Announcements aside, NEO process is whole different matrix
By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2011
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As Americans continue a voluntary evacuation from Japan, base officials there are advising them to have their “NEO kits” ready, and listing items they should pack for a quick exodus.
But a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation is unlikely, officials in the Pacific say, despite the seriousness of the situation.
Fears that radiation levels at U.S. military bases near Tokyo could spike as a result of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant have already led to the Defense and State Departments allowing family members to leave the country. Initial estimates are that roughly 8,000 Americans plan to leave Japan under the voluntary evacuation plan.
But the latest State Department travel advisory only urges Americans to “consider departing.” And there are no NEO plans under way in Japan, U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Sgt. Maj. Stephen Valley said Thursday afternoon.
The initiation of a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation is not something done without some forethought and planning, according to military officials. There are many factors to consider, from locating a safe haven for evacuees and available assets, such as ships and planes, to resolving financial, security and political concerns.
Each evacuation has its own unique challenges and estimates can be off the mark.
The last NEO occurred in Lebanon in 2006, when nearly 15,000 Americans were evacuated over 11 days, after fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah. The initial evacuee estimate was 5,000.
“These things come up so quickly,” said Col. Ron Johnson, the U.S. Marine commander who conducted the evacuation.
An evacuation of non-essential DOD personnel on mainland Japan could be considerably larger: Before the evacuations started this week, there were some 70,000 U.S. military, DOD civilians and family members on Honshu island. How many of them would be considered essential, and thus, left in Japan, is not clear.
“NEOs are never easy or straightforward,” Navy Capt. William Snyder noted in a paper he wrote in November 2007 while at the Naval War College. “They are conducted under highly charged, dangerous conditions, often driven by tightly compressed timelines and beset by less than perfect intelligence on volatile local conditions.”
Evacuations of this nature can involve air and sea transport. Sometimes the military, which also executes NEOs on behalf of the State Department, will turn to civilian companies to augment the fleet taking part in the evacuation.
There are well-established plans for the evacuation of noncombatants, said Army Maj. Jack Gaines, a U.S. European Command spokesman. He and other military officials said such plans often sit on the proverbial shelf and require “a dusting off” and various adjustments to fit the particular situation.
The evacuation of U.S. personnel from embassies and their surrounding areas not unusual.
In his War College paper, Snyder cited a General Accounting Office 2007 report on the Lebanon evacuation. It stated the State Department had conducted more than 80 evacuations of government personnel and private citizens over the previous five years and that a few of them involved the Defense Department.
When a State Department evacuation “escalates” to a joint, interagency NEO, it typically occurs due to a crisis, meaning “neither planners nor executors will have sufficient opportunity to thoroughly plan,” Snyder said.
Plus, the mere mention of instituting a NEO can cause mass panic, something Snyder also noted in his paper.
Whether a NEO is called or not, officials recommend that all evacuees pack light.
Items a person should pack range from toiletries, prescription drugs and small games to occupy the time, such as a deck of cards, to recent financial records, birth certificates and, of course, passports. Guidance given by the Defense Department suggests three days of supplies for such things as clothing, water and baby food.
Americans thinking of leaving Japan can get guidance from the State Department at: www.travel.state.gov.
Stars and Stripes reporter Charlie Reed contributed to this report.