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MARKLEIN COLUMN: Sharing first hand view of refugees at Fort McCoy
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MARKLEIN COLUMN: Sharing first hand view of refugees at Fort McCoy

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Thousands of refugees from Afghanistan have arrived at Fort McCoy. The base currently has capacity for about 13,000 people and they expect to continue receiving new visitors for a while.

I, along with several of my colleagues in the Wisconsin legislature who represent districts near Fort McCoy, visited with Maj. Gen. Darrell Guthrie, senior commander at Fort McCoy and commanding general of the Army Reserve’s 88th Readiness Division on Aug. 25. He is overseeing all of the operations at Fort McCoy. Our goal was to understand the mission, ask questions and share the concerns of our constituents. Since my visit, I have been monitoring the mission at Fort McCoy and asking additional questions.

During my visit, we received a thorough briefing from Guthrie, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and members of Guthrie’s team. We took a driving tour of Fort McCoy to observe the operations and I saw many families playing in the yards around the barracks and on the playgrounds. I saw busy laundromats, people hanging laundry to dry and walking around the base talking on cell phones and with each other. I saw people rebuilding their lives. I saw relief.

I know there are a lot of questions and concerns about the refugees at Fort McCoy. First and foremost, we must remember that the vast majority of the refugees helped us in Afghanistan. Their lives were at risk. Their families were threatened. And our nation should offer a safe place to land. I cannot imagine what it would be like to leave my home, with very few possessions and flee to another country without knowing what the future will hold; but that is what many of these people did.

Maj. Gen. Guthrie and his team at Fort McCoy learned about this significant mission only 10 days before the first Afghan refugees arrived. However, the Army ramped up very quickly and have brought in more than 1,000 soldiers from other parts of the country to meet the needs of the mission. They were more than ready and continue to be well supplied to perform their duties.

Most of the refugees who arrive at Fort McCoy are initially entering the United States through Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia. They meet with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents upon arrival to be processed before they board another plane for Volk Field in Wisconsin. From Volk Field, they take buses to Fort McCoy.

Every individual is tested for COVID-19 twice before they arrive at Fort McCoy and then one additional time upon arrival. If they test positive, they are provided quarantined space to recover. Every individual is also offered opportunity for vaccination.

In addition to COVID-19 testing, all refugees are given a thorough medical exam and provided medical care at Fort McCoy, including other vaccines, medications and treatments. They are provided with hot meals, sundries and supplies.

Families are housed together and separated from other families in the barracks. Single men and single women have separate accommodations. According to my sources, they have ample laundry and dining facilities to serve everyone who has arrived so far and many more to come.

The Red Cross, Team Rubicon and Catholic Charities of the La Crosse Diocese are the main points of contact to coordinate donations and volunteers. I was recently told that they particularly need warm clothes and blankets for babies and children.

Please visit https://cclse.org/afghanistan-refugee-assistance for the list of items they will accept and for links to online gift registries. Donations can be dropped off from 9-11 a.m. and from 1-3 p.m. Monday-Friday at Catholic Charities, 3710 East Ave. South in La Crosse.

The State Department is coordinating all relocation services for the refugees. They are working with each individual or family to identify people or places in the United States where they may have connections, including veterans with whom they may have served.

According to my contacts, it is highly unlikely that many refugees will remain in Wisconsin. The State Department’s goal is to relocate people quickly within 14-21 days of arrival. That is why we do not expect Afghan children to be enrolled in our local schools or for many Afghan refugees to be relocated to communities near Fort McCoy.

I appreciate the hard work, effort, compassion and hospitality that the men and women at Fort McCoy are providing to thousands every day.

Sen. Howard Marklein represents the 17th Senate District, which includes western portions of Iowa and Sauk counties as well as Grant, Juneau, Lafayette, Richland, and parts of Green and Vernon counties in the Wisconsin State Senate. His office can be reached at 608-266-0703 or 800-978-8008, or email sen.marklein@legis.wi.gov.

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