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Oregon National Guard soldiers help Afghan refugees in Indiana

Soldiers said it has been challenging but exciting helping the Afghan refugees as they settle in a new country.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Roughly 250 Oregon National Guard soldiers are in Indiana helping settle Afghan refugees.

The soldiers are stationed at Camp Atterbury, just south of Indianapolis. It covers 46,000 acres and can hold as many as 10,000 soldiers. Instead, it now holds 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan, nearly half of them under the age of 18.

First Lieutenant Alex Esselstrom from Bend, Ore. is commander of the 1186th military police company now stationed at the base.

“We have a lot of soldiers that do foot patrol," said Esselstrom. "And they are definitely immersed with the Afghan population. Especially the children. They are very fascinated with everything that we’re doing."

In his civilian life, Esselstrom is a police officer in Bend. At Camp Atterbury, his team protects the perimeter of the base-- manning guard posts, making sure no one unauthorized gets in and no contraband is smuggled in. He said that it's been so far, so good.

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“It has been slow. We really are the law enforcement here on post. We’re grateful that things have been quiet, to be honest,” he said.

The camp is one of eight in the U.S. that started taking in refugees after the president ordered massive airlifts in August.

Most are men and women who worked for the U.S. during the long war in Afghanistan, along with their families.

One of the camp leaders, Col. Dale Jackson, said many dreamed of a bright future for themselves and their families.

“And then suddenly, that ended," said Jackson. "And they were displaced rapidly and violently from that dream. So there’s a lot mentally and emotionally and spiritually that they’re working through and will have to continue to work through. And they arrived here and now they’re doing some soul searching dealing with that pain, dealing with that trauma but also looking forward to trying to figure out now, 'What’s my new dream?'”

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One of their new nightmares is an attack on extended family still in Afghanistan, according to Aaron Batt, the civilian in charge of the resettlement effort at Camp Atterbury.

“Many of them fear persecution for them and their family," said Batt. "Almost everyone has family that has been left back in Afghanistan and of course we want to make sure their face doesn’t end up putting them at risk.”

Five thousand is a lot of people with a lot of needs. Some of them are overseen by 1st Lieutenant Kara Lerwick and her Oregon Guard company.

“So it’s that humanitarian part of it that really is fulfilling for us because we’re getting to see, kinda, the happy ending,” she said.

The refugees are housed in blocks of rooms. Lerwick and her soldiers with the 224th Engineering company fill a role called a mayoral cell.

They deal with the refugees daily in a certain block of buildings and help them get what they need from clothing to food to fixing something broken inside their rooms.

Lerwick's conversations have led to some funny moments.

“I guess they had a class about road laws and driving laws and licensing and all that and you know talking about our different perspectives on it – and they’re like- 'Oh you have a speed limit everywhere!' And it’s like yes- yes we do.”

She said it is rewarding to be helping on a historic mission.

“It does feel good. Even on our longer days going out there and seeing the kids receiving coats or playing soccer or having the guests tell us they appreciate what we’re doing out here and they often do,” she said.

Camp leaders say it could take as long as a year to place everyone in a new home. The Oregon soldiers will be there to help until August or September of 2022.

Have a comment or story idea for Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com