Young Abdul was teething and letting his grandfather know that he wanted attention.
His grandfather searched through the bags surrounding the family of 12 until he found the binky and quieted his young charge. ”He is not afraid to speak up,” Grandfather said. ”He will be a good American.”
The family was waiting in a massive hangar designed to service the U.S. Air Force’s largest aircraft – the C-5 Galaxie. They were beginning the next step of the journey that began in Kabul, moved through Doha, Qatar to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Later that evening the family boarded a Civil Reserve Air Fleet plane to fly to Washington, D.C.
The family were citizens of an instant city that sprang up on the flightline of America’s largest air base in Europe. They had lived in a tent while they completed processing to reach their new country.
Air Force Col. Amy Glisson is the mayor of this instant city, which did not exist on August 21. A week later, there were 21,500 Afghan travelers living in the various pods that airmen and soldiers constructed along the flightline.
Glisson detailed how the city grew during an interview with Pentagon reporters. Glisson’s regular job is as commander of Ramstein’s Mission Support Group. The airmen and civilians of the group formed the nucleus around which the support to the Afghans grew. Airmen from all over the U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa augmented the effort as did soldiers from Army bases in Germany.
The tents are grouped into pods. The colonel said the effort represents ”hope in a pod.”
The logistics behind this effort is extraordinary. It is not just putting up war reserve material tents, but it’s also getting and setting up the sanitary facilities, it’s getting food, it’s getting bedding and clothing for many people who escaped the Taliban with the clothes on their backs. It’s providing medical care to those who need it. It’s getting diapers and formula for infants, and wheelchairs for handicapped travelers. It’s thousands of details that must be considered as the instant city grows and functions.
It is also establishing the procedures that guide the processing system so the Afghan travelers can complete their journeys to the United States.
Finally, it is taking U.S. military and civilian agencies and building a team even as the mission begins and grows.
”To date we have processed over 35,000 Afghans through our system here,” Glisson said in the interview. ”We’re a learning organization, so procedures have changed as we learned.”
Such as dealing with families. ”In Afghanistan, the Air Force was mostly on bases,” she said. ”Our Army friends were out in the communities and know much more about the families and they have been a tremendous help in that. Afghan families here, can be anywhere from two to 22 members. The first few days our inclination was to put women and children into hard facilities – like our hangars – and then put the men into tents. The families did not like that and that quickly changed.”
Glisson and crew learned the Afghans didn’t like it because she instituted meetings with elders in the pods.
Food was another problem that the Americans had to deal with. ”Getting halal food is tough. This is Germany: Pork and schnitzel is everywhere, as are potatoes. Afghans don’t eat any of those things,” she said. ”We had to find a supply chain that could supply a lot of chicken and noodles with curry, and we had to do it right away.”
They only serve two meals a day – breakfast and dinner. But now they serve bags with fruit in them for children and they are serving tea to the travelers. ”The elders always said they wanted tea and finally we’ve been able to produce enough tea for 10,000 people,” Glisson said. ”Again, our Army compadres at Rhine Ordnance Depot knew the importance of tea to the Afghans, and we did make that a priority.”
The pods are just a way stop for the Afghans. It is a place where they complete the processing needed for entry to the United States. Personnel from the States Department, TSA, Customs and Border Patrol, federal law enforcement and more join in processing the Afghans. They perform full biometric work-ups of all people. The process seems pretty seamless.
The mammoth C-5 hangar is the goal: This is where Afghans gather to load aircraft. Once they have done all the paperwork, once they have had the biometrics completed, once they have processed through the medical screening, they get the call to report to buses that take them to the departure area.
If only one airplane goes out a day with 250 souls aboard, that doesn’t make that big a difference in a 10,000-member population. ”Throughput” is the word Air Force personnel use, meaning they number of people the system can accommodate. There are plenty of aircraft and aircrews, but the system itself must be able to flow the people through. If there is a blockage in the United States, it doesn’t make sense to keep shipping people. Recently throughput has been a problem and shipping the refugees from Ramstein has slowed.
It has actually stopped with the discovery of measles among some Afghans that arrived in the United States.
The Afghans fly out on Civil Reserve Air Fleet airliners. These are regular civilian airliners that are mobilized for the effort. The first time there was a CRAF mobilization was during Desert Shield in 1990.
United, American, Eastern, Delta and others fly the refugees mostly to Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., where their processing continues.
Ramstein is just one part of this effort in Europe. Personnel at Sigonella Navy Air Station in Italy and in Rota, Spain are performing the same mission.
Some 124,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul International Airport through August 31. Many arrived at the airport just ahead of the Taliban, and many suffered wounds trying to get onto the airport.
One man had been an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Kabul for years. As Kabul fell to the Taliban, he gathered his wife and two young sons. With the clothes on their backs they managed to get onto the airport and flew aboard an Air Force C-17 to safety in Qatar. After two days in the Arabian Gulf nation, he boarded another aircraft for the trip to Ramstein. Now he and his family wait to board the plane to the United States. “I want to live in Ohio,” he said. ”I have a good friend I worked with in Kabul who lives there. He owns his own business.”
All the travelers worry about family left in Afghanistan. Another man – who served as an interpreter for a non-governmental agency – said there has been limited access to the internet at Ramstein and he does not know what is happening with family outside Kabul. ”The Taliban came through the neighborhood and seemed to know just where to go,” he said.
One woman was a police officer in Afghanistan. ”There is no future for women in Kabul under the Taliban,” she said.
The number of refugees coming to Ramstein is falling, but the mission is not done. The base is starting to send airmen and soldiers who augmented the force back to their home stations. Glisson praised the airmen, soldiers and civilians who put the effort together. ”I have aircraft crew chiefs helping clean port-o-johns,” she said.
In another tent, an aircraft safety inspector and a special weapons expert put together the boxed dinner the travelers will receive on the flight to America.
“This is a ‘whole of Ramstein’ approach,” she said. ”I am so proud of the way our people are working together.”