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SEOUL — Most Seoulites trotted through Thursday without a thought of a blistering attack from North Korea. But the U.S. military was busy practicing the motions of moving 60,000 U.S. civilians out of harm’s way in case of conflict.

The exercise — called the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation — aims for a quick evacuation even under other conditions, such as natural disaster or civil unrest, said Sgt. Maj. Robert Shields. But the most looming threat — poised just 35 miles north — could rain havoc down on Seoul.

“We plan to get people out of here as quickly as they can get to the site,” Shields said.

Through Saturday, the military was running 14 personnel processing sites throughout South Korea. Family members go through a variety of stations, such as registering personal property, turning over car keys, registering pets and ensuring they have proper identification to travel.

People also are issued bracelets with an identification code. That code is scanned when people leave and arrive, informing the military where they are.

A handful of dependents will practice leaving Seoul, getting on trains and going to Pusan. About 150 others will take a flight to Japan, Shields said.

Under agreements, the U.S. military also would help people from other countries evacuate.

Evacuees could end up in other countries arranged by the U.S. government, he said. The U.S. military has done evacuation operations for real, such as in the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, destroying Clark Air Base.

Shields is in charge of operating the NEO center at Hannam Village, a military housing facility with 1,500 people from 489 families. A father of two, Shields silently agreed it’s likely servicemembers might not even be able to say goodbye to their families in the event something happened.

“You can almost rest assured they (family members) will be taken care of,” Shields said.

That’s because the NEO is designed to move people quickly — as fast as 15 minutes — through the center and off-peninsula.

Crystal Farley, a dependent whose husband is in the Army, tried on a special mask designed to filter biological and chemical contaminants. It’s her third NEO exercise.

The thought of war with North Korea is distant. “Mostly my mom asks me, ‘What’s going on in Korea?’ I don’t understand. It’s no big deal to me,” said the 22-year-old from El Paso, Texas.

Monica Tucker, a mother of two who held her 3-year-old Sean, said she would be apprehensive wherever she lived. The NEO exercise, she said, provides peace of mind, “knowing they are willing to take these measures to get dependents out.”

Personnel also are training parents and children on how to put on a variety of masks. One mask the military uses is also used in Israel for children up to 3 years old. It’s composed of clear plastic, with drawstring arms and a slot a baby bottle screws into. The child can drink from it via a plastic pacifier.

Despite its seriousness, the suit is actually popular with kids. “They love running around in the little spaceman suit,” said Master Sgt. Jim Hardin, a NEO coordinator.


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