MADISON, Wis. - Some Afghan refugees could soon be living at Fort McCoy between Sparta and Tomah outside La Crosse. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said right now, the Wisconsin base is prepared to house a couple thousand refugees, but they're getting ready for even more and also worrying about the coronavirus pandemic.
FOX6 News has learned the refugees will be tested for COVID-19, but right now, they won't be required to get the vaccine.
"The health and wellbeing of Americans and all other people relocating from Afghanistan to the U.S. is of utmost importance and that means helping these individuals leave the country as quickly and safely as possible. We are following CDC guidelines and testing all U.S. citizens and individuals upon arrival. We are also working with USG partners to ensure CDC guidelines are followed if someone receives a positive COVID-19 test, including quarantining if needed."
The U.S. military is building to house up to 22,000 Afghan refugees between three U.S. bases: Fort McCoy, Fort Lee in Virginia and Fort Bliss in Texas.
Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
"The capacity at those three bases, we want to get up to 22,000 capacity," said Kirby. "We’re not there yet. Understandable, but we’re building out to that. Right now, we think we can get up to 22,000 in relatively short order here over the next coming days and weeks."
It won’t be the Wisconsin fort's first time housing refugees. In 1980, the U.S. processed 14,000 Cubans.
"What’s happening at Fort McCoy behind the fences, you have a city, basically, a city that shows up within days, appears within days and people working around the clock, 24 hours a day, running this city," said Jarrod Roll, director/county historian at the Monroe County Local History Room and Museum.
Roll said the refugees created a temporary surge for the struggling 1980 economy.
"The state of the American economy was rather down, and unemployment was high, so when the refugees came to Fort McCoy, there was an instant demand for workers out there," said Roll. "Anyone from cleanup crew to the cooks, lots of kitchen help needed."
Monroe County Local History Room & Museum
It's something that will again be seen in western Wisconsin.
"We have a commitment to those who truly helped the United States government during our 20 years in Afghanistan," said U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin). "We have to make sure that those individuals are provided free safety and free passage out of Afghanistan. What we can’t allow is anybody who can grab onto an airplane to come into the United States without vetting. That cannot be allowed."
Steil told FOX6 News he is worried about Americans trapped in Afghanistan.
Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
"We had an individual involved with the Special Forces reach out to our office," said Steil. "He’s aware of 40 individuals currently trapped in Kabul with sensitive information. We’ve been working with the State Department, the Department of Defense, to provide that information to allow them to extract these individuals from a very dangerous situation. The fact that individuals are left to call members of Congress seeking assistance speaks volumes about the crisis we’re seeing play out right now in Afghanistan."
"We’re going to do everything, everything that we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners and Afghans who might be targeted because of their association with the United States," said President Biden. "But let me be clear: any American who wants to come home, we will get you home."
President Biden did admit to not knowing the exact numbers of Americans still in Afghanistan because some may have already left the country.
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