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Task Force-Holloman welcomes Afghan evacuees with arms wide open

  • Published
  • By Pfc. Anthony Sanchez
  • Task Force-Holloman

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.-- The doors open as a large group of Airmen walk outside, the bright New Mexico sun blinding them as they leave. As their eyes begin to adjust, a C-130J Super Hercules comes into view.

People spill out of the recently parked aircraft. From the eyes of the Airmen, the people departing look tired, rugged, but also relieved and hopeful.

“It’s honestly very emotional,” said 1st Lt. Whitney Longenecker, Task Force-Holloman in-processing center officer in charge deployed from Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. “It’s crazy because you can see it in their eyes, as soon as they stand on American ground they know they’re safe.”

Longenecker is in charge of in-processing the Afghan evacuees and welcoming them into the United States.  Her and her team are the first people the evacuees meet when they get off the plane.

“I try to make sure our people are outside when the plane lands,” She said, “I want [our Airmen] to understand exactly what we’re doing here.”

Longenecker stood-up the in-processing center with help from Senior Airman Michaela Jones, Task Force-Holloman in-processing center coordinator deployed from Seymour Johnson AFB.

“This is her first mission managing personnel like this.” Jones said about Longenecker, “She and I had to figure this out together, she took everything we had learned, listened to what we had to say, and made it work better.”

Longenecker and her team make sure that positive accountability of Afghan evacuees are completed and that their immediate needs are met when they land. Medical help, religious assistance and care for infants and pregnant women are all provided.

“It’s a little hectic because we don’t know what status these people will be arriving in,” Longenecker said. “Some need to be carried or taken off the aircraft in a wheelchair from the flight line.”

Jones feels a similar way about when the evacuees arrive at Holloman.

“You see the evacuees in whatever state they’re in when they arrive here, and a couple days later you see them in Aman Omid Village, they’re completely different.” Jones said, “They have smiles on their faces and they’re just happy to be here. I love talking with them and hearing their stories. It really puts into perspective how privileged we are to be here, whenever they think of America they think of being free and being able to live the dream and it is truly amazing.”

Longenecker recalled when she personally helped a young woman off the plane.

“She was 16, maybe 18, years old and she was just not well at all,” said Longenecker. “She was very sick, but I helped clean her up and got her some proper clothes and a blanket. She was freezing cold, she felt like ice, was shivering and had cold sweats. I had gotten her a head scarf so people wouldn’t see her. I carried her out to the ambulance and helped her on and she spoke to me through a translator. She said ‘I’ll never forget your face or your kindness.’  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

Longenecker expressed that without her team she wouldn't be able to accomplish this tremendous task. “I have powerhouses for different kinds of jobs.” she said. “Some aren’t personable and so I have them work the logistical side. Others are definitely human resources and are really good with people so I have them up front. Everyone has their own role and it’s on me to figure out where they fit so we can be the most productive.”

“I genuinely think that even if you would handpick people to be a part of this team, it wouldn't be as good as it is currently.” said Jones. “Our personalities mesh so well,  and you'll see just by interacting with us that we will all go to bat for each other. We're just one big family. Everybody is very passionate about what we're doing here.”

The in-processing team has been pulled from many Air Force installations including Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina; Luke Air Force Base, Arizona; Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma and the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.

“It's been a huge joint effort, and everyone has really pitched in to help out,” Longenecker said. “My team actually took it upon themselves to learn key phrases in Pashto, Farsi and Dari. I never asked them to do that.”

Jones is equally impressed with the team here.

“I think at the end of the day, once this whole operation is done, there won’t be a single thing we should be disappointed in,” Jones said. “Everything worked out as great as it possibly could, it feels like everything kind of fell into place.”

Longenecker will carry this experience and memories for not only the rest of her career, but her life as well.

“I have learned and grown so much since I’ve been out here,” she said. “I’ve made so many connections and met so many amazing people, even mentors. I’m just so grateful to have been here.”