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U.S. airmen hand out meals to evacuees from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Aug. 27, 2021. Evacuees were provided temporary lodging, food, water and medical services while preparing for onward movements to other transient locations during Operation Allies Refuge.
U.S. airmen hand out meals to evacuees from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Aug. 27, 2021. Evacuees were provided temporary lodging, food, water and medical services while preparing for onward movements to other transient locations during Operation Allies Refuge. (U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — The air wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany reported spending $56.3 million on its efforts to house and process Afghan refugees, with plans to spend another $50 million in continued efforts, according to a new Pentagon report.

The report, published Wednesday by the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office, found Ramstein’s 86th Air Wing spent the funds to support nearly 30,000 evacuees at the base between Aug. 18 and Sept. 14, when officials for the inspector general made a visit to the base to investigate conditions there.

More than 120,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by American personnel in the final weeks of the 20 years that U.S. forces fought in that country. The last U.S. forces left Afghanistan on Aug. 30.

Those costs at Ramstein were in part attributed to $38 million in “contracting costs,” $5.3 million owed to reimburse a supply chain operations wing for equipment pulled from war reserve materiel and about $6.5 million in food and labor expenses, according to the report.

“All fiscal year 2021 costs they incurred were replenished with overseas humanitarian disaster and civic aid funding,” according to the report. “[The air wing] stated that U.S. Air Forces in Europe, the U.S. European Command, the Secretary of the Air Force and others were coordinating to identify funding to cover fiscal year 2022 costs.”

Ramstein was one of the major U.S. bases overseas to host and screen refugees before they could be transported to one of eight military installations in the United States to continue their visa processing. Other screening locations included Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Germany, Naval Station Rota in Spain, Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar and Camp Buehring in Kuwait.

While Ramstein was first told to prepare to receive about 2,500 evacuees on Aug. 18, that number grew to 28,517 by Aug. 31, according to the report. About 98% of the evacuees were Afghans, and 742 were American citizens.

Ramstein received the first group of evacuees on Aug. 18, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the top commander for U.S. forces in North America, told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 25.

“Upon landing, evacuees were subject to standardized in-processing by military personnel before being assigned to a living area on the facility,” according to the IG report.

The base provided medical and security screenings, checking all evacuees for wounds, disease, contraband and weapons. All evacuees older than 12 were also biometrically screened, with troops collecting their personal information, fingerprints, iris scans and photographs. The information was electronically compared to Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases.

Afghan refugees live in temporary shelter at Ramstein Air Base on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
Afghan refugees live in temporary shelter at Ramstein Air Base on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

“At the peak of the initial evacuee influx, in-processing took nearly two days from the time an Afghan evacuee arrived on the flight line until the Afghan evacuee was assigned lodging,” according to the report. “At one point, there were over 1,500 Afghan evacuees in line [for screening] and an additional 3,000 Afghan evacuees either in the waiting area or still waiting to deplane.”

To help address the backlog, Ramstein personnel worked 24 hours a day, with all 86th Air Wing troops supporting the effort mandated to work 12-hour shifts, six days each week, according to the report.

On Aug. 26, the air wing’s commander also canceled all military leave through the end of September “to maximize available support” and canceled or suspended base events, “including youth sport seasons,” according to the report.

The personnel provided Afghans resources including food and water, clothing, bathrooms, showers, medical tents, worship areas and housing, according to the report. That housing included more than 200 large tents pulled from war reserve stocks that were set up on a flight line.

The report details some challenges in the first days and weeks of the Ramstein operation. For example, while all military personnel were required to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, IG investigators “did not see any Afghan evacuees wearing masks during our walk-through.”

Further, some brawls were reported among the evacuees as tensions ran high over meal shortages and morale was hurt by a policy separating women from men in housing areas.

“Afghan evacuees in food lines were unhappy with the distribution methods, resulting in very tense environments involving physical altercations,” the report states. “There were some difficulties with assimilating various tribes in the tents, which resulted in various disagreements and issues.”

There were also “significant challenges related to the bathroom,” as evacuees were “urinating and defecating on the floor of living and shower areas, causing health concerns in the pods,” according to the report.

Those problems were later resolved with some policy shifts, modifying the food distribution process and providing education on proper bathroom usage, the report states.

However, the IG report was overall complimentary to the air wing, noting the challenges inherent to “having only a few days to figure out how to house and sustain more than 30,000 Afghan evacuees when the initial estimate was for a small number of evacuees — mostly Americans.”

Still, the report noted the “significant costs to the command” to execute the mission. In addition to the tens of millions spent, the operation strained Ramstein’s staffing with 80% of its security forces staff, 71% of its communications team and 38% of its U.S. forces police squadron pulled from their regular duties to support the mission.

“The [air wing] reported that it canceled, suspended or altered other important activities that support its mission, including training and exercises,” according to the report.

Readiness also was hurt when the air wing had to use tents, sleeping bags, medical equipment and other supplies from its own stock, the IG investigators concluded.

“By using its organic equipment and supplies, the [air wing] may not have sufficient resources available for future rapid response missions,” according to the report.

While the report only provided a snapshot of overall relocation efforts by focusing on the operations at Ramstein, the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office will issue a report on each site visited that was involved in the evacuation.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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