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Voluntary departure program: A safe haven or a free vacation?

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. family members who left Japan under the military’s “voluntary departure” program stand to pocket a considerable amount of money, depending on whether they flew home to stay with family in North Dakota or chose to lie on the beaches of Waikiki.

Some 7,000 family members from five U.S. military bases have departed mainland Japan so far amid fears of radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, left crippled by the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

But the departures are generating a measure of controversy, with some military community members blasting their neighbors for taking “paid vacations.” Others defend the decision, saying fears of a nuclear crisis, repeated earthquake aftershocks and concerns for their children’s safety made heading back to the United States the only real option.

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Each family member who leaves Japan under the voluntary departure program is entitled to lodging, meals, a daily stipend for incidentals and a $25 daily family travel allowance.

The amount they’re allowed to spend depends on the location the family picked as its so-called “safe haven,” and whether family members are staying with relatives or in a hotel. Children 12 or older are eligible for 100 percent of the local per diem rate, while children under 12 are eligible for 50 percent.

In a low-cost area, such as Grand Forks, N.D., a military family of three — mom, a teen and a child under 12 — would receive a maximum of $9,795 for the first month. That same family, however, would receive as much as $21,975 for the first month if they picked Honolulu, with its much higher cost of living, as the place they wanted to stay until they were authorized to return to Japan.

Those figures are based on the maximum allowed for lodging; families will only be reimbursed for the exact cost of their lodging up to that amount. But families also receive the maximum food allowance regardless of how much they actually spend on meals. That allowance would be $3,075 for families staying in North Dakota and $5,375 for those in Honolulu.

Maj. Corey Gibbs, commander of the 35th Comptroller Squadron at Misawa Air Base, confirmed the rates. He said many of the family members had questions about their entitlements, and his office created hand-outs detailing allowances based on guidance from the Air Force Accounting and Finance Office.

A spokesman for the Hale Koa Hotel in Waikiki said the hotel has seen an influx of military families from Japan.

“Just landed in Hawaii with my family,” one commenter wrote on a stripes.com message board, where tensions over the voluntary departure program have erupted in recent days. “I am not a state resident here, but they offered us the flight with lodging at the Hale Koa. ... Thanks for all the brave men and women who have stayed behind for our sakes. We will drink one to you on Friday. Mahalo and stay safe!”

Wrote another commenter: “This is the best thing I have even seen in my 18 years in the military. I told my family to enjoy Orlando and check out Disney.”

Others have been more sober in their assessments.

Lynn Spratt, a family member from Misawa, said in an email that her decision to return to the United States was difficult, and that she understands she might end up away from her husband and dog for months.

“And while things have stabilized a bit, personally I was having a very hard time dealing with the daily quakes,” she said. “I felt like I was on constant guard and my nerves were frazzled wondering if ‘this one was another big one.’ I wasn’t sleeping well and that also added stress for my husband.”

That sentiment was echoed by a commenter on the message board.

“I cannot wait to get back to Yokosuka to my home, my husband, and the life we have here,” she wrote. “I feel so guilty that I haven’t enjoyed one day home in Virginia yet.”

Trina Jackson, one of a sparse crowd of lunchtime diners in the Yokota base exchange food court late last week, said she’s staying in Japan so as not to use up vacation she plans to spend with her deployed husband when he returns in six months and because she doesn’t want to disrupt her teenage children’s education.

“The part that frustrates me the most is that people are saying ‘This is a paid vacation,’” Jackson said. “It’s frustrating for me, [having] decided to stay, to hear that. It’s wrong. It’s not a vacation because it’s what our government has decided to do. I’ve heard people say, ‘I felt completely safe but I left because it was a paid vacation.’”

The full per diem rates won’t last forever: The allowances drop after the 31st day. From Day 31 to Day 180, the allowance drops to 60 percent of the authorized rate for those 12 and older and 30 percent of the rate for those under 12. And officials use different regulations and criteria for calculating expenses for families of civilian employees.

Estimates on how much the entire operation might cost weren’t immediately available Tuesday, according to members of the task force overseeing the movement of the family members. 

Stars and Stripes reporters Grant Okubo and Seth Robson contributed to this story.

amrheins@pstripes.osd.mil

flackt@pstripes.osd.mil 

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