How to prepare people to flee in the face of war without panicking them was the predicament.
It could have been one of those wrenching movie scenes of civilians trying to get out of a war zone but stuck in a political crisis. Waiting for the last plane out. Panicking when things went wrong.
Except no one panicked because Incirlik Air Base, like Hollywood, had two big advantages: a polished script and lots of rehearsals.
People get nervous at the mention of noncombatant evacuation orders, said Col. Marc Felman, commander of the 39th Wing at Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey. He had to devise a plan with his staff and Department of Defense Dependents Schools officials for the voluntary evacuation of American civilians living on the largest permanent U.S. base near Iraq.
“I was warned by peers not to call it a NEO, to call it something else,” Felman said. But he decided to call it what it was, and to accelerate planning as soon as he took command in December 2001.
Months of planning “paid big dividends” when Incirlik officials evacuated about 1,400 civilians to the States as the war in Iraq started on March 20, Felman said. “People were not in shock,” he said. “Now the unknown was familiar.”
Last spring, base officials used 17 families to practice the NEO plan and to flesh out the broad details, such as the most efficient locations for bus pick-ups, Felman said.
Then, in meetings over the next months, Air Force personnel and DODDS officials filled in the tiniest of details. In September, teachers prepared students’ records so they could give them to parents before the teachers themselves boarded planes. Locals were recruited to monitor teachers’ off-base housing, and volunteers were found to escort the children of active-duty parents who had to stay.
Incirlik Elementary School principal Debbie Folmer has been around the military for 20 years and lived through the first Gulf War. Instead of chaos, this voluntary evacuation of American civilians “went so smoothly,” she said. What could have been a traumatic event for students turned into calm goodbyes, she said.
That was no surprise to Felman. He had told everyone that he expected it to go well, “and I said that I was not just pumping sunshine,” Felman said.
He encountered some skepticism.
“Having lived under the stress we’ve dealt with,” people were understandably nervous, Folmer said. “Parents and kids never knew when they were going to have to leave.”
After President Bush on March 17 gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to step down or face war, “we kind of had an idea all week long” the end was near, Folmer said. On March 17, the U.S. Department of State gave permission to Incirlik’s civilians to leave.
Two days later, Felman alerted the community that the families were leaving and the school was closing, Folmer said.
On March 20, the day the war started, people began assembling at Incirlik’s Hanger 4 to find that Maj. Anne Winker, mission support squadron leader, had arranged for a small stand offering drinks, snacks, books and magazines. Red Cross workers, as well as booster club members drawn from 39th squadrons, handed out cookies and coffee. A chaplain was there. Winkler had arranged for rows of child-size chairs, toys and the Cartoon Network playing on a big-screen television, Felman and Folmer said.
“Those kids basically wore themselves out,” Felman said. “People told me their kids slept the whole way back [to the States].”
But a number of complications, including the Turks suspending flights, delayed the evacuation until well after the first bombs and missiles hit Baghdad.
When the first plane was canceled, Felman “came and said, ‘We’re going to take you home,’” Folmer said. “People didn’t sit around for days, waiting to leave.”
Finally, the first plane left at 4:30 p.m. March 20. Air Force officials and teachers processed 1,296 civilians, including 420 students, in 48 hours, then another 51 people on a medivac flight, Winkler said.
The officials “were there continuously,” Folmer said. “I don’t know when they slept or ate.”
“I was having to order people to go get some rest,” Felman said.
The evacuation took 96 hours from start to finish, Winkler said. “I think I was there 90 out of 96 hours. A couple of us were,” she said.
“It was our plan. We had to see it through to the end,” she said. “We made it work. We even made sure flights had videos for kids.”