Safe passage: Army general, a UR alum, oversees relocation for Afghan refugees

September 14, 2021

PROFILES

Just days after a second star was pinned to his uniform in July, Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, the new commander of a central Virginia Army base, received perhaps his highest-priority assignment — a historic task, with the potential to change thousands of lives. 

The mission: Help resettle thousands of refugees the U.S. evacuated from Afghanistan. 

As the commanding general at Fort Lee, Simerly, a 1984 UR grad, is tasked with assisting up to 3,800 special immigrant visa recipients — former uniformed members of the Afghan military as well as civilians who worked with American forces during the war and their families. They are part of one of the largest airlifts in American history. The military transported 120,000 people since July, when the Taliban took power as U.S. troops began the withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

“We’re privileged to host our Afghan partners here at Fort Lee,” said Simerly, who was promoted from brigadier general to major general and took command of the installation on July 9. “We have witnessed amazing stories as we greet our Afghan guests to America, and every soldier is touched by their tears of relief, joy, hope, and sadness.” 

It’s a remarkable mission at an extraordinary time: Fort Lee is one of a handful of military installations selected to aid 50,000 Afghanistan immigrants sent to the U.S.  

The job Simerly has undertaken — providing temporary housing, medical care, food, religious support, and other needs to Afghan special immigrant applicants — is straightforward if daunting. While some speak English, few have been to the U.S., and most are traumatized by the harrowing journey. Nearly all fled their homeland with little more than the clothes on their backs. 

Still, along with providing much-needed aid, Fort Lee will also provide the Afghan evacuees' first impression of their new country.  

Simerly, a logistics specialist who served a tour in Afghanistan, called it an honor to welcome the first group of 200 refugees on July 15 and says the troops under his command have embraced the mission.  

A young Afghan man got off the bus and exclaimed, ‘I’m in Virginia!’ as if it was his life-long dream,“ Simerly says. “I was privileged to witness his joy.” 

The general added that the evacuee’s gratitude is infectious: “I have rarely seen soldiers so proud and motivated as those supporting this mission,” he said. “Seeing these families, knowing they have arrived in a place that is safe and which will care for them, is among the most gratifying experiences of my 30 years of service.”