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Operation Allies Welcome: Reservists help Afghan refugees transition to new life

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner

Lt. Col. Panos Bakogiannis says he will never be the same after his most recent Air Force deployment – a three-month stint at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in support of Operation Allies Welcome – the Department of Homeland Security-led effort to support vulnerable Afghans as they safely resettle in the United States.

A Reserve Citizen Airman assigned to the 414th Fighter Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, Bakogiannis first heard about the opportunity to help set up operations at Holloman to receive Afghan evacuees on Aug. 25. Twenty-four hours later, he was on a KC-46, along with six other deployers from the 414th FG, in route to what would be one of the most difficult yet rewarding deployments of his 27-year Reserve career.

“It really was a life changing assignment,” Bakogiannis said during a recent interview. “I had the opportunity to work alongside some incredible Airmen as we built the village that would house people whose world had been turned upside down. They came here with nothing, and to be able to get to know them and help them start their new life was a humbling and extremely gratifying experience.”

Since September, more than 50,000 vulnerable Afghan allies have been temporarily housed at eight U.S. military facilities, where they receive a full medical screening and a variety of other services before moving on to their new home in their new country. Hundreds of Reserve Citizen Airmen have deployed to support Operation Allies Welcome at these eight facilities, including more than 100 who have deployed to Holloman.

More than 7,000 Afghans have spent time at Holloman over the last five months. The initial push to prepare the base for the influx of evacuees was a Herculean effort. In a matter of days, Task Force Holloman was able to erect tents for the 900 Airmen who would support Operation Allies Welcome at the base and assisted in building a living area capable of holding up to 5,000 Afghans.

“When I first got to Holloman we had one tent and one trailer that we worked out of,” Bakogiannis said. “For the first three weeks, we were doing construction in the village as the Afghan guests are arriving. We’re building up tents and putting people into these apartments as quickly as they were getting built. Apartments were built in a day, fitted in a day and then filled the next day.”

In addition to helping with the establishment of the Airman’s tent city and the Afghan’s village, Bakogiannis served as the “mayor” of Aman Omid Village during his deployment.

“As the mayor, one of my main duties was to conduct shuras – meetings with the male heads of household to talk about problems, address issues, talk through situations and create rapport and feedback so we could improve the conditions and how we were dealing with our guests,” he said.

Bakogiannis said it was somewhat chaotic at the start of the mission as Afghans arrived, sometimes without key documents, money and clothes. "Add in the fact that all of the other government and helping agencies were just getting their operations up and running and our food services providers took some time to get into their battle rhythm, and it was extremely hectic at first.”

The lieutenant colonel said that things were running a lot smoother by the time his deployment ended in early December. “We definitely had some growing pains, but through everything our Airmen have shown great compassion and empathy. I asked our Airmen for the impossible and they delivered.”

Col. Meredith Seeley is another Reservist who deployed in support of OAW at Holloman. As the vice commander of Task Force Holloman, she arrived at the end of August and is projected to be deployed until the end of March.

“My hope is that I will be here for the duration of our mission, and that I will be here when our last guests leave,” Seeley, who serves as the wing process manager for the 927th Air Refueling Wing, MacDill AFB, Florida, said.

Like Bakogiannis, Seeley said she has been amazed by the Airmen who deployed to support OAW at Holloman.

“The teamwork across all three components represented here – active duty, Guard and Reserve – has been inspiring to witness firsthand,” she said. “Many of the service members here are working outside of their traditional career field. It’s a prime example of multi-capable Airmen coming together and making the mission happen. Many deployed with two to three days notice and very few expectations of what their deployment would entail. However, the Airmen have shown so much motivation, resilience, innovation and determination in taking care of each other and our Afghan guests.”

Seeley said one of the most important roles she was able to fulfill was as an ambassador to the women in the village.

“While many of the women were from westernized cities like Kabul, and had education and successful careers of their own, there were also many who were not used to seeing a woman in a leadership position,” she said. “As the vice commander for the task force, I considered this an incredible opportunity and intentionally dedicated time and effort in the initial build-up to ensure we had safe spaces designated for our women and opportunities for them to feel empowered. We developed a women’s-only shura where the females were encouraged to bring forward their concerns, ideas and suggestions. The women here are encouraged and that drives a true sense of community.”

Like Bakogiannis, Seeley said this deployment has been a highlight of her career, not only because she had the opportunity to work with some incredible Airmen, but because she had the opportunity to build relationships with inspiring and resilient Afghans.

“More than half of our village population is children,” she said. “I absolutely love going to the village after the duty day and interacting with the women and playing with the children. They are so grateful, optimistic and resilient, and their smiles, laughter, stories and affection mean the world to me. While many of their stories are tragic, they are heroic and it is inspiring to see these families so filled with hope. The idea that we – the military members assigned to Task Force Holloman – serve as their first impression of Americans is both an opportunity and a responsibility. When we show them kindness, compassion and empathy, we make an everlasting impact.” #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient