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By Master Sgt. John Hughel
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NJ -- Since August 2021, Afghan evacuees have been arriving at several U.S. military installations across the country. These secure locations are an entry point for Afghans and their families who supported the U.S. Government.
Since the end of August, more than 50 members from the Evergreen State have been supporting Task Force Liberty and working side-by-side in Liberty Village with their Air Force active duty and reservist counterparts, along with other Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, JBMDL personnel, and dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGO), providing essential support for Afghan guests.
National Guard members from nearly every state and territory are helping an estimated 50,000 Afghan guests by providing transportation, temporary housing, culturally appropriate food, medical screening, religious accommodations, and general support for Operation Allies Welcome.
“We knew we were coming into a situation that was unprecedented,” said Washington State Air National Guard Command Chief, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Marvin Boyd. “As Guardsmen, we’ve been responding to one unique challenge after another for nearly two years and once again we had people who were eager to help out on short notice and volunteer.”
With temporary housing and medical facilities being rapidly built and expanded, the need for immunizations and urgent medical issues was quickly addressed. Boyd (a former Navy Corpsman) worked with U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nikki Pritchard, Task Force Liberty Public Health Lead, deployed from U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Hospital, Twentynine Palms, California, to open up the medical facility at Liberty Village that was fully functional on Sept. 10.
Task Force Liberty is one of the largest military installations to support Afghans. Prichard said that the amount of people and logistics coupled with the medical needs for those arriving from Afghanistan is a challenge but also an opportunity to help our Afghan guests.
“With everyone coming from areas where they might not have had proper medical attention, the need for immunizations is what we’re focused on,” she said.
Like many Americas, the Afghans arriving here receive vaccines for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, COVID-19, and many others.
“We also want to address early vaccination with Polio, but right now, the focus is on measles because it is so highly infectious,” Prichard said. “The CDC has been here the entire time with representatives, which has been invaluable to our expanding staff and bringing their experiences. It’s been fantastic to work with them.”
As people made their way through the medical facility, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Megan Busellato, assigned to the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron (ASTS), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, was one of many health care professionals providing immunizations.
“Everything we’ve trained for and have done with COVID response has in a way given all of us a sense of preparedness for such a monumental moment,” she said.
Prichard also reflected on the progress as more evacuees arrive.
“Seeing the interactions between the staff and our guests really puts things into perspective and gives you the little extra motivation to get to the end of the day, wake up and do it again the next.”
For the Afghans, the full scope of operational support encompasses nearly every aspect of daily life. Meals, medical appointments, clothing distribution, recreation, and living in a temporary community are the many things provided to make their transition and begin their new lives here in the U.S.
Several former Army dining facilities have also reopened serving meals 24/7 for the Liberty Village guests. On the grounds outside, children are seen playing, often with Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Guardians, Marines, and other volunteers.
For nearly two decades, Sam Delio worked as both a building maintenance technician and later as the housing manager for the Joint Reception Center. Now he’s ensuring the buildings are fully functional with linen, cots, and keys.
With a constant flow of Afghans filling the open buildings early on, occupancy of the buildings for Liberty Village One and Liberty Village Two quickly reached more than 95% capacity.
“I spent over 10 years ensuring the daily upkeep of these buildings before I was managing the flow of Soldiers training here,” said Delio. “Everything that the staff is doing right now with lodging and tracking for our [Afghan] guests is phenomenal.”
Each of the three villages for TF Liberty has an appointed Mayor Cell is where the Afghan guests can convey any question, complaints, requests, and urgent needs as well as report any crimes. Adjusting to life both out of Afghanistan and now in transition can be both liberating and stressful. This is where service members can help directly with lost bags, minor medical issues, or helping find resources in different Liberty Village locations. At TF Liberty, each of the three villages has a designated mayor cell.
Some Afghan evacuees arrived with little possessions and some with only one change of clothing. As donated items arrived, clothing distribution centers were quickly set up to disperse the items. A team of Airmen deployed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, assisted hundreds of people each day to pick up socks, under and outer garments.
Leading this team is U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Meadows, an aircraft structural maintainer from 4th Medical Group, kept the tempo going with encouragement and an efficient organized distribution plan.
“We have about 10-12 of us here, and they are doing exceptionally well,” Meadows said.
“The relationship I’ve built with our Afghan guests, volunteers, and interpreters has been one of the best parts of the job so far,” said Meadows. “I don’t think it’s really set in yet - the sheer magnitude of what we’re doing because we are so busy. We are helping so many people that everything our team is doing feels unreal at times.”
For many who volunteered and quickly responded, Washington Air National Guard Master Sgt. Christopher Davaz, assigned to the 256th Intelligence Squadron, Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, wanted to help in any way possible.
“At the time I signed up for this, I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew something had to be done,” he said. “That’s pretty much the inherent mission of the National Guard…have a giant group of people prepared to do whatever’s required and do the right thing for people in need.”
Keeping this perspective in mind, a U.S. Air Force Reserve Chaplain, Capt. Conner Simms, assigned to the 934th Airlift Wing, Minnesota, offered an observance on the morning of the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 to reflect on these broader themes.
“So now, on this morning, the sun rises again, to what was just three weeks ago, was an empty field, and has now become a city within a city -- as you build this city, and we continue to do this work as long as the task demands of us,” he said to a group of military members, construction contractors and volunteers pausing to remember the ultimate sacrifice of others.