In what can only be described as a difficult year for the U.S. military, on Veterans Day, we as a nation need to remember the many Americans who selflessly and tirelessly offer their service and their lives to the United States and act as the country’s hands and feet around the world.
Less than 48 hours after the horrific scenes of people falling from departing aircraft in Kabul, U.S. Army soldiers, U.S. Air Force airmen and American Red Cross personnel at Ramstein Air Force Base, located in Germany, began receiving the first planeloads of Afghans. The arrivals would eventually grow to 25,000 people. In contrast to the debacle of the chaotic and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, military personnel and Red Cross staff worked in a quiet and competent fashion to receive Afghan allies who had given and lost so much in service to the United States.
On August 18, 2021, with only 12 hours’ notice, housing, food, and clothing had to be provided for a people who had gone through an unimaginable hell to escape the wrath of the Taliban only to find themselves in a strange land with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Airplane hangars and the tarmac at Ramstein Air Base and the collocated fields of Rhine Ordnance Barracks, the largest military community outside of the United States, were rapidly converted to dormitories, dining, and medical facilities. From the first arrival on August 20 to the last flight on August 30, 35,000 Afghans were evacuated to Europe, with the majority landing in Germany.
There is no end to the irony that the first place Afghans would touch American soil was deep in the heart of Europe on a U.S. military facility. The same place had provided airlift and medical evacuation operations for U.S. troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. A community of Americans, many of whom had served and had been most affected by the past two decades of war, rallied enthusiastically once again to answer the call to serve. Donations of time and goods flowed from U.S. military family communities throughout Europe. Additionally, U.S. service members and veterans who could speak Pashtun and Persian, the languages of Afghanistan, were recruited to help. In total, 540 Red Cross volunteers worked around the clock donating over 10,000 work hours.
As shocked and bewildered Afghans stepped off arriving planes, volunteers greeted weary travelers with food, water, and toiletry items. Unlike the hot and dry climate they had just left in Kabul, Germany was in the midst of an unusually cool and wet summer. The light cotton material of Afghan summer dress prompted an immediate and unexpected need for coats and jackets. Military and civilian families living in the area opened their hearts and their wallets to donate repeated calls for jackets, clothes, diapers, shoes, baby bottles, and even men’s underwear.
People had suffered injuries trying to escape Afghanistan. Medical personnel had to treat gunshot wounds, remove shrapnel caused by explosions, and care for pregnant women. Most of the arrivals were dehydrated and hungry. Meals for a Muslim population in the pork rich cuisine of Germany was quickly identified as a problem. Local Turkish and Syrian restaurateurs were consulted to provide advice on Islamic dietary guidelines. Military chaplains, including an imam, provided spiritual guidance and counseling.
Red Cross volunteers asked permission to serve tea and were told yes, but only if they could provide enough tea for everyone. Enough tea was donated. A cup of tea served as a mini cultural lesson for those coming from a separate set of social sensibilities. Initially Afghan men had insisted they be served first, and children drinking tea was not important. Very quickly, the volunteers made it understood, ladies would go first, and children would be allowed to drink tea. According to one tearful volunteer who had just said goodbye to the departing Afghans, the theme became “Everybody gets tea”—a subtle but formidable lesson for preparation to live in the United States.
Julien Coates, the Red Cross regional program director for Central Europe, said the number of children amongst the Afghans was unexpected. Some 6,000 children, 20 born during the stay in Ramstein, filled the camp. Children’s joy filled laughter and happy play served as a noisy witness to the tenacity of the human spirit even in the face of adversity. Child specialists were brought in to provide advice and services. A room filled with a rousing course of itsy-bitsy spider by young Afghans and volunteers attested to the depth of care the Red Cross provided. Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross would have been proud to see little Afghans fingers making spiders in the air; the mission of the Red Cross, to alleviate human suffering, had found joyful fulfillment.
According to Coates, there were very few disciplinary problems amongst the Afghan population. Upon arrival, the Afghans were divided into groups of 400 to 500 people. Village elders were identified. They were asked to help with communications, and to maintain hygiene and discipline within the containment areas. Families were kept together as much as possible, but men and women maintained separate sleeping quarters. Baby formula stations were established where mothers could use hot water and donations of formula to fill bottles.
Young soldiers and airmen connected deeply with the children as they played soccer and gave impromptu English lessons. One soldier played a ukulele for children dancing gleefully behind a barbed wired fence. Another threw a ball with one hand to a group of small children, while he cheerfully held a hose pumping out the latrines with the other. Many of the younger service members, who had not fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to find a renewed sense of mission and purpose in their military service while working with the Afghans. Nothing is more motivating than true service for those who volunteer to serve, especially true for military men and women who serve in a voluntary force.
Early on, U.S. commanders decided to refer to the Afghans as travelers or guests rather than refugees. The term is politically laden, especially in Europe, reflecting the controversy around German Chancellor Merkel’s decision to allow a million middle eastern refugees into Germany over the past decade. A large sign over the volunteer check-in area spelled out guidance: Afghans are citizens of Afghanistan; Afghani is the currency; Afghans do not consider themselves Middle Easterners; and, instead of the term refugee, traveler or guest should be used.
In the last week of October, Operation Allied Rescue in Ramstein closed as the last of the Afghans departed for communities in the United States, Kosovo, or other holding areas in Europe. Some went immediately to sponsoring Afghan communities in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities. Those who needed to finish processing paperwork went to military facilities in the United States. A smaller number of individuals not permitted to enter the United States were transferred to a NATO run facility in Kosovo.
History is left to future generations to tell. Hopefully, it is not defeat that will define America’s involvement in Afghanistan, but instead a brave and selfless generation of men and women, along with their families, who chose to fight and serve, on and off the battlefield. Perhaps in the Final Judgement, America as a nation will be judged not for the violence of war but for those who chose to serve others far away from a circus of policy and politics. For the Afghans who escaped Kabul and found themselves in the care of the United States military, they know the truth of the words, “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Michele McAloon is a wife, mother, retired U.S. Army officer, and a canon lawyer. She resides with her family in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her podcast “Cross Word” can be found on Spotify, Apple, and archangelradio.com.