Family members representing installations and commands throughout the Korean Peninsula exist a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules at Yokota Air Base, Japan, June 6, 2017 for noncombatant evacuation exercise Focused Passage 2017. The exercise takes place at US military installations throughout the Korean Peninsula and is designed to ensure service members are prepared to evacuate designated noncombatants. (Photo by Yasuo Osakabe)
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Military members and family members participated in the annual exercise Focused Passage 17 here this week, arriving in a pair of C-17 Globemasters and a C-130 Hercules to simulate what might happen during a non-combatant evacuation (NEO).
The military members and family members, assigned to U.S. Forces, Korea, were processed at Yokota AB, Camp Zama and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, simulating the way evacuees might be dispersed upon arriving in Japan.
Focused Passage is a regularly scheduled annual exercise run by 8th Army in South Korea to practice – and evaluate – American forces’ ability to evacuate during a crisis situation. The goal, according to exercise planners, is to improve mission readiness by practicing the dozens of steps that individuals and units must take before boarding an aircraft to leave their home, possibly with only a few days – or a few hours – notice.
“Focused Passage is an exercise that tests our ability to move non-combatant evacuees through different countries here in the Pacific region,” said Lt. Gen. Jerry P. Martinez, U.S. Forces, Japan commander. “This exercise is a very small-scale practice of our NEO procedures. And this is how we would evacuate non-combatants in the event of a crisis or contingency. We have to be ready because people’s lives depend on our ability to do our jobs.”
The most critical of these tasks, according to Martinez, is for service members to make sure their family’s NEO packets are complete and up-to-date. NEO packets, which must be accomplished for every dependent in Korea and Japan, contain critical legal, travel and medical documents that will help guide families through the chaotic hours leading up to a mandatory evacuation.
“Readiness for our personnel and their families is essential to the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” Martinez said. “And part of readiness is making sure that we have the processes in place to get our families out of harm’s way in the event of hostilities or natural disasters.”
At the Yokota AB passenger terminal, operations ramped up in just a few minutes following the arrival of the first wave of ‘evacuees.’ A massive C-17 Globemaster, loaded with more than 150 soldiers, pulled up to the terminal just after noon local time. They filed off the aircraft in two rows, laden with heavy bags, pet carriers loaded with stuffed animals, armfuls of documents, and everything else event planners believed was necessary to simulate what a plane full of dependents might have with them during an evacuation.
“Yokota is the mobility hub for the Western Pacific, so we are the focus of any kind of major airlift movement that goes in or out, no matter if the destination is Korea or further south. We have the expertise and the equipment to make sure that people who need to move either into or out of theater can do so,” said Col. Ken Moss, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing.
“NEOs can happen for any number of reasons,” said Moss. “It’s not just because of military threats. A few years back we had Operation Tomodachi, and that was a natural disaster. And, quite honestly, most of our NEOs happen because of natural events. The answer is be prepared. If you’re deployed overseas or living overseas you should have a NEO folder to make it smoother for you and your family. The last thing you want to do is be scrambling for paperwork when you need to get out of town quickly.”
Once the “evacuees” were on the tarmac, the next phase of the exercise began. Logistics troops, administrative personnel, and dozens of other Airmen began processing the new arrivals, sorting their baggage and arranging for transportation to other bases in the Kanto region.
“Things are going very smoothly,” said Martinez, who observed the operation along with several members of the U.S. Embassy team and representatives of the Government of Japan. “We need to get this right, so that we can be sure we’ll get the real thing right if we’re ever called upon to execute it.”
Focused Passage, a regularly scheduled exercise since 1996, is unrelated to any current or specific world events. The exercise is one of two annual NEO exercises—the other being Courageous Channel in the fall. These plans and exercises are essential to prepare for and effectively respond to a real life natural disaster or other crisis. Noncombatant Evacuation Operations are a standard U.S. response to contingencies and natural disasters that might endanger our citizens.