JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. (AFNS) —
More than 80 New Jersey Air National Guard Airmen from the 108th Wing and 177th Fighter Wing have supported Operation Allies Welcome at Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst since August.
The Airmen work at various levels throughout the village, from village governor and mayor to logistical and security support to Afghan guests.
Col. Bernadette Maldonado, 108th Mission Support Group commander, is one of two governors at Liberty Village.
“Our mission here at Task Force Liberty is to provide Department of Defense support for our civilian authorities, specifically the Department of Homeland Security,” Maldonado said. “We’re helping our Afghan guests by providing housing, medical care and immigration processing. It’s an absolutely fulfilling mission. One time I was having a challenging day and I was coming into the office and this little girl wrapped her arms around me and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you,’ and I knew this is why I’m here.”
Maldonado said a system of village governors and mayors was chosen to create a more relatable leadership structure for the Afghan guests. The leadership has town hall meetings with tent elders weekly to discuss any issues.
“Our motto here is ‘better every day,’ and we do everything we can to make sure it is better every day for our guests,” Maldonado said. “We want to make sure that their transition to the United States and their life in America goes as smoothly as possible.”
Liberty Village is split into several areas, with Village 3 run by Lt. Col. April Doolittle, 108th Wing comptroller.
As Doolittle walked between rows of tents, she was swarmed by children looking for a fist bump or a hug.
“This is one of the best missions I’ve ever been a part of,” Doolittle said. “Its uniqueness and the diversity of the total force with National Guard, Reserves, active duty, and the humanitarian aspect of what we’re doing for our guests has made me so proud to do a mission like this.”
As mayor of Village 3, Doolittle is responsible for the care of nearly 7,500 Afghan guests and 400 Airmen.
“I think this mission has changed me a lot,” Doolittle said. “From a leadership perspective, I’ve had to adapt how I lead. With this being a humanitarian mission, every decision I make has to be made with compassion and care, and I think this has given me skills to be a better leader when I go back to my job at the 108th.”
Master Sgt. Christine Laskowski, 108th Maintenance Group’s Maintenance Operation Center, is working as a dispatcher with courtesy patrol within Liberty Village.
“We respond to medical emergencies and other requests for support, but the most important thing we do is we go out into the villages and we build relationships with the guests,” Laskowski said. “For me, it’s been eye-opening learning about a new culture and working with the kids.”
Operation Allies Welcome is a joint mission. New Jersey ANG Airmen work with their active-duty counterparts and with the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and numerous government agencies.
“The best experience has been the camaraderie we’ve developed with the Airmen and other service members from all across the country, interacting with the children, parents and grandparents, teachers and other volunteers. It’s just been a great experience,” said Staff Sgt. Darrell Willis, 108th Maintenance Group.
“Just simply knowing that we have a huge mission here that changes people’s perspective of this uniform, of this country and their outlook of what’s possible,” he said. ”It’s been a great opportunity, we might not see the impact now, but it will be felt in five, 10, 20 years down the line, when we say, ‘Wow, we were there. We had a part in that.’”
As Afghan guests have made their way through the immigration process and families have left the camp, their impact is still felt by the Airmen.
One note left by an Afghan family said: “Life brings tears, smiles and memories. The tears dry. The smiles fade. But the memories live on forever. We will never forget your kindness.”