Don Biadog
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (March 31, 2011) -- More than 2,100 family members stationed at military bases throughout Japan transitioned through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to safe-haven locations in the United States in March as part of Operation Pacific Passage.

In early March, Department of Defense family members had the option to leave Japan at government expense after the country experienced a massive 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear plant failure that have left the country devastated. The voluntary military-assisted departure operation was put on hold Saturday after the last of the passengers arrived.

Leading the operation was U.S. Army North, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Personnel from U.S. Army North are ready to restart operations and expand if necessary. Regardless if that word comes, the operation was a huge success, according to Army officials associated with the operation.

"All the military members and dedicated civilians did a tremendously great job assisting these families as they left their homes in Japan," said Col. Wayne Shanks, U.S. Army North public affairs officer. "Nothing is more important than taking care of our family members."

The effort put forth by Sea-Tac employees to accommodate the servicemembers' needs were met at every effort, said Maj. Kays Al-Ali, part of the U.S. Army North's surgeon's office.

"Sea-Tac has bent over backwards for us and the volunteers really helped us out," Al-Ali said.

Military personnel lead family members through every stage of the process, from greeting them when the plane from Japan arrived at Sea-Tac, to helping carry bags as the families received their tickets before boarding commercial planes to their follow-on destination.

To make that process as easy as possible, a joint reception coordination center consisting of Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy personnel at Sea-Tac provided administrative, financial and medical support to the passengers before they departed on commercial airplanes to their final destination. Some spouses waited several hours to get through the process; others, like Christina de los Santos, finished in 20 minutes.

"It took longer to wait for the bus to go to the hotel than it did to get through the (processing center)," de los Santos said. She was traveling with her son from Yakota Air Base, Japan, and heading to Texas. "Everyone was great and wonderful and so helpful. (The process) was so fast, we walked in, had our orders cut, (were) given our flight arrangements and we were on our way."

The processing center accomplished its mission thanks to the hard work of servicemembers like a chaplain, Cdr. Manuel Don Biadog Jr., Naval Base Kitsap, who let passengers use his cell phone to call relatives at their follow-on destination to let them know they had arrived safely in Seattle. Tech Sgt. Anthony Pence and his team manned the financial section at the processing center, providing information to family members about per diem rates and lodging at their final destination.

"We wanted to set them up for success, as they had been through a lot already," Pence said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Dumas, a medic from Everett Naval Hospital working in the Madigan Healthcare System medical clinic on-site at the airport, said he felt he played a vital role in helping the passengers get home safely.

"The joint force shows how strong we are and how we can come together to conduct operations without any trouble," Dumas said.

Most spouses brought their children with them, so operations officials made sure child care was available to parents so they could focus on getting their tickets to their safe-haven location and paperwork filled out correctly.

Pat Bossi, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Child Youth and School Services, worked with Sea-Tac representatives to establish an on-site child care facility. Two unused rooms became play areas for children, complete with toys, food, movies; all donated from the USO or brought up from JBLM. Nursing mothers even had a quiet space to feed their children if they needed it.

"Anything we wanted was made instantly available," Bossi said. Splitting operations between JBLM and the airport wasn't an issue, as Child Youth and School Services staff teamed up with Navy Fleet and Family Services to run the makeshift child care center.

Passengers like Erina Montero and her 8-month-old son Giovanni flew out of Sea-Tac within 24 hours of arriving at the airport.

"Getting through the lines was a breeze, and I'm so happy I'm flying out today," Montero said.

Getting passengers out within 24 hours became the standard toward the end of the operation, Al-Ali said.

For those who had to stay in Seattle overnight, the DoD authorized lodging at several Seattle-based hotels. Rachel Blake, director of operations at the DoubleTree by Hilton-Seattle Airport, said that the hotel was more than happy to support the families trickling in day and night, including waiving pet fees and giving each child a signature DoubleTree cookie.

"We are doing everything we can to make their stay comfortable," Blake said.

The most popular place to hang out while family members waited for departing flights was at the Sea-Tac USO, led by Shirley McGann and dozens of volunteers. The USO had computers, a movie room, and an impromptu child care area set up to accommodate the huge influx of passengers.

Each family member received a phone card to make free calls to family. Hot dogs and fresh donuts were always available throughout the operation, thanks to the hard work of the USO volunteers.

Laurie Hanson-Schlect, a mother of three flying from Yakota Air Base, to Grand Forks, N.D., was grateful for the USO's support. She found time to jump on a computer to send a quick arrival update message to her relatives, and for having free food available for her family.

At one point, a flight headed to Denver International Airport filled with transitioning family members stopped at Sea-Tac to refuel. With only 20 minutes of notice, USO volunteers made more than 300 sandwiches to rush out to the hungry passengers waiting in the plane. That kind of dedication of taking care of military servicemembers and their families is what the USO is all about, McGann said.

"The success of the USO is based solely on the outstanding performance of our volunteers," the manager said. "They run the show."

Departed personnel will be provided return travel to Japan when directed by the under secretary of defense.

Related Links:

Army North teams continue to assist military families returning from Japan

U.S. Army Pacific Asia and Pacific News

U.S. Army North

DoD: Special Report on the 2011 Japan Eathquake

Joint Base Lewis-McChord Facebook

US Army Japan & I Corps Forward on Facebook

Northwest Guardian