NEO exercise sends ‘evacuees’ from Okinawa to the mainland

Volunteers board a C-130 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, bound for a Japanese base in Miho as part of a noncombatant evacuation operation exercise which started on Camp Foster, Okinawa, early Wednesday morning.


By CINDY FISHER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 9, 2007

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — About 50 volunteer evacuees on Okinawa got a sense of what it’s like to be a FedEx package as Camp Foster Marines tested their Okinawa Area Coordination Supporting Plan on Wednesday.

It was the first time Marines conducted their noncombatant evacuation operation, or NEO, exercise by actually transporting evacuees from Okinawa to mainland Japan.

The plan provides guidance for the mass evacuation of 35,000 to 50,000 family members and their 10,000 to 15,000 pets, said Maj. Ray Hamling, the officer in charge of planning the exercise.

The evacuation was part of Keen Sword 2008, a two-week field-training exercise involving American and Japanese forces that is to conclude Nov. 16.

About 50 people, mostly family members, volunteered as evacuees.

Around 6 a.m., they began arriving at the Foster Community Center, where Marines, sailors and soldiers simulated the steps needed to process and evacuate them.

Each evacuee was given a bar-coded band, which contained personal data for the NEO tracking system. At various checkpoints, bands would be scanned and the evacuees’ new locations entered into the system.

In a real-world emergency, the military would keep track of evacuees until repatriation to the United States, keeping stateside families informed of their location, Hamling said.

“Like a FedEx package,” Hamling said. “Our families become a FedEx package we can track across the world.”

In a real situation, family members would learn about their next destination and eventual return to the States, as well as information on how belongings left behind would shipped to them, representatives explained.

The whole process “went really smooth,” said Capt. Michael Robertson, the evacuation coordination center director, as servicemembers prepared to bus evacuees to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma for a C-130 flight to Japan.

Volunteer feedback and after-action reviews will be used to refine the process, he added.

“They’re doing a fine job,” said Melanie O’Neill, 40, an Army spouse. “I can see that they are already learning things, and that’s good to know.”

For others, the lure to volunteer was the flight to Yokota Air Base, where they were scheduled to spend Thursday on cultural tours of the area and return to Okinawa on Friday.

The experience was “not bad so far,” said April Jefferson, 35, an Army spouse. She volunteered for a chance “to get away from the kids for a few days.”

"Evacuees," servicemembers and family members who volunteered, listen to a briefing at the Camp Foster, Okinawa, Community Center on Wednesday morning during a noncombatant evacuation operation exercise.

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