The American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) staff in Japan continues to help military family members prepare for their return to the United Sates during the current Department of Defense (DoD) voluntary departure.
While others are evacuating, many SAF workers and their families are staying in the country so devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Ken Romero is the SAF station manager serving both the Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Camp Zama in Japan. He and his wife and two young children have chosen to remain in Japan.
“We feel safe,” Romero said. “The (U.S.) military and Japanese officials are doing all they can to make sure everyone is safe. The resiliency of the Japanese community is amazing to watch and reassuring for me and my family. They are setting the benchmark for all of us here.”
The Atsugi and Camp Zama facilities are only a short distance from Tokyo and did not see any damage from the tsunami which caused widespread destruction in the northern end of the country.
“I know the situation up north is much worse,” Romero said. He described how people in his area are getting their water from water buffaloes, and have received iodine tablets in case of any radiation dangers from the damaged nuclear power plants. “We have orders not to take them unless told to do so,” he said.
“We are still having rolling power outages, and fuel is not always available,” Romero reported. “There are still tremors, and at night my kids sleep with us, but they are going to school. To see how the Japanese are dealing with this, accepting the situation and finding a way to make things work is encouraging.”
He described the day of the earthquake as surreal. “We are used to earthquakes here,” he said. “But this was much stronger. We could see cars shaking outside and the file cabinets in the office flew open.”
When the earthquake occurred, his seven-year-old son was at school, where staff and students knew what to do because of earthquake preparedness drills. Romero described how the students covered their heads with their seat cushions and got under their desks, later venturing outside.
Romero oversees about 100 Red Cross volunteers on both military facilities and some of these volunteers and their families are returning to the United States. He and his volunteers have been proactive in making sure everyone has Red Cross preparedness information on what to do in different emergencies.
“Being Red Cross Ready has a lot more meaning now,” he said.
As military families depart, many with young children, SAF workers are helping process their ticketing, and directing them from the staging area to terminals and aircrafts. Red Cross workers are also providing snacks and drinks for the dependents. At Yokota Air Base, the Red Cross is providing canteen services for inbound military rescue and relief personnel.
Romero said hundreds of dependents will be leaving from Camp Zama and NAF Atsugi during what can be a long process. On the day of departure, family members bring their luggage to a gymnasium and then are released to have dinner. Buses then pick them up at their base housing and bring them back to the gym, where roll call is taken. Family members are then bused to Yokota Air Force Base, to board both military and commercial airliners for their long flight to the United States.
As the families arrive stateside, Red Cross mental health professionals are on site to offer emotional support. The Red Cross is also providing canteen services at the airports, assistance with contacting family members, and handing out food, snacks and toiletries.
Computers are available at the military installations in Japan as well as at the arrival points in the U.S. to help military families register on the Red Cross “Safe and Well” web site to let loved ones know of their well-being.
“These families have been through an earthquake, tsunami and a radiation event,” said Lynne Flynn, Fleet Family Readiness Director, Naval Base Kitsap. “They were given 30 minutes to a few hours to pack and leave and they weren’t sure if they would be in the U.S. for days or weeks. After a 20-hour flight, we knew everyone would arrive hungry, scared and confused.
“The American Red Cross has been instrumental in providing support – healthy snacks for the children and warm meals for the entire family,” Flynn added. “All I can say is that the Red Cross has made a real difference.”
The Red Cross has 19 SAF staff on eight military installations in Japan and 15 staff at seven stations in Korea who provide year-round support to U.S. service members and their families. They are part of a global network of Red Cross personnel who link members of the U.S. Armed Forces with their families twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
Both active duty and community-based military can count on the Red Cross to provide emergency communications that link them with their families back home, access to financial assistance in partnership with the military aid societies, information and referral and assistance to veterans.
For more information on the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and its support of active duty military personnel, members of the National Guard and Reserves, and their families, visit the SAF pages of www.redcross.org.