“Bloom where you are planted,” is an Afghan proverb that many U.S. Service Members and families know well. For more than seven thousands Afghan travelers en route to the United States, the Life Support Areas at Rhine Ordnance Barracks are important “starter pots” preparing them for new lives on U.S. soil.
Much like seed-starting pots provide optimal conditions for young plants, U.S. Soldiers, DOD civilians, and volunteers supporting Operation Allies Welcome and Task Force Home are doing everything they can to make the temporary living facilities at ROB safe, comfortable and conducive to growth, helping travelers thrive during and after their transition to the U.S.
16th Sustainment Brigade’s 39th Transportation Battalion commander Lt. Col. Matt Rivera, leads the Task Force Home Command and Control Headquarters, providing guidance and resources to accomplish the unprecedented and historic mission of caring for thousands of Afghan travelers amid a global pandemic.
“One of the biggest things you get out of the military is problem-solving — constantly, constantly solving problems,” said Rivera. “And this is a very unique problem set. It’s really important to bring a team together as fast as you can and then convey the problems and then solve the problems as quickly as you can.”
According to Rivera, the Task Force Home team is made up of DOD civilians and Service Members from units across Germany, including the 16th Sustainment Brigade, 1st Battalion from 2nd Calvary Regiment, 512th Field Hospital from the 30th Medical Brigade, 1st Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 515th Transportation Company, 66th Transportation Company 23rd Modular Ordnance Ammunition Company, 317th Support Maintenance Company, 709th Military Police and 51st Composite Truck Company.
“We are responsible for the health and welfare of all arriving Afghan travelers,” said Rivera. “Our primary focus is to provide suitable temporary lodging in a safe and dignified manner while setting conditions for their successful transition to their next destination, which for the majority of the travelers will be the U.S.”
According to Rivera, forging positive relationships is the first step in being able to accommodate the diverse groups within the Afghan traveler population
“The demographics vary by culture, gender, language, tribes, and marital status,” said Rivera. “We want to accommodate each demographic as best we can.”
Successful efforts include establishing 24-hour tea and chai stations and catering to dietary preferences to make life more comfortable and familiar. 16th STB cooks, who prepare two hot mails daily, worked with Afghan travelers to learn how to prepare foods more tailored to Afghan tastes. Preferred breads and fruits were also added to daily selections.
To allow travelers to communicate with family and friends in Afghanistan and the U.S., Wi-Fi accessible areas were created throughout the facility.
Volunteers and Soldiers distribute basic needs like blankets, clothing and hygiene items daily at various sites and a designated donation center. Task Force Home supports ongoing donation efforts with additional manpower, coordinating logistics and collecting and transporting truckloads of donations that also include shoes, toys and luggage. The donation coordination ensures travelers unaccustomed to Germany’s cooler fall climate have access to warm weather items such as covered shoes, hats and coats.
To ensure traveler health and safety, the 30th Medical Brigade provides onsite 24-hour care and evacuation capability to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center if required. They also led the effort to vaccinate travelers for measles, mumps and rubella, chickenpox and COVID-19. Pregnant travelers receive prenatal care, and there have been 11 births at ROB. Volunteers also staff baby formula and bottle washing stations, with some Afghan teens helping to mix formula and hand out bottles.
Recreational opportunities include dances with a live DJ, corn hole and volleyball tournaments, puppet shows, movie nights with popcorn and card games.
“All these activities plus many more were big hits,” said Rivera.
Educational programs include English classes for adults and children led by Department of Defense Education Activity teachers and volunteers. U.S. cultural norm classes, facilitated by 457th Civil Affairs Battalion, are led by Afghan travelers who have lived in the United States. 21st Theater Sustainment Command collaboration recently made regular delivery of donated Stars and Stripes newspapers possible.
Rivera said the breadth of expertise offered by multiple units has enhanced the team’s ability to meet the challenges that come with charting new territory.
“I think the military lets you be open to other opinions and ideas,” said Rivera. “The military prepares you in terms of listening to people from different backgrounds and different experiences and accepting them.”
He cited the example of 21st TSC Human Resources Command and 569th Human Resources Company lending staff, manpower, and expertise to address the significant challenge of maintaining accountability during the rapid arrival of 6,000 individuals. The 569th Human Resources Company worked tirelessly to issue bracelets with barcodes and scanners at the Deployment Processing Center and each LSA to ensure traveler safety, accountability, and a seamless process for departure to the U.S.
“The experiences gained from our interactions with travelers, and working alongside Service Members and DOD civilians that we traditionally do not work with has been invaluable,” said Rivera. “Our team has become closer and more confident in each other after persevering through this daunting yet rewarding time.”
Operation Allies Welcome and Task Force Home support has postponed many regular operations and called on individuals to take on different or additional duties. Maintaining a “never quit” attitude and a team player mentality are key factors to mission success, according to Rivera.
“This mission requires long hours, flexibility, patience, and a positive attitude,” he acknowledged. “People in dire need require our support, and we must be on our A game day in and day out to provide it.
“We want to help every traveler as much as we possibly can. We are aware of the harsh conditions the majority of the travelers were subject to and understand how difficult their current situation is.”
During a regular crafting activity at ROB, Afghan children are taught how to make flowers out of paper. They happily give their creations away to U.S. Soldiers and volunteers — blooming where they are planted.