Inside Fort McCoy: A first look at life for almost 13,000 Afghan refugees

FORT MCCOY, Wis. — For the first time, federal officials allowed media inside Fort McCoy for a guided tour to get a glimpse of life for the nearly 13,000 Afghan refugees housed there temporarily while medical screening and paperwork processing continues–the largest group of Afghan refugees in the country.

Life hummed on with refugees playing soccer, children clustered around tables doing crafts, and chalk art left on sidewalks. Nearly half the population are children, and 8 babies have now been born on base, including a set of twins. About 230 mothers are pregnant–one of them with a set of triples, Task Force McCoy medical commander Col. Matthew Fandre said.

Hear from Afghan refugees who agreed to talk to reporters, tonight on News 3 Now at 10.

Health care

About 45,000 vaccines of all kinds, including COVID vaccines, have been administered at the base. The vast majority have accepted COVID vaccines, and all those on parole status are required to get them as part of the medical processing needed.

Five local hospitals and institutions across the state including the Department of Health Services are helping out with medical care. Most recently, that included open heart surgery on a six-year-old child at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He had a “very severe congenital heart defect,” Co. Fandre said. “He had that surgery last Friday…and he’s doing really well right now.”

Several Afghan refugees expressed concerns about their health care to News 3 Now in a report earlier this month, with one Afghan journalist saying her mother felt her heart concerns were dismissed. At the time, Fort McCoy officials said they were providing health care to everyone as was best for their condition, and prioritizing acute cases.

Col. Fandre said the medical team includes staff from four different U.S. Army installations, and physicians from seven Army hospitals. Officials from the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others including non-governmental organizations are also helping.

“It’s been complex and ever-changing, but being able to be part of the team here and to watch these guests begin their American journey has been incredibly rewarding,” he said.

Living arrangements

The community is split into eight neighborhoods, all with their own community centers, classrooms, mosques, and dining halls. Every neighborhood has two prayer rooms, separated for males and females to comply with their religious requirements.

Barracks have heat, private showers and hot water, along with WiFi. Refugees have access to 24/7 medical care and food, and the base offers pharmacy services. Movie nights, townhall meetings, English class and exercise groups are all part of daily life, officials said.

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that refugees had to stand in long lines for food and some women said they didn’t have sufficient clothing; News 8000 in La Crosse reported that some refugees said they were hungry and not getting sufficient food. Those issues, officials said today, were temporary and quickly resolved. At the time, Democratic U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore and Ilhan Omar called for an investigation into conditions there; they visited the base later and said they were pleased with the conditions.

“We’ve gone weeks here with no issues with food, no issues with clothing,” Task Force McCoy Commander Brigadier Gen. Chris Norrie said.

Officials sent out a call for donations for winter clothing earlier in September, in partnership with Team Rubicon, particularly in sizes medium and down.

Refugees volunteering their time, skill sets

Among those who fled Afghanistan are college professors, some of whom have volunteered to organize and teach English classes from beginner through advanced levels in every neighborhood on the base.

“They organized this themselves,” Lt. Col. Jeremy Prince said. “They came to us and said ‘Hey, we want to do this.’ And all we did was facilitate by providing them the space, and we do provide some materials.”

Across the community, Afghan refugees and others are stepping up in a variety of roles.

“We have had women who are university students and therefore at risk in Afghanistan who volunteered to teach English classes,” Justice said. “We’ve had women who have families at Fort McCoy who have organized themselves to assist with reception. And our military linguists, some of whom have family members still in Afghanistan, who are working around the clock to support this operation.”

Crime rates low, officials say

Despite two assaults reported earlier this month and referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, officials say crime has stayed extremely low, particularly when considering the size of the community as a small city.

“We have a very robust police presence, rehearsed response plans if needed, and maintain a substantive security posture here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Gen. Norrie said. “”Our Afghan friends are expected to abide by the laws of the United States, and the overwhelming majority continue to do so.”

Two Afghan men — 20-year-old Bahrullah Noori and 32-year-old Mohammad Haroon Imaad — were indicted on federal charges for separate assault incidents earlier this month at the base. Those are the only such incidents referred, officials said.

Republicans have raised concerns with vetting processes since refugees began arriving at Fort McCoy

Legal status

Timelines of stay will look different for refugees depending on their legal status in the United States.

The majority of the guests are people and their families who have directly helped the U.S. in Afghanistan through either military, diplomatic, or development efforts, Department of State official Skye Justice said. Thousands more are journalists, human rights activists, or aid workers whose careers endangered their life in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. Those include Afghan military officials and government leaders. Others are the families of American citizens and permanent residents.

Resettlement could step up even further in the days to come, Justice said. Currently, about 400 refugees are set to be resettled in Wisconsin, with thousands more to scatter across the country to other communities.

Some evacuees would be eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, a process for those who helped the U.S. military. Others are working through humanitarian parole, and will remain at Fort McCoy while the paperwork continues to process before beginning a new life in the U.S. The DHS is working with nine resettlement agencies and their local affiliates–some like the Jewish Social Services in Madison–to resettle them across the country.