ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia —
Lt. Col. Panos Bakogiannis says he will never be the same after his latest Air Force deployment – a three-month stint at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in support of Operation Allies Welcome – the Department of Homeland Security-led effort to support vulnerable Afghans as they relocate safely to the United States.
A Reserve Citizen Airman assigned to the 414th Fighter Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, Bakogiannis first heard about the possibility of helping set up operations in Holloman to receive evacuees Afghans on August 25. Twenty-four hours later, he was on a KC-46, along with six other 414th FG deployers, en route to what would be one of the toughest but most rewarding deployments of his 27-year reserve career.
“It was truly a life-changing assignment,” Bakogiannis said in a recent interview. “I had the opportunity to work alongside some incredible airmen as we built the village that would house people whose worlds had been turned upside down. They came here with nothing, and to be able to get to know them and help them starting their new life has been a humbling and extremely rewarding experience.
Since September, more than 50,000 vulnerable Afghan allies have been temporarily housed at eight US military installations, where they receive a comprehensive medical screening and a variety of other services before moving to their new homes in their new country. Hundreds of Reserve Citizen Airmen have deployed to support Operation Allies Welcome at these eight facilities, including more than 100 who deployed to Holloman.
More than 7,000 Afghans have spent time at Holloman over the past five months. The initial push to prepare the base for the influx of evacuees was a Herculean effort. Within days, Task Force Holloman was able to erect tents for the 900 Airmen who would support Operation Allies Welcome at the base and helped build living space for up to 5,000 Afghans.
“When I got to Holloman, we had a tent and a trailer that we were working on,” Bakogiannis said. “For the first three weeks, we were doing construction work in the village as Afghan guests arrived. We’re building tents and getting people into these apartments as fast as they’ve been built. The apartments were built in one day, furnished in one day and then filled in the next.
In addition to assisting in the establishment of the Airmen’s tent city and the Afghan village, Bakogiannis served as the “mayor” of Aman Omid village while deployed.
“As mayor, one of my main tasks was to conduct shuras – meetings with male heads of households to talk about issues, resolve issues, discuss situations and create report and feedback so that we can improve the conditions and the way we deal with our guests,” he said.
Bakogiannis said it was somewhat chaotic at the start of the mission as Afghans arrived, sometimes without key documents, money and clothing. “Add to the fact that all the other governments and aid agencies were just getting started in their operations and our food service providers were slow to get into their battle rhythm, and it was extremely hectic at first.”
The lieutenant-colonel said things were much better when his deployment ended in early December. “We certainly had some growing pains, but through it all, our Airmen showed great compassion and empathy. I asked our airmen for the impossible and they delivered.
Col. Meredith Seeley is another reservist who deployed in support of OAW in Holloman. As Task Force Holloman’s vice commander, she arrived in late August and is expected to be deployed through the end of March.
“Hopefully I’ll be here for the duration of our mission and be there when our last guests depart,” said Seeley, wing process manager for the 927th Air Refueling Wing, MacDill AFB, Fla. . noted.
Like Bakogiannis, Seeley said she was amazed by the Airmen who deployed to support OAW in Holloman.
“The teamwork across all three components represented here – active duty, guard and reserve – was inspiring to witness firsthand,” she said. “A lot of service members here work outside of their traditional career field. It’s a great example of multi-capable Airmen coming together and accomplishing the mission. Many were deployed with two to three days notice and very little expectation of what their deployment would entail. However, the Airmen showed so much drive, resilience, innovation and determination in caring for each other and our Afghan guests.
Seeley said one of the most important roles she was able to fulfill was that of ambassador to the women of the village.
“While many women came from westernized cities like Kabul and had successful educations and careers, there were also many who were not used to seeing a woman in a leadership position,” she said. . “As Vice Task Force Commander, I viewed this as an incredible opportunity and intentionally put time and effort into the initial preparation to ensure we had designated safe spaces for our women and opportunities for them to feel empowered.We developed a women-only shura where women were encouraged to bring forward their concerns, ideas and suggestions.Women here are encouraged and this generates a real sense of community.
Like Bakogiannis, Seeley said this deployment was a highlight of her career, not only because she had the opportunity to work with incredible Airmen, but because she had the opportunity to build relationships. with inspiring and resilient Afghans.
“More than half of the population of our village is made up of children,” she said. “I love going to the village after the day’s work and interacting with the women and playing with the children. They are so grateful, optimistic and resilient, and their smiles, laughter, stories and affection mean the world to me. While many of their stories are tragic, they are heroic, and it is inspiring to see these families so filled with hope. both an opportunity and a responsibility.When we show them kindness, compassion and empathy, we have an everlasting impact. #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient ■