One month after arrival at Fort McCoy: Afghan refugees and concerning reports out of Wisconsin

Food and supply shortages, lack of access to clean clothes, harassment on list of concerns

A man hands a bag of supplies to another person.
Sgt. Damian Navarro of 515th Sapper Company, 5th Engineer Battalion, distributes comfort supplies to Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Friday. The Department of Defense is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees at suitable facilities, in permanent or temporary structures, as quickly as possible.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Eric Cerami, 55th Signal Company

It’s been a little over a month since refugees fleeing Afghanistan started arriving at Fort McCoy, one of eight United States military bases tasks with housing the more than 50,000 Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban.

Fort McCoy, located 40 miles east of La Crosse, Wis., has the space to house 13,000 people. Right now, 12,500 Afghan refugees are living on the base while they wait to find out what will happen to them after their country’s government fell to Taliban forces in August.

According to Emily Hamer, a county government and criminal justice reporter with the Wisconsin State Journal, a few lawmakers including Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers have been given access to Fort McCoy and its facilities. These tours came after corroborated reports from refugees who spoke to the Wisconsin State Journal about conditions on the base.

“They have had to wait for several hours in line for food, sometimes up to six hours,” Hamer said. “And then when they get to the end of the line, sometimes there would be no food left.”

There is also a concern about access to supplies, like clean clothes. One of the refugees she spoke to said she was still wearing the same clothes she had on when she left the Kabul airport, including the same set of underwear.

“She thinks that led to her getting an infection,” Hamer told Wurzer Tuesday on Morning Edition.

Media has not been given access to Fort McCoy yet, and Hamer said she does not know of a timeline to give reporters access to the base. The Wisconsin State Journal reported volunteers working in and around the base have been discouraged from talking to reporters, making it difficult for media outlets to verify reports. The refugees who have spoken to the Wisconsin State Journal have asked for anonymity over fears of a negative reaction from those in leadership roles at Fort McCoy.

Last week, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar joined Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) in asking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III to investigate claims of mistreatment that were brought to their offices.

While no definitive timeline has been given for the refugees and their time at Fort McCoy, Hamer said one woman was told it could take anywhere from two to six months to get her resettled outside the base. The Department of Homeland Security said the resettlement process will be different for every person but did not give any more insight into what the refugees might expect moving forward.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.