Afghan refugees: Fort McCoy authorized, Wisconsin prepares

Wisconsin prepares for an international rescue mission. Running from the Taliban, escaping a falling Afghanistan, some refugees will soon land at a western Wisconsin military installation.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, Aug. 18 officially authorized the use of Fort McCoy – located between Sparta and Tomah – to house refugees. Several federal departments are still working out the details.

"I want to help. I want to help these people that were displaced," said Gwen Nelson of Tomah as she sold vegetables at a Tomah farmers' market.

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"Certainly our first question was how did Wisconsin get selected. I attribute that to a lot of the training and communication and leadership that we have at Fort McCoy," said Tina Thompson with the Tomah Chamber & Visitors Center.


Afghan passengers sit inside a plane as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Thompson said the chamber is already getting calls about hotels, as the city looks to welcome translators, cooks and support staff coming to help at the fort.

"I think all of our industries certainly wouldn’t mind the economic boon. The hard challenge of that is we simply don’t have enough workforce to support what we currently have," Thompson said.

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The Tomah Area School District has already been in talks with the base, but is not sure exactly how they might help young refugees.

"We want students to find that they have a home in Tomah area schools, so we’ll be working hard to walk through any barriers to education there," said Superintendent Mike Hanson.

Hanson is reminded of his youth, when his family hosted Vietnam refugees.

"As I reflected personally, I thought: this is a pretty amazing moment now as an educator, a professional. I just want to take those good things that I recall from growing up, and lead in a way that’s passionate and we take care of families in need, who are in very distressing times right now."


Fort McCoy, Wisconsin

This won't be the first time refugees are housed at Fort McCoy. In 1980, more than 14,000 Cuban refugees who were escaping Fidel Castro were housed and screened there.

However, not everyone is ready to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees right away.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany said he is disturbed and wants to see the vetting of all people happen in other countries before they arrive in the United States.

"Alarmingly, the White House has also declined to say whether these individuals will be held in custody during vetting, or if we will see the same kind of catch-and-release policy we’ve seen on our southern border. Adding insult to injury, President Biden has not bothered to seek the approval of Wisconsin leaders, or the local communities that will be affected by this haphazard plan," Tiffany wrote.

Gov. Tony Evers said the state has been in touch with federal partners about the resettlement of Afghan refugees and that the state is ready to help those who helped the country. 

"Many Afghan people now fleeing their homes have bravely contributed to work in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Just as they protected us in serving our country and helped keep our troops safe, we owe it to them to protect and keep them safe," the governor wrote in a statement.

The timeline for when the refugees will arrive is still being determined. A U.S. Department of State spokesperson told FOX6 they cannot discuss flight information, due to security reasons.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby called the mission "fast-developing." He says each site, Fort McCoy, Fort Bliss in Texas, and Fort Lee in Virginia will provide temporary housing while the refugees continue their "processing." 

Kirby says each site is getting ready to house the refugees. "And the details of exactly how each site is going to be fitted out and -- and the capacity improved, we're still working on." 

While many Tomah residents might not have direct contact with the refugees housed at Fort McCoy, some say they want to send them a message: they are welcome here.

"I see the children, and that for me is the future," Gwen Nelson said. "If we can embrace the children, and let them know that we don’t hate them."