PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — The U.S. military in South Korea has made broad changes to how it will conduct drills for evacuating military family members from the peninsula in the event of war or other crises.

The changes are to Courageous Channel, the NEO (noncombatant evacuation operation) exercises U.S. Forces Korea conducts twice yearly. The changes, to start with the Oct. 27-30 exercise, apply to both sea and air evacuation portions of the operation, officials said.

Staffing, equipment and communications methods for escort teams accompanying the volunteer evacuees have been revamped. And on shore, USFK will keep what amounts to emergency response teams and shelters on stand-by in case of a mishap, USFK officials said.

The new procedures come in the wake of a July 24 Stars and Stripes article that brought to light complaints of some family members dismayed with how USFK handled an abortive April 29 sea evacuation, called a “sailaway.”

Their chartered commercial ferry was about 10 miles off Busan, South Korea, headed for Fukuoka, Japan, when it hit what South Korean authorities said was probably a whale. As the ferry began listing, South Korean rescue vessels picked up the 163 passengers, including 32 NEO volunteers, and returned them to Busan.

Passengers told Stars and Stripes that USFK officials failed to give them the right kinds of medical, psychological and administrative help in the hours and weeks after the mishap. Some had sustained minor injuries, some lost property and some told of lingering emotional distress.

The article led USFK to hold a second after-action review of the sailaway in early August and to assess what changes might be made to the NEO exercise process, said Col. Cameron W. Torrens, USFK’s training, readiness, exercise and NEO division chief.

The initial review was held “within days of the exercise,” said Torrens. But that review was made without knowledge of passenger concerns, he said. “We found out about them when we read the Stars and Stripes, so we have to admit that that was an event that caused us to look at some of these volunteer complaints.”

With the “new information,” he added, another after-action review was held that focused on the ferry incident.

Some passengers interviewed said:

Officials did not contact them to ask them whether they needed medical follow-up appointments, post-trauma psychological counseling, chaplain’s visits or help submitting claims for lost property.USFK failed to ensure blankets and dry clothing were available promptly to passengers who returned to the Busan ferry terminal cold and wet from exposure to the sea.They had concerns whether the team that accompanied them on the April 29 sailaway had adequate communications gear for keeping contact with military authorities on shore.They questioned whether the USFK escort team had a reliable system for translating emergency instructions from South Korean to English.They wanted to know why USFK had not immediately scrambled physicians and other medical personnel from Camp Hialeah in Busan to the ferry terminal to check each passenger’s condition.They doubted whether lower-ranking officials had moved aggressively to ensure that senior USFK leaders had a full picture of the incident’s impact on the passengers.Torrens said he hoped family members would continue to volunteer for NEO sailaways and flyaways.

“The volunteers are a critical part,” he said. “We really appreciate their service and helping us to get this right.”

The sea evacuation is to sail from Busan to Fukuoka Oct. 27 and return to Busan on Oct. 30. The air evacuation is to fly from Daegu Air Base in South Korea to Yokota Air Base, Japan, on Oct. 27 and return to Daegu Air Base on Oct. 30.

Critical changes

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — U.S. military officials say they’ve made the following key changes to the twice-a-year Courageous Channel noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) drills:

U.S. Forces Korea’s NEO command post will operate around the clock during exercises. An escort team, equipped with a satellite telephone, will keep in direct contact with the command post and provide periodic updates.Special staff will be added to the team that normally mans the top-level USFK command post at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, including a person with a logistics background, a public affairs officer, a U.S. naval officer, and someone from the provost marshal’s office.On shore, separate support teams from the Army’s Area IV Support Activity will operate during exercises, one for the seagoing evacuation and the other for the air evacuation. The teams will be equipped with blankets and other items that passengers might need immediately upon returning to South Korea should a mishap occur.Buildings at camps Henry and Hialeah will be kept ready for any NEO volunteer participants who might need shelter in the event of a mishap.A lieutenant colonel or other field grade officer will accompany the military escort team that travels with the volunteers. Previously, a captain was assigned.The escort team must include a Korean language translator.At the end of the exercise, volunteers will be given a questionnaire to offer comments and suggested improvements.Phone numbers and other information volunteers need to know to receive any post-exercise help, such as contacts for chaplains and medical personnel, will be posted on a Web site.Two weeks after the exercise, the Army and Air Force will be required to make follow-up contact with each volunteer to gauge whether the volunteer might still need some form of exercise-related help. Eighth Army will be responsible for volunteers from Army communities on the peninsula, 7th Air Force for those from Air Force communities.— Stars and Stripes

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