Rattled, U.S. Military Families Get Ready to Leave Japan

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It was an offer Chiharu Marsh couldn’t refuse. Just eight weeks pregnant, the 28-year-old from Yokosuka had two days to decide whether to take the U.S. military up on its offer to fly her to America for a month, or to stay in Japan with her family and friends. As the wife of a U.S. service member at the Misawa Air Base, Marsh is one of the thousands of dependents who are eligible for voluntary evacuation by the military as Japan’s nuclear crisis continues. “I don’t want to leave,” Marsh says, sitting in a busy, carpeted hall crowded with Air Force and Navy families. “All of my friends and family are in the Kanto area [near Tokyo]. If they get radiation, I should get radiation,” she says.

In the end, Marsh decided it was best for the baby if she left. The situation at the nuclear power plant is too uncertain. “Nobody is saying what happens next,” she says. “Things aren’t going well.”

On Saturday night, the Tohoku Ballroom of the NCO Club at the Misawa Air Base in northeast Japan was packed with hundreds running children, sleeping babies, and weary looking parents in uniform and civilian clothes wading through the requisite paperwork to get on a plane next week to America. As part of an order this week that the base says came straight from President Obama, Marsh and other dependents of military members have been given the choice to leave Japan after the triple disasters the nation faced last week. They have been offered a flight to the location of their choosing in the continental U.S., money and lodging, and provided with a return flight home in 30 days if the situation is deemed safe. (They can also take up to two pets.) As of Saturday night, 1700 had elected to leave out of the 6500 at Misawa Air Base.

The process taking place on all the U.S. military bases on Honshu island is so unusual that Misawa had about 36 hours to come up with the evacuation plan from scratch for a procedure for evacuating over 6000 people. “In 22 years, I’ve never had to do this,” says Colonel Al Wimmer, the Vice Commander of the 35th Wing stationed at Misawa. “It’s a pretty serious decision.”

Like everyone else in Japan, the 10,000 people living at Misawa have found themselves in unusual circumstances. After the earthquake hit last Friday, the base lost power and, a week later, is still only operating with 60% of what it usually has. Lights are being kept dim, and service members are shuffling generators around to ensure the miniature American city stays up and running. At the same time, the normally quiet operation, where 20% of the air force is now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, has found itself at the frontlines of a humanitarian and international relief effort. Within two days of last week’s earthquake and tsunami, search and rescue teams started to arrive at Misawa from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Switzerland, and France. The base has been flying aid into the devastated areas further south around Sendai, and at the same time, making space on base to take in American citizens in a worst-case scenario. “We’ve just been told to be prepared,” says Col. Wimmer.

Though Misawa is the furthest U.S. air base on Honshu island from the Fukushima nuclear power plant – and well outside the 125 mile radius the U.S. is now advising people stay out of — many others like Marsh are concerned. “I think people are still worried about the unknown,” says Shauna Williams, a teacher on the base and the wife of an air force member who has been in Iraq since September. No longer comfortable here on her own, Williams decided to leave with her 21-month old daughter, Molly, to her family’s home in Illinois. “We don’t know when the next quake will hit. We don’t know if it will be bigger than the last one. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the plant.”

For the service members on duty, however, leaving is not an option. The dependents’ departure means some services like childcare, which was staffed by spouses who are leaving, will grind to a halt. But the Starbucks will keep brewing at the base café, and the three-month old movies will keep playing at the theater. On Saturday afternoon, army and navy personnel who had the day off piled onto buses and drove to Misawa City’s fishing port, which was hit hard in the tsunami. Volunteers from the base have been coming down here all week, working alongside fishermen – who can no longer go out because the harbor facilities are destroyed – to extract fishing nets, floats, and plywood out of the woods behind the port that washed up in the wave. “We don’t have a choice at this point,” says Jim Moody, a Department of Defense teacher on the base from Honolulu. But having lived in Misawa for the last 18 years, he says he is happy to be able to stay and help Japan at this critical moment. “I’d rather be part of it… We are on their land. It’s the least we can do.”