Assisting with Operation Allies Welcome is something Maj. Jennifer Carlson called “a very historical moment.”
“I was excited,” Carlson, who joined the Guard in November 2000, said ahead of the deployment, “and absolutely ready to help in whichever way I could.”
She is among the roughly 65 airmen from the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing and 132nd Wing who received word in October that they would deploy stateside as part of operation.
Led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it was established Aug. 29, 2021, to help resettle Afghans in the aftermath of the Taliban’s overthrow of the Afghanistan government.
Brett Dreyer, DHS deputy federal coordinator for Task Force Liberty, said the operation combines civilian and federal agencies with other nongovernmental organizations. DHS is responsible for everything from medical and housing to recreation and education, he said.
“It really is an all-government approach to tackle a very unusual challenge we’ve never seen before,” Dreyer said.
Iowa ANG ‘always ready’
Once landing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey this past November, one of the first things that stood out to Carlson was “the smiles on people’s faces.”
“It tells you they’re happy and they’re in a good place, and all of this is for something good,” she said.
There’s an “overall excitement,” according to Carlson, to do what is needed to set refugees up for success.
“It’s a unique opportunity to work with those groups and to get to support those government organizations,” Carlson said.
Carlson, whose first deployment was in the early 2000s, said preparing for this particular deployment happened on short notice, but airmen were able to meet all requirements.
“I think that’s the Iowa National Guard way,” she said. “We’re always ready.”
Working with refugees
The joint base’s population is currently “a little under 10,000,” according to Dreyer, with the first refugees arriving Aug. 24 and most recently as late December.
Virtually all refugees at the base, according to Dreyer, left behind close family members and friends. So while he said they have found safety in the states – with children on base playing outside, often with service members – concerns still exist.
“It’s really been a spectrum of they all have obviously gone through very traumatic situation just to get here in the U.S,” said Dreyer, who has been on base since Sept. 6.
Still, he said the “overwhelming image” that comes to mind is how service members interact with evacuees.
“As you walk through the villages, routinely you will see uniformed military members, whether airmen or soldiers … kicking soccer balls with the kids and interacting with people,” Dreyer said. “Because this is a humanitarian mission, especially for military folks, it shows a lot about their flexibility, adaptability and willingness to help people.”
Those scenes, Dreyer said, happen every day – dozens of times.
“It’s general caring, it’s love and it really shows the best that the U.S. government has to offer,” Dreyer said.
Making the mission work
Carlson said every day has been a learning opportunity, watching how the mission came together “in this one big picture.”
Having been in the military for “just over 21 years” – completing her first tech school four days before Sept. 11 – seeing the progress as a brand new airman to now is “very fulfilling,” she said.
“[This is something I’ll] take forward as leader in the military and in the Guard, which is, look at your experiences and carry them with you because it will all make sense and it will all matter and you’ll continue to use that experience time and time again,” she said.
The Iowa units will be deployed for roughly one more month.