Holding the fort in Japan
Published: April 5, 2011
There’s no dark cloud hanging over Camp Zama, says Debra Hammer.
“It’s sunny and 61 degrees,” she said. “Spring is here.”
Debra is stationed with her Army husband and two young children at the post in Japan. In spite of what she called a “triple whammy” of earthquake, tsunami and possible radiation, their family has elected to stay there — for now.
Currently, the decision for American military family members in Japan to stay or go is up to each family, and it’s a difficult one.
“Some say, ‘Oh, it’s easier to go’ or ‘It’s easier to stay,’” said Debra. “This isn’t easy regardless. Either way there are conflicting feelings, thoughts and emotions. Overall, I’m happy with our decision. It’s a little anxiety producing, but we’re together as a family.”
For the Hammers, continuity for their children was another major factor.
The March 11 earthquake and the resulting tsunami killed thousands on Japan’s east coast. Potential contamination from a damaged nuclear power plant has caused concern on the island nation. Since then, the U.S. government has paid for thousands of American military family members, at their own discretion, to leave Japan through a voluntary authorized departure.
“What is happening is not an evacuation,” Debra said. “Evacuation is a much more charged word. It sounds very dire, very urgent.”
The Japanese government has evacuated citizens in a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima reactor. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends a 50-mile radius, but no U.S. installations fall inside that zone. Camp Zama is about 150 miles from the reactor. Other U.S. bases are similar or greater distances away.
“They’re testing the air every three hours here. They’re testing the water, and if there’s any question about the water, they tell us,” she said. The U.S. Embassy, as well as the leadership of installations throughout Japan have stressed that the air, water and food at those locations is safe.
“We’ve been here a year and half, we’re settled here,” Debra said. “If I was pregnant or if I had a child under the age of 3, I probably would have left.”
The situation is tragic in the areas hardest hit by the triple devastation. However, Debra said the danger to the entire country of Japan is being sensationalized, particularly by television reports.
In the days after the quake, she said Camp Zama had interruptions to water and power and a shortage of gasoline. Now, she said, “We are safe. Our house is safe. We have water, electricity, gas, stocked commissary and post exchange. The mail is running again. There is a ‘new normal’ evolving.”
The aftershocks, unnerving in the early days, happen less frequently and are less noticeable, Debra said.
The sun shines at Camp Zama, but it’s still no picnic. The Hammers and other families choosing to remain are coping with changes. The “new normal” at Camp Zama includes more and more of the old normal. The pool and community club are open. Girl Scouts are meeting weekly to fill backpack care packages for Japanese children who lost everything.
Chapel services and Bible studies continue, as does school — with reduced numbers.
Debra seems most affected by the departure of her friends and neighbors. Many of her children’s playmates have gone, and the neighborhoods are quiet.
“You know when you live overseas and people go home for the summer? It’s kind of like that,” she said.
“It’s hard to watch one friend PCS, but to watch this many people leave at once was not easy. Some will come back and some will not, and honestly we don’t know what will happen.”
But a few remain, and Debra described the overall mood as upbeat. The community club at Zama has reinstated Mongolian barbecue night on Wednesdays. Debra and a group of spouses are regulars. They call themselves the Buffalo Gals in honor of the “water buffalo” vehicles that delivered water around post when water quality was uncertain.
“Are we under stress? Yes, but I’m not fixating on it,” said Debra. “There’s nothing I can do to change this. I just have to go day by day.”
For up to date information on what is going on at various installations in Japan, check out Facebook pages related to Camp Zama, Yokosuka, Yokota AB and Atsugi.
The Commander of Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Capt. David Owen provides information and a little humor via You Tube.
Another good source of official information is the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo web site.