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NEWS | Nov. 19, 2021

Commentary: Alaska National Guard Airman shares perspective

By Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs

On our last day in New Jersey after working for nearly two months at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, we headed home, prepared for colder weather and a chance of snow. As members of the Alaska Air National Guard, we had volunteered to deploy in support of Operation Allies Welcome, a coordinated effort by federal government agencies to provide safe, temporary communities and resettlement for recently evacuated vulnerable Afghan refugees.
 
Given the opportunity to support OAW, 16 personnel from the 176th Wing and Joint Force Headquarters volunteered on the spot, departed Alaska the next day, and arrived on Sept. 11.  I felt the grief of “20 years later,” along with hopefulness as I contemplated the humanitarian nature of the mission awaiting us.
 
Liberty Village is the name given to the area supporting the Afghan resettlement efforts inside a New Jersey military base near the state capital of Trenton. The village was established at the end of August, with buildings repurposed and others constructed for lodging, dining facilities, convenient access to medical services and mosques, special accommodations for women after giving childbirth, tents for town halls and other meetings, and spaces for recreation.
 
Entering the village was fascinating at first because it was an unusual setting under unique circumstances, but it became a new sense of “normal” quickly. Rows of buildings used for Afghan guests’ living quarters were separated by grassy lawns, large trees and single-lane, closed streets. Servicemembers and Afghan children knelt on pavement, drawing pictures together with sidewalk chalk, while other guests kicked soccer balls or socialized in small groups. Families walked to a nearby dining facility, open all hours to provide meals, snacks, and hot water for tea; kids enjoyed the slides, swings and jungle gym at the large park. Adults played volleyball in the gymnasium, sometimes with military personnel or others who worked at the safe haven.
 
We had joined and worked alongside more than two thousand U.S. Air Force members from the active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, referred to as Total Force Integration. This blending of forces is common in deployed settings, enables greater efficiency and effectiveness in support of an operation, and was applied for OAW—successfully employing a broad variety of career fields, experience and proficiencies offered by the total force. Members of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps also provided specialized support to Task Force Liberty, particularly within the Joint Operations Center and for medical administration.

Our group from Alaska was comprised of medical, operations, maintenance, information technology, human resources, and public affairs professionals. We were later joined by twelve Airmen from the 168th Wing, based at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, who brought additional skillsets from Alaska, such as civil engineering, mission support and command leadership. We were ready to serve in any capacity required by the task force.
 
We became part of an exemplary team from across the country to rapidly plan, build, maintain and sustain an ongoing operation; a testament to the strength of partnership, the total force, and the collaboration needed to successfully accomplish such a mission.
 
We were assigned to a variety of positions, including bioenvironmental, public health, medical, facility maintenance, logistics, public safety, and village dispatch operations. Alaskans helped teach dental health and English as a second language, assisted with classes tailored for Afghan women, and served in leadership positions. From administering vaccines and providing other medical care, moving equipment and supplies, and building beds and cots, to helping improve Wi-Fi access for guests and workers, collaborating with interagency partners, and providing safety and security for large events, Alaska was there to help. We joined together with our brothers and sisters in the active duty, Guard and Reserve, in support of lead federal agency partners, fully committed to providing a safe, healthy environment for Afghan guests.
 
During our time at Liberty Village, we helped support more than 10 thousand Afghans who had lived there while they awaited the resettlement process. While we were there, 49 babies were born, one wedding ceremony was celebrated, and thousand vaccinations were administered.
 
“Better Every Day” is the motto at Liberty Village. A combined team of military, federal government, non-governmental and non-profit agency personnel remain committed to ensuring that life in Liberty Village is indeed, better every day. Through OAW, America is delivering on its commitment to Afghan allies, many of whom worked alongside the United States at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
 
Liberty Village is one of eight safe haven sites provided by the Department of Defense for Afghan refugees. The other sites are on military bases in Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
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