Plan early to make sure travel packets are submitted on time
Travel may be among the perks of an overseas duty assignment, but to visit any country in the region, servicemembers need more than a few bucks in savings and a chunk of available leave time.
Whether traveling officially or on vacation, active-duty servicemembers must have a documented travel plan on record and some special training under their belts before stepping onto a plane bound for anywhere in the region, excluding U.S. territories.
That includes Japan, South Korea and Australia.
“I have a lot of people who are confused” when they learn they need a force-protection plan to visit Japan from South Korea, said 1st Lt. Ryan LaBranche, U.S. Army Troop Command Korea security manager.
Many servicemembers fear the requirement “is either going to restrict them or take too much time,” said Amelia Harris, U.S. Army Japan anti-terrorism/force protection officer. But force protection and security officials say the process is quick, easy and can help protect servicemembers.
It “makes the member aware of what’s going on in the place they want to go … for the command, it gives accountability,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Sherrill, Commander, Naval Forces Japan law enforcement specialist.
According to Pacific Command, the rule was instituted after the 1998 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, to give travelers and their home units information to use during a natural or terrorist crisis.
The process begins with a force-protection packet, including a force-protection plan with a person’s itinerary and contact numbers for the trip, to be turned in to the traveler’s command. Most units have force protection officers or security managers to help.
The data is kept on file. In situations such as 2004’s South Asian tsunamis, force protection officers can use it to learn quickly if servicemembers are in a specific area and try to contact them.
After the tsunamis, “We were able to account for all of our personnel and that’s what it was designed for,” Sherrill said.
The packet also gives servicemembers safety information including where to go or call in an emergency and where to find medical help. Some commands include a map of the destination city showing the U.S. Embassy and in some cases local police stations. Others provide instructions for calling a home unit from the countries to be visited.
Travelers also receive an online or in-person briefing outlining security threats, criminal activities and other safety issues, such as the prevalence of counterfeit money in China or drive-by purse snatchings in Vietnam.
“The idea is to protect sailors by making them as aware as we can,” said Cmdr. Keith Ulrich, 7th Fleet force protection officer. “Sailors understand the need for this.”
The briefings are customized to be relevant to a solo traveler, group or family.
Department of Defense civilians and dependents are required to file a packet while on official travel. PACOM recommends civilians create a packet for leave travel but it is not required.
Force protection packets also must include proof of annual antiterrorism Level I training, a requirement for all servicemembers that can be completed online. For travel to high-risk countries, specific permission is needed from a senior officer, which can reach as high as PACOM depending on the threat level.
Many commands tie the force protection packet to leave approval so it can’t be avoided. But servicemembers are responsible for learning if the packet is needed.
Requests can’t be processed too far in advance because conditions might change. But most packets can be processed quickly, depending on travel season, specific command and the destination country’s risk level. For countries in threat condition alpha, the lowest threat level, officials recommend starting the process 14 to 30 days in advance.
“We try to get the approval as quickly as possible,” Sherrill said.
“It seems like it might be a lot of work. But I try to tell soldiers it protects them,” LaBranche said. “What happens (if) you get hurt over there? You have to be able to call your command. This is something you need to know to be able to contact us.”
PACOM’s rules for travel
According to the Pacific Command’s Web site, before deploying or traveling to countries or areas within PACOM or not part of the United States, its territories, or possessions, units and individuals must complete anti-terrorism (AT) predeployment requirements. All personnel will: