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Operation Allies Welcome - Operation Allies Refuge

Photo by Lance Cpl. Scott Jenkins

Operation Allies Welcome - Operation Allies Refuge

27 Sep 2021 | Lance Cpl. Scott Jenkins 8th Engineer Support Battalion

"The call came on a Tuesday, and we left on a Wednesday. That's just what we do as Marines," said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Oliva, acting operations chief with Combat Logistics Battalion 2.

U.S. Marines and Sailors with 2nd Marine Logistics Group are operating temporary living shelters for Afghan evacuees in support of Operation Allies Welcome at historic Camp Upshur on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, while they maintain a humanitarian status during their transition to life in the United States.

In late August, various units around 2nd MLG began planning to leave Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; they were initially told that they would be going to Haiti to provide humanitarian aid in the wake of a significant magnitude 7.2 earthquake.

However, the Marines and Sailors of 2nd MLG were then given a different type of deployment orders. In less than a day, their mission completely changed.

"When I was told we were leaving, I still thought we were talking about Haiti," said Cpl. Jonathan Coats, unit movement control chief with CLB-2. "Everything that I had packed and ready was all to go there, along with all the trucks and gear we had staged was for a specific mission."

With less than 12 hours to finalize mission planning, the Marines and Sailors left Camp Lejeune in buses and tactical vehicles with little details about what exactly they would be doing and for how long.

"When we started the drive, we hadn't even made sleeping arrangements for all 181 Marines. We all had our two-man tents with us, and we knew that would get us through if there was nowhere on base available," said Oliva.

After a long convoy north, 2nd MLG arrived at Marine Corps Base Quantico to support the whole-of-government effort that involves working alongside the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and various non-governmental organizations.

The unit got to work right away that first night; they only had three days to transform the former officer candidates school squad bays at Camp Upshur into “Upshur Village,” a living area for up to 5,000 men, women, and children.

"The first two days, it felt like all we did was clean for 14 hours," said Cpl. Matthew McCully, landing support specialist with CLB-2. "Mowed grass, mopped floors, moved beds; it never stopped, there was always something that needed to be done."

When Afghan evacuees arrived a few days later, Marines and Sailors starting checking them into the camp and facilitated their move into a living space.

"We do everything from doing laundry, fix AC units, and source barbers for the people who live here," said Coats.

Currently, Upshur Village maintains several thousand people awaiting resettlement to permanent homes around the country; this was made possible by several expansions to the site with assistance from local government contractors.

Even with these increases in capacity, there was still a need for more space. Therefore, military and government officials called for another location. However, unlike Upshur Village, this second site would need to be built from the ground up in a local training area nearby Camp Upshur.

It proved to be no challenge for the Marines and Sailors of 8th Engineer Support Battalion.

“We arrived here on buses in the late afternoon, we looked out and just saw an empty field that Marines were still mowing the grass on,” said Cpl. Elijah Nelson, a combat engineer with 8th ESB. “That’s what we love to hear as engineers, ‘Something needs to be built, and in a hurry,’ that’s exactly what we did.”

The Marines and Sailors constructed the site now known as “Pioneer City” to temporarily house 1,000 people in less than 36 hours. The unit accomplished this by utilizing general purpose living tents that service members are often accustomed to setting up for field exercises and other operations.

“We started working as soon as we arrived. We lived in two-man tents on site for the first week and took shifts working around the clock,” said Nelson.

After a day and a half, 78 tents were setup. With a foundation in place, 8th ESB now works continuously on site improvements using their unique construction backgrounds in both Upshur Village and Pioneer City.

Through their unwavering support to Operation Allies Welcome, the Marines and Sailors of 2nd MLG have once again answered the nation’s call and brought new hope to people in need.

“The Marines here are so motivated to work on something so meaningful,” said Nelson, “to help put an end to the story that our brothers and sisters before us started so many years ago.”