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Last group of Afghan refugees leave Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, officials say

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Afghan refugees

Two Afghan girls watch a soccer game in September at Fort McCoy. The last group of Afghan evacuees who were staying at the military base departed Tuesday.

The last group of Afghan evacuees who were staying at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin left the military base Tuesday morning, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced.

Since late August, thousands of Afghans had been living on the base after escaping Afghanistan as their country fell to the Taliban. By mid-September, the encampment totaled roughly 13,000 refugees.

Now all of them have departed to get resettled in permanent homes across the country, the department said.

“With the help of our partners across government and nonprofit organizations, the 12,600 Afghan evacuees who were temporarily housed at Fort McCoy have now joined their new communities,” Robert J. Fenton Jr., senior response official for Operation Allies Welcome, said in a statement.

Operation Allies Welcome is the name of the federal government’s effort to temporarily house and then resettle the more than 74,400 Afghan evacuees who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan, the department said.

Roughly 1,200 Afghan evacuees remain at a Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a military base in New Jersey. That is the only base still hosting Afghans, the department said.

Fort McCoy, the base that hosted the largest population of Afghans, was the seventh base to finish the resettlement process, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said in a statement. There were eight total bases.

Throughout their stay, Afghans at Fort McCoy faced a series of problems, from waiting hours in line for meager amounts of food to going weeks without a change of clothes to gaps in dental and medical care. Two men were charged with committing crimes on base, one with assault and another with engaging in a sex act with a child.

In late October as cold weather started to set in, a few thousand Afghans at Fort McCoy still had not received winter coats.

Many were frustrated with the uncertain timeline for when they would get to leave the base. Initially some evacuees were told they would get to leave in weeks, but their stay dragged on into months.

Fort McCoy spokesperson Lt. Michael Miller said base personnel made sure to provide opportunities for Afghans to pass the time. The base had movie nights, sewing rooms, indoor recreation, athletic programs with volunteers from local colleges, dance classes and a performance of the Madison Ballet.

To ensure safety during the winter months, buses offered transportation to various buildings on base, snow was cleared in a timely manner, Afghans were given cold-weather clothing and personnel conducted quality checks to make sure utilities were functioning properly, Miller said.

Miller said the length of time spent for each evacuee depended on the completion of mandatory vaccinations, other medical issues that may have arose, how long it took to complete work authorization and other administrative steps, travel availability, housing availability and the capacity of partner resettlement agencies in local communities across the country.

He noted that there’s an “ongoing nationwide housing shortage,” which makes it challenging for resettlement groups to find new homes for the Afghans.

As of Jan. 26, roughly 2,500 Afghan evacuees remained at Fort McCoy. About 58% were male, 42% female and 47% were under the age of 18, Miller said.

Now more than five months after their arrival in Wisconsin, those remaining Afghans will get to start their new lives.

“I am incredibly proud of the important work our service members along with their interagency partners at Task Force McCoy have done over the last five months,” VanHerck said.

State Journal reporter Lucas Robinson contributed to this report.

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