RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — In less than a week, the air base that runs the U.S. military’s European and African operations has transformed into an international city, hosting tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing Afghanistan.
Officials at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, first learned Aug. 19 that evacuees escaping the Taliban would be brought to the installation for processing, medical evaluations and temporary housing before they are resettled in the United States. By the following day, the first influx of C-17 military transport aircraft arrived, filled mostly with American citizens, Afghan nationals and their families.
The base has worked around the clock to ensure evacuees have medical service, food, water and shelter while based here under Operation Allies Refuge, officials here told reporters Thursday. More than 350 tents sit across the airfield to house the thousands of people arriving on a daily basis, They receive critical supplies from the Defense Department, the Red Cross and other partners, and undergo various processing procedures before they can get on an aircraft bound for Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
Ramstein is the headquarters of United States Air Forces in Europe and Africa, but starting last Friday it turned into “an international airport and a city, with at least three to four times our occupancy on base,” said Brig. Gen. Josh Olson, 86th Airlift Wing commander.
The teams here were dealing with a sudden surge of incoming evacuees on Thursday, and Ramstein was expected to reach its capacity by the evening, he told reporters. Ramstein Air Base can host up to 12,000 evacuees from Afghanistan at one time, while the nearby U.S. Army Garrison Rhine Ordnance Barracks is set up to accept 5,000 more. Once those two bases are at capacity, evacuees will be transported from interim points in the Middle East to U.S. bases in Sigonella, Italy, and Rota, Spain, he added. Naval Air Station Sigonella, which is also acting as an interim transfer point, received a group of 662 “qualified evacuees” on Sunday, the Navy said.
As of Thursday, Ramstein had hosted 6,500 evacuees and Rhine Ordnance Barracks hosted about 500 more. About 10,000 more passengers were expected to arrive that night, Olson said.
“Tonight, we’ll be maxed out,’ he said.
By Friday morning, more than 4,100 evacuees had departed on 18 flights headed for the United States, with more flights expected through the week. Evacuees in limbo bide their time in the temporary housing pods, while children play soccer and basketball behind fences where clothing and prayer rugs are hung out to dry. And they peer out at airmen patrolling the area.
Continuing to struggle
The number of evacuees coming into Ramstein changes on almost an hourly basis. As of Friday morning, approximately 76 aircraft had transported people to Ramstein from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and from Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
“Right now, we’re continuing to struggle to have that outflow” of evacuees move out of Ramstein, onto commercial aircraft and onward to the United States, Olson said. On Thursday, the number of outgoing flights from the base to the United States had doubled within the past 24 hours.
When Operation Allies Refuge was launched late last week, Ramstein had a hard time finding sufficient tents and cots for the influx of evacuees, Olson said. But the base gathered resources from across its European partners, including the DoD, German government and nongovernment organizations to get enough supplies.
Servicemembers have had to adapt quickly to new developments. Together with representatives from the State Department, Ramstein set up a camp for unaccompanied minors coming through. About 15 unaccompanied children between the ages of three and 12 had been identified as of Thursday, Olson said.
The 86th Medical Group has been tasked to provide acute medical care as needed to the evacuees when they arrive. The majority of cases seen so far have been related to heat injuries sustained while packed in aircraft or in the stifling Qatari heat, or trauma wounds sustained before leaving Kabul, said Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie, who is coordinating the medical efforts at Ramstein.
The medical crew is doing its best to manage erratic flows of incoming passengers, he told reporters. While aircraft are generally coming in every hour or so, “sometimes it’s 50 passengers, sometimes it’s 400 passengers,” he said.
The uncertainty is tough to manage, he added. “We don’t know how many planes are arriving. We don’t know how many passengers are on the aircraft. And the most important thing, we don’t know what kind of injuries to expect.”
But despite the unpredictable pace, “the team’s ready, we’re ready to go,” he added.
Next stop, USA
The sense of uncertainty is also present at the evacuees’ last stop at Ramstein, a makeshift terminal in Ramstein’s Hangar 5. Here, passengers go through a final screening process before they can board commercial aircraft bound for Dulles.
About 200 people are processed per hour, depending on the size of families on each flight, said Maj. Dustin Dere, director of operations for the 721st Air Mobility Operations Group. After those passengers complete final screening, Dere’s team writes up the flight manifest at the terminal, he added.
“We don’t necessarily know who’s going on the plane” beforehand, Dere said. “We go to the lodging facilities and pull the number of people” that can go on the next flight.
Most of the commercial aircraft being used under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet are Boeing 767s, which can carry about 250 passengers, and Boeing 747s, which can carry over 400 people, he said. Boeing KC-10 Extender aircraft have also been dispatched from the United Kingdom to transport passengers from Qatar and Kuwait to Ramstein, he noted.
The pressure is also temporal. The U.S. government and its allies are rushing to evacuate as many people from Afghanistan as possible by the Aug. 31 deadline set by U.S. President Joe Biden July 8, a follow-up to the February 2020 peace agreement between his predecessor Donald Trump and the Taliban. Biden has vowed to continue evacuation flights out of Kabul, despite the terrorist attack Thursday when ISIS-K, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province, launched a suicide bomb attack and firefight outside the airport, killing 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghan nationals.
But while Ramstein is dealing with a surge of incoming evacuees at the moment, the number of flights taking off from Kabul is expected to continue tapering off through next week, and many allies such as the German military have officially ceased their own air evacuation efforts. One military transport aircraft with medical evacuation personnel and special operations forces on board remains on standby in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for at least the next 24 hours to help evacuate injured Americans out of Afghanistan, a spokesperson for the German Air Force told Air Force Times.
Per an agreement between the U.S. military and the German government, evacuees are only allowed to remain in country for 10 days before they have to move on to the United States. The average turnaround time from arrival in Ramstein to departure has been about four days, Olson said.
As more and more evacuees are coming in from Afghanistan, Ramstein must wait for the commercial aircraft to return from the States to pick up more passengers.
“We are seeing a tempo increase, with the inbound passengers and the lodging facilities going up,” Dere said. “We need to get more aircraft filled and out of here.”
Olson told reporters he couldn’t point to an exact reason why the number of evacuees has gone up in recent days. But the C-17s that are bringing Americans, Afghans and other nationals from Qatar and Kuwait are “definitely on an emergency capacity,” he said.
Amongst the moments of chaos, excitement is palpable at the outgoing terminal in Hangar 5, where about 200 evacuees had just boarded a Boeing 767 bound for Dulles, and about 250 more were awaiting their turn on the next flight.
Rasool Ahmad Qaderi, 27, told reporters he is “so happy” to be finally heading to America after four days at Ramstein. Qaderi is traveling to Dulles with his family, about 16 people total, and hopes to eventually move to New York City.
They made it into the airport in Kabul using their identification cards, passports and a letter from his father, who lives in the United States, he said.
“Outside the airport, it was very dangerous,” he said. Once they were inside the airport, however, “we are safe.”
[Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the origin of the Aug. 31 deadline.]
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.