JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N. J. –
It would be easy to overlook Air Force Staff Sgt. Sharon Queenie, inconspicuous in her OCP uniform, N-95 mask and orange safety vest, blending in with nearly every service member assigned here to support Operation Allies Welcome. What makes her journey unique is that she is one of the few native-born Americans assigned to Task Force Liberty, a descendant of the Yupik Eskimo tribe in St. Mary's, Alaska.
The command and control battle management specialist is assigned to the 176th Air Defense Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska Air National Guard, and traveled nearly 4,000 miles to the ever-expanding Task Force Liberty Village 3, working in public safety and helping welcome the newest Afghan evacuees to America.
"The first day here, it was somewhat overwhelming because there were so many moving parts, lots of people moving into the village and lots of little kids seemingly everywhere," Queenie said, laughing while describing her first impressions when she arrived Sept. 11. "I don't know if it was me, but these kids just seemed to love us."
As the mother of a 4-year-old boy, Queenie could relate to the Afghan children right away. "Learning their language and me teaching them is almost like me talking to my own son. We were counting numbers, doing the ABCs, while interjecting Pashto and English."
This connection of hospitality and curiosity has been extended from the Afghan women she has met.
"They are very affectionate; they want to know about me, where I've come from, what my son looks like, even how big my family is," Queenie said, referring to her physical Inuit traits.
In relating her background, Queenie can point to similarities with her Afghan counterparts, describing a closely bonded tribal community that has sometimes lacked basic amenities, like clean water and reliable public services.
"My grandfather was in the Alaska Territorial Guard, before we were a state, and almost all the male members of my family have served in the Army National Guard," she said, proudly noting her status as the first woman in her family to serve in the military. "Yet there are real social and economic issues. Our community is cut off from vital services, and it can take hours for police or medical first responders to show up."
Tapping into a similar sense of awareness, perseverance, cultural identity and vulnerability, Queenie said it's for these reasons that she volunteered for this mission.
"I thought I could make an immediate impact coming here. I know these struggles, and I also know how to overcome the stigma and challenges many of these people are facing," she said.
During her public safety rounds at Liberty Village, Queenie works alongside her fellow Alaska' wingman,' Staff Sgt. Judy Phommathep, an aircraft sheet metal specialist. At her home station, she helps maintain the 176th Wing's C-17 Globemaster III and C-130-J Super Hercules airframes.
"The initial call for volunteers for this mission specifically asked for female service members to support Afghan women, so I was interested right away," said Phommathep. "Seeing all of this has been eye-opening, and I can connect to these Afghan people, relating back to my own family's experience and what they might have gone through."
Both her parents escaped Laos in the late 1970s, making their way to a refugee camp in Thailand at the end of the Vietnam War. Although Phommathep was born in the United States, she described her parent's traumatic stories of escape and survival and the birth of her older sister in a Thai refugee camp.
"My parents arrived to the U.S. in 1979 after they finally left Thailand. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, just 40 miles away, so coming here now is somewhat ironic too," she said. "I just wanted to jump right in when I got here and help wherever I can."
With energy and purpose, Phommathep also said she hopes she can relay to the children how bright their future will be through her own experience.
"Because of the things my parents went through to come to America —the opportunities, and the things they could afford for my sister and I — to be here now, it's pretty awesome."
Tech shares this ability to relate with a passionate desire to give something back with Sgt. Cassie Saephanh, an audiologist assigned to the 194th Wing's medical group at Camp Murray, Washington.
"My parents came to the United States as refugees … displaced from their homeland," she said, pausing with emotion. "This just touched my heart to want to be here. I felt that this was my way to thank America for taking my parents in. This is me giving back to my nation."
Like Phommathep, Saephanh's family fled Laos in the late 1970s. She was born and raised in Seattle. As a general support member arriving to augment the OAW mission, Saephanh was assigned to the Joint Readiness Center to respond to the rapid daily changes with Afghan guests arriving at TF Liberty.
"We stood up Dock 11, which was an overflow hangar to get the evacuees processed through. Our team also worked as chaperones for transporting our Afghan guests, and we helped stand up the clothing distribution in Village 2, making sure everyone had sundries and clothing to last them for a day or two," she said.
As an Air Force public health specialist, Saephanh spent most of her time in the medical isolation dormitory, administering COVID-19 tests for the Afghan guests.
"We are able to teach our guests about social distancing, wearing a mask and looking for symptoms. By mitigating the spread, we were able to start bringing down the numbers," she said.
The staff working at the COVID dorms also delivered meals door-to-door for COVID-positive and potentially exposed people in quarantine. Culturally appropriate dishes included lamb and chicken, along with rice and potatoes.
Saephanh said fruits, dates and nuts are popular snack items.
"These extra gestures all added up," she said. "The kids especially like having healthy options at snack time."
When many of the Afghan people arrived at Task Force Liberty, food insecurity was a concern after their prolonged travel to the United States. As part of their dining facility (DFAC) opened at Village 3, many of these concerns began to dissipate.
"Just within two or three days, after DFAC 3 opened, there was a noticeable shift," said Queenie. "With more food serving stations and less lines, it was a calmer atmosphere."
As she moved through DFAC 3, Queenie stopped to talk to Bobby Stern and Océane Hooks-Camilleri during the busy lunchtime rush. It was a brief conversation yet provided a snapshot of how effectively the relationship between military and civilian contractors has worked.
Stern and Hooks-Camilleri learned many lessons for feeding larger and vulnerable populations through their work with their company, Disaster Management Group.
"Food is the one constant that everybody shares. … It's important that we're allowing guests to experience America, but also pay homage to where they came from," said Stern.
With nine years of experience catering for large groups in New York City, Hooks-Camilleri recently completed her master's degree in Global Affairs at New York University, focusing on providing food to large and multicultural groups.
"I've been struck by what an intercultural experience this is, not just in terms of the guests we're serving, but also our staff and military personnel. It's tremendously multicultural; there is so much diversity with the ability to come together," said Hooks-Camilleri, touching on the core of the OAW mission and the teamwork atmosphere.
"I am just in awe of those moments when they occur; there's such a deep humanity in our interactions and how we foster that with our guests," she said.