TOMAH, Wis. (WXOW) - Tomah Mayor Mike Murray and Tomah Chamber & Visitors Center CEO Tina Thompson were able to learn more about what is happening at Fort McCoy regarding the Afghan refugees.
At a briefing and tour Thursday, the Tomah representatives learned from Colonel Poss, Colonel Zyzda-Martin, and Major General Guthrie the processes in place to transition the Afghan people into America.
The biggest takeaway for both of Tomah's leaders is that the job is getting done, and getting done right.
"The Army, the Department of State, anybody that's involved out there," Mayor Murray said. "Anything that I witnessed, everything that I witnessed yesterday, is being done in such an orderly and professional manner that there is not one semblance of concern on my part."
And one theme resonated throughout their visit, the Afghan folks at Fort McCoy are guests. Referred to as guests, treated as guests, and provided the hospitality guests receive when invited in.
In the minds of military members who spent time in Afghanistan and served alongside Afghani's, their help was immeasurable and often saved lives with their assistance in language translation, geographic knowledge and other intelligence. Inviting them to stay in the U.S. is the least America can do.
Seeing the Afghan guests in person also shifts the view of who these people are and what they're like. Many people in America are curious but some are skeptical of their intentions given all that they've seen reported on Afghanistan the past twenty years.
"We drove around, there was waves and smiles, waves and smiles," Mayor Murray recanted. "I did not see anything that I would consider as disingenuous, confrontational. I saw a lot of people wave, smile, very happy with the fact that…almost relieved."
The briefing and the tour put any speculation to rest. Security and vetting questions were answered; operations and processes outlined; and the situation explained in detail where at the end of the day they are just people. People put in an unthinkable position, who have left their home country as the only way to survive.
On the tour bus, Chamber President Tina Thompson saw things she didn't expect.
"We were able to see many guests there. I was surprised at how many children there were," Thompson said. "Many, many young children, I would guess that a third of the people I saw were young children."
Thompson continued, "A lot of smiling faces, and a lot of happy children. What we saw was a lot of families, pods of families playing games together, playing games with soldiers. What I've understood is many of the soldiers have actually purchased toys so that when the children get off the bus to Fort McCoy, they can have a toy or something to play with to welcome them here."
According to the Associated Press, as of Friday, more than 8,000 refugees from Afghanistan were being temporarily housed at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin. The military base has a capacity to host up to 13,000 as they are resettled across the country. Cheryl Phillips, a spokeswoman for a task force overseeing the refugees at the base, said Friday about 8,780 Afghans were at Fort McCoy. She says about 1,390 soldiers are supporting them and the base has the capacity to support up to 13,000 refugees. The number of refugees there has nearly tripled in a week.
Thousands of people, many of which without luggage or personal belongings, are wearing only the clothes they had on when they left Afghanistan. Several non-profit organizations in and around Fort McCoy are conducting drives to help support the refugees.
Here are a few links with more information on how to help:
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse https://wxow.com/2021/08/27/catholic-charities-collecting-items-for-afghan-refugees/