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Updated Friday at 11:44 a.m. Eastern
The Department of Defense has authorized two additional military installations in Virginia to house Afghan refugees — Marine Corps Base Quantico and Fort Pickett, a National Guard training center an hour southwest of Richmond.
And Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announced Friday that Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, also has been added to the list.
The installations will join Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, as processing centers for Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan through Aug. 31, the deadline set by President Joe Biden for the U.S. to be out of the country.
“The Defense Department continues to support the State Department in providing temporary housing, sustainment, and support inside the United States for up to 50,000 Afghan Special Immigration Visa applicants, their families and other at-risk individuals,” Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said in an email to Military.com on Thursday.
Special Immigrant Visas are awarded to those who helped the U.S. by working as interpreters and in other jobs and now face retribution from the Taliban.
“Yesterday, the Department authorized Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, and Fort Pickett, Virginia, to provide support to this important State Department mission,” Mitchell added.
Since the Taliban took power in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Aug. 14, the U.S. has evacuated roughly 95,700 people; it has relocated 101,300, including U.S. citizens, Afghans and others seeking refuge, since the end of July, according to a White House tally Thursday.
Many of the evacuees are arriving at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where they are screened for COVID-19 and offered vaccinations. Those with green cards or U.S. citizenship are allowed to head to their final destinations, while those who do not possess such documentation are being sent to military installations for further processing before they eventually will be placed in communities.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., traveled Wednesday to Blackstone, Virginia, a town of roughly 4,000 located outside Fort Pickett, for a previously scheduled tour on economic development. He said the installation likely would serve as a way station for evacuees.
“It will be like Fort Lee,” Warner told reporters in Blackstone. “It’ll be a temp place where they will come and then move on elsewhere in the country.”
Warner said the evacuees are accepting the inoculations at a higher rate than Virginians, a statement that comes as a relief to Mayor Billy Coleburn, whose community has a 43% vaccination rate.
The DoD did not say how many people will be housed at the new locations, but the mayor of Blackstone told Military.com he believes the installation is being readied for up to 10,000 refugees.
“We are ready to help these bona fide people of Afghanistan who helped us when we needed them,” Coleburn said Thursday.
Coleburn added that, since rumors began swirling about Fort Pickett being on the list of evacuation sites, his phone has been “blowing up” and he has been trying to “calm people down.”
“I have friends who have said, ‘Billy, what about the Taliban that could be coming with these people?’ I tell them these freedom fighters have been vetted by the U.S.,” he said. “I would much rather see Fort Pickett and this community be known for helping Afghan refugees than to have the base be abandoned.”
Coleburn noted that the former Army installation was part of the DoD’s Base Realignment and Closure process and is primarily now a National Guard and State Department training complex.
On Thursday, U.S. forces suffered the largest loss of life in Afghanistan in a decade, with 13 troops killed and 18 wounded in a suicide bomb attack as they were assisting with the evacuation process at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Despite the deaths, evacuation operations will continue, U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Thursday.
On Friday, Kirby said that 12,500 people had been evacuated out of Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, despite the attack.
Journalists have not been allowed to visit any of the facilities slated to house refugees, but Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., described the scene at Fort Lee’s Holiday Inn Express, where the evacuees are living, as “heartwarming” in an interview with Military.com.
“Most of the families are four to seven [people]; it’s a lot of little kids,” Waltz told Military.com. “To see these little girls wear their best dresses, all of them with little American flags, so excited, asking about American schools, couldn’t wait to start this fall … big smiles on their faces, it was really heartwarming.”
— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.