FORT LEE, Va. – “We could not be prouder of their efforts,” acknowledged Brig. Gen. Michael B. Lalor, deputy commanding general of Task Force Eagle – the assembly of military, civilian and contract workers here supporting Operation Allies Welcome.
Lalor’s comment referenced the work of deployed medical personnel from the 321st Air Expeditionary Group, which has been here since late-July providing “exceptional care and support,” in the general’s words, for the Afghan resettlement mission.
“Their critical work has played a significant role in enabling our Afghan allies and families to receive their special immigration visas and move onward to their new lives and a fresh start in the United States,” said Lalor, who also holds the title of Chief of Ordnance and commandant of the U.S. Army Ordnance School.
Fort Lee is one of several military installations across the country providing logistical support for OAW, which started out as Operation Allies Refuge until redubbed at the end of August. The Department of Defense – through U.S. Northern Command and in support of the Department of Homeland Security – is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support. According to a Stars and Stripes article published Oct. 25, nearly 6,700 Afghan evacuees have resettled throughout the United States and roughly 53,000 remain at stateside military bases.
Air Force Col. Jennifer Baggott, commander of the 321st AEG, proudly spoke about the resilience, resourcefulness and rapid response capability demonstrated by her Airmen since day one of the unexpected mission.
“We were under the impression that we would be deploying overseas,” Baggott shared. “We found out six days before the first flight [of Afghan evacuees was expected to arrive in the U.S.] that our mission had changed.”
The advance party scrambled its way to Fort Lee to assess the situation.
“We arrived and walked into an empty building,” Baggott said. “We did a walkthrough and talked to our subject matter experts about where they thought things should go and how sections should operate.”
The group teamed up with Kenner Army Health Clinic to arrange for and acquire adequate supplies for the medical support mission. Then came the task of putting it all together – setting up everything from administration and supply to screening rooms and patient reception areas. Despite those challenges, however, the team was ready when the first flight arrived.
“We were here until midnight the first few days of the operation,” Baggott pointed out, “but we smoothed out the process and things started to move a lot faster.”
They streamlined the screening process to meet a goal of two-days, on average, for each Afghan patient. In addition to a COVID-19 test, the medical team facilitated lab sample testing and physical exams to identify possible illnesses or other health concerns. All of it was distinctly different, though, from what is often-considered “routine” in typical clinic settings anywhere else in America. Baggott reflected on the reaction of the Afghans and the significance of the mission.
“While interacting with the Afghans, it is a special experience for all,” she said. Baggott mentioned that the medical staff receives cohorts of evacuees after extensive travel. They routinely receive vaccines and require lab draws, but in spite of all they have been through mentally and physically, they’re always smiling and saying thank you to the staff.
Every Airman also understood the significance of the mission, which tended to run deeper for individuals like Baggott who had previously deployed to Southeast Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom.
“When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2014, these people were such a great asset to our mission,” she emphasized. “I worked with the Afghan National Police and interpreters. These people were like family. They would let us know what was going on and warn us about things happening outside of base. I have no doubt they saved lives; they were our guardian angels.”
Staff Sgt. Gabriela Soto, the 321st AEG’s cardiopulmonary specialist, said she has felt “honestly humbled” by each day of the mission that has now been over 90 days in duration. “(We’ve seen) a lot of tough days because of the hours and scheduling that was all over the place, but I’ve felt throughout this mission that it is the first time I am actually seeing the difference that I’m making.”
“When we got here, it was kind of crazy,” confessed Master Sgt. Courtney Jacobs, noncommissioned officer in charge of the 321st medical technician staff. “There were so many moving parts and very few of us actually knew each other. Now we’re like this huge family.”
Jacobs also made it a point to mention specific groups within the unit that she feels are performing at an exceptional level.
“My medics are amazing, and I am so impressed with them,” she said. “They’ve worked almost every aspect of this process and always jump in. … They always raise their hand when we need help. I feel like they are definitely the backbone of everything we do.”
Noting the end date of OAW has not yet been determined, Capt. Jennifer Swanberg, an AEG emergency room nurse, expressed confidence in her team’s ability to perform this latest mission for as long as it lasts.
“Our role can always change just because of our profession,” she observed. “(With this deployment), we have demonstrated we are adept at process improvement on the fly. This is an amazing team. We just get it done, safely and to the best of our ability, while always keeping the Afghans in mind.”
Lalor acknowledged the entire Task Force and higher-level DOD officials are “extremely grateful for (the 321st AEG’s) outstanding work, selfless service and dedication to the mission.”
Hilary E. Ingraham, a senior representative of the Department of State, which had oversight of the resettlement mission before it was handed off to the Department of Homeland Security, expressed similar appreciation.
“These Airmen are among the best military personnel I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to serve alongside,” she said. “It was an honor to watch them work their magic and represent the 321st Air Expeditionary Group as the mission was getting underway.”
Individuals can read more about Task Force Eagle at army.mil/lee. Photos of the U.S. personnel supporting the mission and engaging with the Afghan guests are routinely posted at www.Facebook.com/ArmyFortLee.