MONROE COUNTY, Wis. - Some groups of Afghan refugees could start to leave Fort McCoy this weekend, Democratic lawmakers said. They were not told how many refugees were at the post Tuesday, but one lawmaker told FOX6 News they gathered from base leadership that it is nearing capacity, which is 13,000.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Tuesday, Sept. 7, along with other Wisconsin Democrats, toured Fort McCoy and were briefed on Afghan evacuee operations, a mission now called Operation Allies Welcome.
Afghan refugees were tested for COVID-19 when they landed at Dulles International Airport. Now, Wisconsin National Guard members are administering the COVID-19 vaccine at Fort McCoy.
"Not only is everyone getting vaccinated, but I think they actually told us one person refused a COVID shot. I wish we had anything like that in our country right now," said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan. "They are being vaccinated from basic things like measles and mumps, all the way to things like COVID."
Lawmakers said one person did have measles but was isolated. They said there have been a small number of COVID-19 cases, but didn't offer a number.
Sen. Baldwin said there have been no cases of underage marriages – despite reports about the issue.
"There are no cases in Fort McCoy right now with child, 15-or- under, who is married," Baldwin said.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the U.S. State Department was seeking urgent guidance about the purported child brides entering the country with older men and living at Fort McCoy. The AP said intake staff at the fort reported multiple cases of minors who were presented as married to adult afghan men.
While some Republicans in past weeks expressed worries about the vetting of the refugees, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind countered, "There are no 100 percent guarantees with any of this, but I am comfortable with the extreme vetting process that we were briefed on today, the multi-layered, biometric, all the background checks."
The White House previously said all of that vetting was taking place before the refugees were allowed to enter the United States.
Afghan refugees call the post their temporary home. Many left with just the clothes on their back. Soldiers handed backpacks to the kids and Red Cross care bags for adults, which included shampoo, lotion and soap.
"I actually feel really good when the kids come through and some of them are waving flags. They're always really happy. They are super grateful," said U.S. Army Spc. Joseph Igo, in video shared by the U.S. Army. "It makes everything that we're doing here just work and make sense. So the best part for me is whenever the kids see the toys, and they just get really excited and just happy."
Afghan refugees look trough clothes at Fort McCoy. (Courtesy: U.S. Army)
Afghan refugees are able to search through donations. The U.S. Army shared photos and said soldiers and civilians are running the clothing facility. Nonprofit veterans disaster relief organization Team Rubican said clothes and other items are needed.
"Men's and women's clothing. We need to be culturally sensitive, so we're asking for longer pants, long sleeve shirts. We also are looking at children's clothing," said Jodi Moyer, Team Rubicon incident commander. "Baby needs – diapers, wipes. Personal hygiene products. We are looking for some toys for the kids. Also, toys that let kids engage in groups, etc. like soccer balls and things like that."
"These are people who have a done a lot for our government, and we are now doing a lot for them, to help them," Pocan said.
U.S. Immigration officers are helping the Afghans with official paperwork.
But there is also time for fun; American soldiers have been playing with the kids. Those young Afghans get the chance to create art – one drew an American and Afghan flag – some of which hangs proudly on the wall of common space at their temporary American home.
"Anecdotally to people who are interacting with these refugees every day, gratitude has been expressed over and over and over again," said Sen. Baldwin, who didn't meet refugees during her visit.