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Austin Checks on Facilities for Afghans at New Jersey Base

Sept. 27, 2021 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, today to visit the facilities provided for Afghan evacuees at the aptly named Liberty Village on the base.

Joint Task Force-Liberty is built around the Air Force Expeditionary Center at the base, and Austin was welcomed by the commander, Maj. Gen. Mark D. Camerer, before touring the facilities.

"I want to express my personal gratitude for all that you've done on very short notice to pull together a significant capability that will no doubt impact a lot of people's lives forever. ... You are, in many cases, the first Americans that some of our guests really form a bond with. And so what you [do] makes all the difference in the world. They will remember this experience for the rest of their lives. So, I want to say — on behalf of our country, on behalf of the U.S. military, on behalf of the interagency — thank you so much for what you do to come together to work as a team."

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III

Liberty Village has 9,325 Afghan guests and 1,891 airmen and soldiers helping them. There are also more than 200 civilians. All are under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security.

The military personnel are from all over the services. One unit had people from Fort Meade, Md.; Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.; Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif.; and Charleston AFB, South Carolina. They joined together on short notice to work this process. "They are our guests, and we are trying to take care of them," one airman said. "They are America's next citizens. We want to give them a good start."

There are already some new citizens in the bunch. Officials said there have been 24 babies born at the base to Afghan parents, and there are about 250 more expectant mothers in the village. 

A man walks down stairs from an aircraft.
Austin Visit
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III tours Task Force Liberty, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Sept. 27, 2021.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 210927-D-TT977-0141

There is a full medical effort underway at the camps, as well, and Austin got to meet some of the providers. There are 500 medical personnel at the village, and they see about 300 to 400 patients per day. When measles broke out at another camp, the medics put together an effort that inoculated 95 percent of the camp with measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. They also provided COVID-19 shots to all those eligible.

Medical facilities in the surrounding communities are available if needed, but they haven't been, so far, officials said.

Some of the Afghan women set up a beauty parlor at the camp. "We were very busy yesterday," one of the women told Austin. "We had a wedding here."

While some of the guests are in barracks designed for airmen awaiting deployment, most are housed in huge tents that are about 500 feet long by about 250 feet wide. These tents have full washing and toilet facilities, and the guests have arranged the beds so families have some privacy. 

New tents are being built — the camp has a capacity of 13,000 — and those have walls and individual electric outlets for the guests. A blackboard at the door of Tent 10 has "Better Every Day;" a sort of unofficial motto of the effort, written on it.

A man speaks in front of a group.
Austin Visit
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III tours Task Force Liberty, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Sept. 27, 2021.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 210927-D-TT977-0026

Families come in all sizes. One has 33 members; others escaped the Taliban alone. All of the guests are worried about family members still living in Afghanistan.

The Afghans have "mayors" of the various facilities, and they work with service members and civilians to ensure things move smoothly. 

Three families moved out of Liberty Village this morning; two went to New York and one to Utah. More are ready to move once the quarantine for measles is past.

"There's this old saying: 'People will remember what you say to them, but they will really remember how you treated them,'" Austin told a group of service members. "You are really the first serious contact that our guests experience as they make the transition from a life in Afghanistan to life as an American. I know this is not easy. I know we came together as a joint force and again [as] an interagency team in a very short period of time. But, you have done remarkable work."