Atypical deployment delivers atypical rewards

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – Caring for others is never easy but the simple expressions of gratitude are worth it. Just ask Maj. Victoria Villa who recently returned from a very different, four-month deployment in support of Operation Allies Welcome at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Following a cancelled deployment, the major wasn’t surprised when the call came to pack up for the Garden State to help 70,000+ Afghan refugees process through JBMDL before finding new homes and jobs across the United States.

“From the beginning, I was interested in helping with this mission due to my language capabilities,” said Villa, who is proficient in Persian Farsi.  

Although a logistics readiness officer by trade in the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s Expeditionary Support Division, Villa stepped out of her chosen discipline to fill two important roles as part of Task Force Liberty – Culture Advisement and Assessment Team Village lead and the Female Engagement Team lead. 

As the CAAT lead, Villa guided 35 Airmen from various career fields in implementing an assortment of programs to include cross-cultural sensitivity training for task force members and educating Afghan guests on life in the United States and the basics of each state.

“The range [of career fields] spanned from finance to special mission aviator,” Villa said, “but these members were recruited for the team based on their language capabilities, cultural competency and air advisor expertise.”

Those skills proved invaluable as they advised village leaders on cultural sensitivities and special incidents involving Afghan guests, she said. 

“The compassion Major Villa and others members of Task Force Liberty provided to Afghan refugees going through an overwhelming, uncertain time in their lives exemplified the kindness of American citizens,” said Col. Drew Pate, AFIMSC’s Expeditionary Support Division chief and Villa’s supervisor in San Antonio.  

“She played a huge part in acculturation efforts that drove the exchange of cultural practices and increased the cross cultural competency of military members, nongovernmental organization staff members and refugees.”

Through the FET, Villa also helped give female Afghan guests a voice in village activities. She teamed with 11 others and eight different agencies to advance female empowerment and advocacy across the village for more than 5,000 women and girls. This included hosting women’s council meetings, organizing multiple educational and resiliency events specific for women and girls, and providing care for gender-sensitive incidents. 

“We empowered female Afghan guests to take the lead in the decisions and actions happening in the village,” Villa said. “As a result, there was a huge increase in attendance to women’s council meetings where we addressed current issues within the village as well as preparing them for life in the United States.”

The FET also established a women’s computer class to focus on digital literacy and help them start the job hunting or education application process, and helped create a women’s recreation center with a grand opening event that included dancing, games and crafts.

Her deployment was similar to many military deployments with long days, and physical and mental exhaustion, the major said, and because “in true Air Force fashion, Airmen stepped up and executed every task professionally.” 

But, it was also different in the way their work and the surroundings struck them on a deeper level.

“This mission was very personal since at the basic level it was taking care of people in crisis,” Villa said, with many Airmen “asked to complete roles the Air Force hadn’t trained them to do.

“The thing that will stick with me the most is the compassion our Airmen displayed daily. Many were witness to tough personal situations that they didn’t necessarily have the skills to handle, but they helped our Afghan guests find the care they needed,” she said.

Seeing the extent of the work accomplished by Villa and her teams, Pate believes they have left a positive, lasting impression on the Afghan guests and the service members themselves.

“I truly believe that, because of their experience with OAW, refugees will become caring and productive U.S. citizens and many young men and women who were inspired by our military members will themselves join the military as they come of age,” said Pate. 

“This will continue the legacy of children of immigrants coming to the United States, making it their home and deciding to honor their parents’ sacrifices and the kindness of the American people through service to our nation.”

For Villa, the experience not only gave her lasting memories, but it will also shape her Air Force service.

“Caring for people isn’t easy work but I’ll never forget the smiles and genuine gratitude expressed by the guests,” Villa said. “The heart and passion of Airmen will most definitely serve as motivation as I continue my career.”