For four months at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, nearly 1,000 Defense Department personnel oversaw the reception and care of more than 3,755 evacuees from Afghanistan, following the U.S. military withdrawal from the country after a nearly 20-year war.
The Marine assignment came as part of a large-scale effort that saw 53,150 Afghan evacuees on eight different military installations as of late October 2021. The first arrived in late July 2021, according to Pentagon reports. Afghans were processed out of camps as they received necessary clearances, reviews and mandatory vaccinations for entry into the United States.
A recently-released report from the inspector general’s office laid out much of the challenges, costs and work that Marines assigned to the mission conducted as part of Operation Allies Welcome.
And the DoD IG team noted a significant accountability problem at Quantico, Virginia.
“Without proper accountability of personnel, it was difficult for TF Quantico personnel to determine if any Afghan evacuees were missing in an emergency or other unexpected events,” the report noted.
Life for Afghans on base
The DoD IG report on Quantico, Virginia, detailed the timeline of significant events at that base.
Quantico, Virginia, spent an estimated $188.4 million to house the thousands of evacuees and relied primarily on Marines from 2nd Marine Logistics Group, 10th Marine Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to provide security, logistics and care for the evacuees.
The site visit by DoD IG personnel was done in late September 2021, only about a month into the mission, but it did include final tallies for some of the data involved before the mission concluded in late December 2021.
Marines from 2nd Marine Logistics Group got the order to provide support at Quantico, Virginia, and a 14-Marine team conducted a site survey to identify housing and sustainment plans for up to 5,000 Afghans at the base on Aug. 24, 2021.
Four days later, the Marines, now dubbed “Task Force Quantico,” told officials that the base could house up to 1,000 Afghan evacuees.
Not good enough, apparently, because the task force eventually secured 5,000 beds at three separate sites on the base, ultimately housing 3,755 Afghans before the final evacuees left the base in late December 2021.
Those numbers grew rapidly, as 241 evacuees arrived by Aug. 29, 2021. Ten days later 1,415 evacuees were living on the base. The base reached its peak, according to the report, on Sept. 25, 2021. The last evacuees left on Dec. 22, 2021.
The Marines “relied on Afghan leaders and interagency partners to inform the command when individuals went missing or did not show up for scheduled appointments,” according to the report.
This was not the standard for the other seven installations.
Report authors noted that soldiers at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, supplied identification numbered wrist bands and held regular “check-ins” with evacuees. The task force at Fort Lee, Virginia, held daily accountability checks and issued badges evacuees were required to wear at all times on the facility.
Marine Corps spokesmen at Quantico, Virginia, did not answer Marine Corps Times when asked what kind of steps or measures were taken to maintain accountability of Afghan evacuees beyond initial registration. They also did not answer why badge wearing or daily accountability check-ins were not conducted at Quantico, Virginia, like they were at Fort Lee, Virginia, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
The task force used the grounds of Quantico’s Camp Upshur, according to the report, which had been used in the 1980s for officer candidate school. The team constructed three tent facilities: Expeditionary Staging Area East, with housing for 2,000 individuals, and Expeditionary Staging Area West and Pioneer City, each with housing for 1,000 evacuees.
Expeditionary Staging Area East contained 20 temperature-controlled structures, while Expeditionary Staging Area West had 11 air-conditioned pods. Pioneer City held 80 general-purpose tents for single males, single females and families.
The Marines ran four dining facilities, serving three hot meals a day.
Beyond feeding the evacuees, Marines hosted Afghan-led classes and classes on English language learning, hygiene, American culture and health. Task force civil affairs staff provided entertainment, which included movie nights, dance nights, soccer and volleyball tournaments, the report said.
Task force personnel held weekly shuras, or meetings, with Afghan leaders in the evacuee group.
One major crime was reported, according to the report, which involved an adult male engaging in an alleged “inappropriate act” with a child. Within 30 minutes of the incident being reported the adult male was detained and turned over to the FBI for processing. No further details were provided.
Among the 3,755 evacuees at Quantico, Virginia, were 150 pregnant women.
Base and task force personnel responded to a medical emergency at the evacuee sites daily for the first four weeks, the report noted. The responses ranged from women requiring Caesarian deliveries to a child who suffered a concussion.
The task force used 145 Marines to support the medical mission, which took up half of the entire Marine logistic group’s medical personnel.
At first, Marines did not provide required vaccinations for the new arrivals.
But after the DoD IG team notified Marine staff of the extensive vaccination list ― which included the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis vaccine, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, varicella, influenza, pneumonia, rotavirus, meningococcal and COVID-19 vaccines ― the task force conducted further vaccinations, reaching a 90% COVID-19 vaccination rate and 70% polio vaccination rate among the evacuee population on base, according to the inspector general report.
The DoD report noted that no follow-up actions were taken due to the fact the evacuees left Quantico, Virginia, in late December 2021.
When asked what lessons were learned at Quantico, Virginia, that could be used to better provide on-base accountability of populations in the future, the Marine Corps did not respond to Marine Corps Times.
Headquarters Marine Corps Spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger provided the following statement post-publication, saying Marine leadership was “extremely proud of the dedication and professionalism” task force members and supporting staff provided during the “historic whole-of-government” mission.
“Our Marines and sailors facilitated a hospitable community where Afghans could feel at home while they transitioned to their new lives here in the United States,” Stenger wrote in an email to Marine Corps Times on Jan. 21. “Some Afghans had strong support networks in the United States, including American family members or friends, and chose to leave the safe havens to begin their new lives in the United States with that support. Proper accountability of our Afghan guests was upheld at all times in coordination with our lead federal agency partners at the (Department of Homeland Security) and ultimately led to the successful and timely resettlement of all Afghans housed with Task Force Quantico.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a Dec. 21, 2021, statement from Headquarters Marine Corps provided via email to Marine Corps Times.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.