Seymour Johnson AFD airmen thankful for "life lesson" as they work with Afghan refugees

TRENTON, N.J. (WTVD) -- Dozens of airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base are now deployed on an unusual and unprecedented mission happening right here in the homeland.

"There is definitely no training for this instance we came into," Staff Sergeant Jacob Estrada said to ABC11. "I look at it as a long life lesson because every day you learn something new and you're building friendships."

Estrada is among more than 50 North Carolina-based airmen now deployed to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst as part of Operation Allies Welcome, the federal effort to support the tens of thousands of refugees airlifted out of Afghanistan during the frantic US pullout last summer.

"If you just look at them as people, there's no difference really," Estrada said of the refugees he assists. "Our job in nature is to protect areas in America in general, so we welcome anyone coming here to America and have a safe place and know it's safe when they see our uniform."

Though he's trained in munitions maintenance, Estrada is part of the team hosting some 11,000 refugees now living at what's called Liberty Village at the Joint Base.

Staff Sergeant Alex Umstead, another Seymour Johnson airman, said their new day-to-day roles are nothing like what they're used to.

"There's basically no similarities between my normal job and this," Umstead, a non-destructive inspector once deployed to Iraq, told ABC11. "For the first few weeks I was here, I worked the clothing supply line. They would come off the bus and most of them had to leave everything behind. We would make sure they got shoes, clean shirts and pants from donations."

At Liberty Village, military personnel help facilitate meals, medical clinics, English classes and job training.

"Honestly it's been a lot of learning as we go," Umstead said. "We've created this job from scratch by ourselves here."

Tom Decker, the Federal Coordinator of Operation Allies Welcome at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Liberty Village is the first stop for the Afghan refugees before they are resettled to other communities across the country.

"We help them with their adjudication of work authorization cards, which also brings their social security card, and they get vaccinated and go through a medical screening," Decker said. "It's not an easy process. It's not something that you will turn around and be quick, but they will be resettled."

Marine Corps Base Quantico, Fort Bliss, Fort McCoy, Camp Attlebury, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Pickett are also serving as "safe havens" for the 80,000 Afghan refugees, many of whom aided U.S. operations in Afghanistan during the 20-year military campaign.

"The Afghan people there helped and supported (Americans) as interpreters and escorts and worked within the embassy," Decker said. "So there's a connection there."

The connection is certainly recognized by those airmen, who say they are proud to represent Seymour Johnson AFB and North Carolina.

"Life is different seen from a screen than in person," Sgt Estrada said. "If you go talk to someone, you realize you have a lot more in common than you think. I'm thankful to be part of something that is a lot bigger than myself and thankful for all the friends that I had supporting everyone as we were doing this operation because emotions fly everywhere but we all stayed strong and vigilant."

The operation is also being supported by a number of non-profit organizations, all of which continue to encourage and accept donations to help the refugees: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), Sponsor Circles Program and Welcome.US, among others.
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