State confident in mission as Atterbury prepares for refugees

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The entrance to Camp Atterbury on Wednesday. In the coming days, the National Guard base will temporarily house thousands of Afghan refugees.  Scott Roberson | Daily Journal

By Leeann Doerflein | For The Daily Reporter

There will be no risk to or strain on local communities as thousands of Afghan refugees arrive at Camp Atterbury in the coming weeks, state officials said Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Dale Lyles, Indiana’s Adjutant General, expects Camp Atterbury will welcome the first 1,000 refugees later this week or early next week. Once the first group settles in, additional refugees will come in waves of about 1,000, up to 5,000, he said during a news conference.

Active-duty and National Guard service members will provide housing, medical, logistics and transportation services for the refugees.

The refugees will be subject to a 14-day hold to determine their medical and visa statuses. Non-governmental agencies will aim to resettle them within 10 weeks, Lyles said.

The 46,000-acre camp will provide families with dorm-style housing, and individual refugees will be situated in open barracks. The base can house up to 10,000 people. Lyles noted that capacity could be expanded if needed.

The last U.S. forces flew out of Kabul’s airport late Monday, ending America’s longest war following an airlift of Afghans, Americans and others escaping a country once again ruled by the Taliban.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said the operation is federally funded and comes at no cost to the state.

This is not the first time Atterbury has carried out this sort of mission. During World War II, the camp housed prisoners of war from Italy. Throughout its history, the camp has served as a training ground for the Indiana National Guard, including mobilizing more than 120,000 soldiers during recent conflicts.

“Camp Atterbury is well prepared to handle this temporary mission, and has the right processes in place to do this mission and do it right,” Lyles said.

By the time refugees get to the Indiana National Guard base in southern Johnson County, they will have been vetted multiple times by multiple federal agencies and tested for COVID-19, he said.

“We absolutely know who they are,” Lyles said. “We know what their visa requirements are and we know that they are safe. We are working very closely with law enforcement agencies to help set the conditions for them to potentially leave Camp Atterbury.”

Afghan refugees were taken from Kabul to locations in Europe and the Middle East, where the first round of vetting is taking place. That first round of vetting is a “multi-agency, multi-layer, multi-dimensional process” carried out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, FBI, National Counter-Terrorism Commission and other intelligence agencies, he said.

Once the refugees arrive in the United States, they are vetted again to verify the initial information and determine which visa they qualify for. If they pass the second round, they move on to Camp Atterbury for additional vetting and a medical check-up, Lyles said.

At Camp Atterbury, they go through a reception, staging and onward integration process under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of State and FBI, he said.

“As far as the refugees presenting a risk to the surrounding communities, that risk has been all but eliminated by the vetting process,” Lyles said.

The refugees are allies who helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Holcomb said.

“I would appeal to people’s hearts and minds. These are the same folks who, for decades, have assisted and aided us in a very dangerous terrain — translators helping our military diplomatic efforts, people who worry about waking up tomorrow,” Holcomb said. “For those citizens out there who question this, transparency will be paramount, and we will be sharing what we know in real-time. If we don’t have a question answered, we will work with our federal partners.”

The plan the federal and state government have in place will be adequate to protect Hoosiers, he said.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about what’s going to happen. I have grown more and more confident in our ability to know who these refugees are and our ability to process them as if they are going through boot camp,” Holcomb said.

An additional 800 Army soldiers from Fort Hood in Texas and a medical team from Fort Knox in Kentucky were expected to arrive at Camp Atterbury.

“We have a very deliberate planning process to mitigate the pressure outside of Camp Atterbury to the local community,” he said. “We do not want to put any pressure on (the) Johnson County hospital or any other hospital in the area. We are taking measures to prevent that from happening.”

Atterbury officials are working with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Edinburgh Police Department and other nearby agencies on security measures. Military police will secure the base, Lyles said.

Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess spoke with Atterbury officials Wednesday and feels confident in the security measures that are in place. The sheriff’s office is not being asked to do anything outside of routine patrols around the base.

“They’re bringing the right people to the table to do everything right on base,” Burgess said. “My men and women will continue to patrol diligently in the southern Johnson County area outside of the gate … They will handle everything inside the gates.”

Between the additional troops and heightened security measures that will be in place at Camp Atterbury, Lyles is confident, too.

“We don’t have any evidence we could become a target of some sort by doing this mission, but we are alert … We feel confident we can provide a safe and secure environment for all of the refugees,” Lyles said.

All medical care will be provided by military health care professionals. Atterbury already has Level 1 and Level 2 care onsite, and will expand its treatment capabilities temporarily to support more intensive care, he said.

Lyles has worked with Dr. Kristina Box, state health commissioner, to anticipate all pre-existing health conditions that may be present in the refugee population, and to bring in the resources needed to diagnose and treat those conditions. All refugees will be given vaccines that are required to obtain a visa, and will be offered a COVID-19 vaccine if they are unvaccinated. Quarantine and isolation areas will also be set up for any refugees who test positive for the virus, he said.

Refugees will stay at Atterbury for at least two weeks before resettling elsewhere. Those who have family in the United States will be reunited with them, while those who do not have local ties can consider the options provided by those who are helping them relocate, Lyles said.

It is not clear how many refugees will stay in Indiana or in the area surrounding Camp Atterbury, but Holcomb welcomes any who choose to, he said.

Those who stay will be assisted by multiple state agencies who can show them how to find a job and a home, register their children for school, get a driver’s license and more, Lyles said.

A formal donation process is being set up. In the meantime, those who would like to help can call the Indiana National Guard at 317-247-3559.