Operation Allies Refuge is the largest noncombatant evacuation operation in the history of the United States, and I am fortunate to say, “I was there.”
The Operation included 22 Religious Support Teams who provided 24/7 religious accommodation to our 35,000 guests and was nothing short of miraculous. It was a collaboration of joint military, German Police, embassies, the State Department, USAID, the USO, interpreters, volunteers, and big hearts of all kinds.
I am an Air Force Chaplain (Rabbi) and belonged to this once in a lifetime team. At the close of daily leadership meetings, the officer in charge called on me for final thoughts. “And Chaplain, what do you have for us today?” The turn of events had impacted my perspective on our presence in Afghanistan the last twenty years. I experienced a range of emotions and prayed to God for insight. It then occurred to me that this operation was our country adopting another people as its own, and how extraordinary that was. That realization defined the rest of the operation for me and thus at the camp meeting I said, “Our Afghan guests are about to be adopted by our country to be our fellow American citizens. Our role at Ramstein is much like that of a foster family. What does a foster family do? It provides love, care, stability, safety, nurturing, and shelter. We are the foster family, and our guests are on their way to becoming family. Our family! And our fellow Americans.”
Months after that meeting, as the operation came to a close and last flights departed Ramstein with passengers smiling ear to ear, many a heart ached. Hearts ached at having to say farewell to children, whose little feet they clothed in socks and shoes. Children with whom they played ball, taught English, and snuck candy into hands, just to bring a smile and make their difficult life more pleasant. Hearts were aching because in the bittersweet moment, they are now all gone off, we pray, to a brighter future. The once teaming tent cities that sprang up overnight are now empty, silently echoing the non-stop, problem-solving, rhythm of their life here. Now a ghost town. The Islamic call to prayer we played over loudspeaker to thousands, five times a day, for two months, is no longer needed. Operation Allies Refuge, one of the most challenging and powerful experiences of our life, was a foster family. And with those last planes, many of us grieved like empty nesters.
I escorted the last Afghans leaving Ramstein and realized that I was there due to a decision I had made twenty years ago. I joined the military because of September 11th and by some uncanny coincidence, I was the last military member to say goodbye, on one of the last flights to the United States. For me, this closed that chapter of September 11th.
Former Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Sacks once said, “We are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake.”
This operation, and its various challenges, has been a courageous undertaking. We are providing the homeless with a home, the nationless with a nation. People who had no future, now have a future.
How is greatness achieved? To again quote Rabbi Sacks, “When we hand our values to the next generation and empower them to build a future.” Our newest American citizens are Our family and Our next generation. May God bless them, and may God bless America, through them.