U.S. Pacific Command


Noncombatant Evacuation Operation Exercise Improves Iwakuni Readiness

By Lance Cpl. Carlos Jimenes | Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan | August 11, 2017

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, forcing the evacuation of roughly 20,000 service members and civilians from the two largest U.S. military bases in the country. Nearly one foot of ash accumulated on the bases leading to the collapse of homes and buildings. Those who evacuated left behind many of their personal possessions, losing it all permanently and being unable to get money back for it.

A disaster or major crisis can occur at any moment in an unpredictable fashion. Events like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced officials to reorganize the way Noncombatant Evacuation Operations, also known as NEOs, were conducted.

Today, an operating system is used to improve the methods previously employed during NEOs. The system is able to keep track of all the evacuees and their personal possessions, update them on current situations and assist them as needed.

“When the volcano erupted and the ash landed on the houses, families didn’t have any documentation showing what they had in their house,” said Darlene Robinson, evacuation disaster humanitarian relief program manager with III Marine Expeditionary Force. “We’ve always been doing this, but it’s never been this organized. We didn’t have the forms or educate the families. We didn’t practice it as well as we’re practicing it today.”

A NEO is the ordered or authorized departure of civilian noncombatants and nonessential military personnel from danger in an overseas country to a designated safe haven.

NEO classes and exercises are often conducted at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni to prepare for worst-case scenarios from both man-made and natural disasters. The Installation Personnel Administration Center, or IPAC, helped conduct NEO training to simulate procedures evacuees would take in a real-world event at the air station, August 8-9, 2017.

The training was organized in two main parts. Part one was at IronWorks gym, which is the station’s current NEO processing center. The processing center was where people walked through to get an understanding of the different steps and stations they’d encounter, such as veterinarian services, medical services, IPAC, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and more.

Part two was going to the AMC terminal so families and service members could experience what it’s like to be on the flight manifest and get processed as though they’re going to be evacuated.

IPAC Marines were tasked with collecting everybody’s information to input it into the operating system. It was as much a training exercise for them as the families, civilians and service members who went through the process.

“The purpose of the exercise was to evaluate our processing system to make sure it’s able to run smoothly and in a timely manner,” said U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Fernando Hernandez, IPAC chief with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron. “I hope families understand how much preparation will help them in the event of a NEO. There’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out. Also, it helps the processors themselves. A lot of the folks that are part of the processing system now are new to this, so this is a learning situation for all of us.”

Hernandez said he aims to hold the exercise every three to four months to improve their processing abilities.

Overall, participants said they found the training informative and necessary.

“It’s important to know what’s going on in an emergency,” said Bethany Vuolo, a station resident. “By the time an emergency happens, it’s too late to try to get the word out to everybody and try to figure out what’s going on. Especially since I have children, I want to know how to get them out safely and what to do in an emergency.”

The Marine Corps Family Team Building program offers a monthly workshop that helps families of service members understand and go through the paperwork that is required when walking through a NEO processing center.

“A lot of people as they were walking through (the exercise) realized they weren’t prepared,” said Angela Gerrits, a Marine Corps Family Team Building life skills and readiness and deployment trainer. “The exercise gave a lot of families the insight to see what they need to do to prepare and they’re now able to go make that emergency plan, come to a workshop and take a training class with us so they can be prepared for a real-world scenario.”
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