Afghan refugees in Wisconsin: A GOP message of fear, a conservative veteran’s plea for compassion

MADISON, Wis. — Many of Afghanistan’s combat veterans in Wisconsin and around the nation have spent the better part of the last several days working around the clock to help secure the safety of former Afghan colleagues and refugees caught in a rush to evacuate the country before the U.S. completes its withdrawal by August 31.

Already exhausted, Thursday’s explosion at the Kabul airport–killing at least 13 U.S. service members and almost 200 Afghans–left many of them in shock and anger.

“At this point, we’re still in a bit of shock. I think that it’s made us feel really powerless. At least for now,” Jason Church texted Friday.

Earlier in the week, the former Congressional candidate and outspoken Wisconsin Republican had sat down with News 3 Now to raise a message of welcome to incoming refugees that he believes isn’t getting the same warmth among leaders of his own party. [See bottom of this article.]

Because while he and others work to evacuate refugees to safety amid the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in the past few weeks, not all Wisconsin lawmakers have a unilateral message of welcome when refugees arrive for temporary housing in Fort McCoy, the state’s only U.S. Army base.

Wisconsin’s Republicans: A message of fear

There’s little disagreement among Republicans, Church included, about their view of the Biden Administration’s handling of the withdrawal. President Trump struck the deal with the Taliban in 2020 that set a date to remove all troops from the country, a deal Biden stuck to. But the GOP squarely blames the president as failing to evacuate refugees and Americans in a timely manner, which they say has led to the chaos of the last two weeks as images and videos of refugees clinging to planes and being turned away from airport gates have played on repeat across the internet, the airwaves, and the newspapers.

But a difference in how to welcome refugees is emerging among Republicans themselves. While some of Wisconsin’s most prominent Republicans are stoking fears about thousands of Afghan refugees making their way to Fort McCoy for temporary housing, combat veterans who fought alongside those refugees are watching in dismay.

Fort McCoy is beginning to take in thousands, as one of several military installations temporarily housing the flood of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Twice this week, Republicans toured the facility in photo-ops where lawmakers raised questions they chose not to answer in televised conversations with reporters. Gov. Evers also visited, but did not meet with reporters or release photos of the tour.

“[The evacuation] wasn’t organized,” Johnson told reporters. “There is a danger to this country.”

“We cannot have terror imported into the United States,” Rep. Tom Tiffany said in a Friday tour with Wisconsin’s four other Republican congressmen. He had raised concerns last week about “unvetted” refugees, a theme that has now become routine for several Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin who say the vetting process needs examination, although they have not identified specific issues with the U.S. vetting processes.

U.S. defense officials have been clear about the extensive vetting in place before Afghan refugees fleeing the country ever step foot in the U.S., with biometric vetting and biographic background checks part of the process on U.S. bases like those in Qatar and Kuwait.

Neither have GOP lawmakers cited the lengthy backlogs in Special Immigrant Visa applications when raising concerns about lack of identification among refugees. Fort McCoy issued a statement when the first refugees arrived, saying those housed at the base were in the process of applying for SIVs. Bureaucratic hurdles and a fourteen-step process have led to a years-long backlog in some cases for Afghan interpreters and others who helped the U.S. military and are eligible for protection but find themselves left behind.

Veterans: A plea for compassion

Jason Church is an outspoken Republican. He was a longtime legal staffer for Sen. Johnson before a brief stint in the political spotlight in a failed primary race against Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany, who went on to win the 7th Congressional District seat after Rep. Sean Duffy stepped down.

But as an Afghanistan veteran who lost both his legs below the knee in an IED explosion there, he watched Sen. Johnson speak over a livestream Wednesday in an event he had at first been slated to participate in. (Johnson’s press office said the Fort McCoy tour was only open to elected officials. Church didn’t publicly discuss the schedule change.) Then, he provided his own message.

“We cannot let fear be what dictates how we interact with the people who are coming from Afghanistan,” he said. “They wanted something that they could build for their own children in Afghanistan, and that is being taken away. So if I begin to hear things about fear of these people coming here, frankly, I don’t buy it. Are there bad apples in every part of our society? Yes. But if we isolate these people, if we put them as second class citizens, we are going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

RELATED: For the Record: How to help Afghan refugees as they head to Wisconsin

Afghans had fought alongside and bled with him, he said, with the same democracy ideals for their country as he had for his own.

“At what point are we as a people going to take responsibility for the messes we create? I think we can start by the way we treat the people we promised and failed to deliver with respect.”

Church’s message wasn’t alone among veterans. Others who spoke privately with News 3 Now echoed a similar theme as they watched the messaging develop through the week.

He supported the Republican message focusing on longer term issues, he said.

“I don’t want the narrative to be driven that these people who are coming here are with ill intent,” he said of SIVs who have worked for the U.S. military, and a larger refugee population that has fled.

“The people who are fleeing, who are holding on to an airplane and falling off of it to leave it? To me that doesn’t exactly sound like they’re leaving simply because they wan to conduct terrorist activities here. They’re fleeing for their life.”

Watch a fuller version of our interview with Church here, along with a description of his combat service, and his other veterans’ efforts to get Afghans to safety: