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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. officials said this week that they are hearing that some people already want to return to Japan after taking a free flight out of the country.

The simple answer: Don’t do it.

“Right now, the government will not pay to bring them back,” said Marine Lt. Col. Katherine Estes, the staff judge advocate for the joint task force overseeing Operation Pacific Passage. “Families who have taken advantage of the authorized departure are now in a ‘safe haven status’ and should remain at their safe haven location until ordered to a designated location or authorized to return.”

The task force was formed to get thousands of military community family members out of Japan as the country wrestles with the devastation of a massive March 11 earthquake and tsunamis that left a simmering nuclear crisis at a plant about 140 miles north of Tokyo.

The return flights, when ordered, will be fully funded. Estes said nothing prohibits family members from paying out of pocket to fly back at any time they want, but warned that those who do could be “limiting themselves as far as future entitlements.”

If the situation worsens to the point that a mandatory evacuation is ordered, “those who decided to return on their own wouldn’t get another free flight,” she said. And if the safe haven program continues to the point where the servicemember is given orders to move to a new station, the government wouldn’t pay to fly the family members from Japan.

In an e-mail to Stars and Stripes, family member Melanie Grimes said she regrets her decision to leave Misawa Air Base on the voluntary departures.

“Unfortunately, I am one of those people that wishes she could already come back,” she said. “Being away from our spouses, voluntarily, and not knowing when we get to come back is the hardest thing emotionally on a person.”

She said the decision to leave was incredibly difficult and hopes that “the U.S. government looks at each base individually instead of the country as a whole before making the decision on who gets to come back and when.”

The thought of staying in the States longer than 30 days “terrifies me,” she wrote. “I look every day to see if there are any new updates and already have plans in place to fly home commercially if this ... extends longer than the 30 days.”

Shannon Brell, another family member who decided to leave Misawa with her 7-week-old baby, said via e-mail that while she would return to Japan tomorrow if she could, “I do not regret my decision to leave.”

She said she didn’t choose to fly to the States “out of fear,” but thought that by going home she could “free up resources for those that could be of service.”

“Leaving the island was the best way for me to help my neighbors, despite my desire to stay,” she said. “I hope those clamoring to get back realize they may not have made the best choice for them, but it was probably the best choice for Japan.”

flackt@pstripes.osd.mil

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