norton airbase. Kate, 39, spent time on Wednesday with RAF air crew and medics who supported evacuees at Kabul airport, and those who established a Repatriation Centre at the base. That involved providing essential supplies and support for those arriving into the U.K.
Evacuees were given food, clothing, children's toys, medical support, and childcare and sanitary products whilst their details were processed.
The full fleet of RAF transport aircraft from the RAF base flew around the clock to support the evacuation as well as bringing in urgent supplies of food and clothing. And that mission included a record flight for an Globemaster that took 439 passengers out of Kabul on a single flight.
Wednesday was the first time the Duchess of Cambridge has been seen in public for more than two months — when she attended the Wimbledon tennis championships final and the final of the European soccer championships with Prince William and Prince George on July 11.
Kate's visit comes after it emerged that William stepped in to help ensure an Afghan army officer and his family were able to leave Kabul in the exodus.
The prince is understood to have known the man — who has not been named — after training alongside him at Sandhurst Military Academy in 2006. And when he heard of the man's plight amid the anxious residents hoping to get to, and through, Kabul airport before the withdrawal of the American and allied forces, William moved to help, and his staff alerted the troops on the ground.