U.S. military families torn over Japan evacuation

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2011 

Toni Bender, with Isabella, 4, waits at the Yokota terminal for a flight out of Japan. She plans to go to Savannah, Georgia, to stay with her mother until the radiation threat subsides.

LIZ RUSKIN/MCT

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The first U.S. Air Force flight to evacuate military family members from Japan lifted off here Saturday, carrying 233 people, nine pet dogs and a sea of mixed feelings.

Stress was showing on many faces in the airport waiting room. It had been a long eight days since a massive earthquake and tsunami wiped out whole communities in northeast Japan. Neither of those calamities struck Yokota, but they damaged four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, 150 miles from here, and that sent jolts of anxiety through this American community on Tokyo's western edge.

Many of those departing Saturday said they really didn't want to go, despite the alarm the word "radiation" triggers. Some said they didn't want to disrupt their children's lives — pulling them out of school with no idea whether they'd be back in time to finish.

Others said they didn't want to leave their active-duty spouses, especially now, when they were working long hours to assist the relief effort up north.

Sarah Favorito, travelling with her daughters, Zoe, 6, and Sophia, 5, wrestled with the question all week. She said she didn't doubt base leaders who said it's safe to stay. But for her, it boiled down to this: If, on some dark future day, one of her girls is diagnosed with cancer, she wants to be sure it isn't because she made the wrong call.

She and her husband reached their decision Friday, ending a week that grew more tense and uncertain as the ominous news from up north kept rolling in. Radiation levels at the plant had become dangerously high. Fuel rods were overheating, and U.S. officials suggested Japan had understated the danger.

For others at this air base — home to some 6,000 active duty personnel and family members — and at bases across mainland Japan, the mulling continues: Stay or go? At Misawa Air Base, the base closest to the tsunami destruction zone, even the base commander was agonizing. Col. Michael Rothstein said in a radio broadcast Friday that he was leaning toward keeping his family at Misawa. "I'm not confident that I'm making the right decision," he acknowledged, according to the Stars & Stripes newspaper. "That's as honest as I can be."

Marissa Schommer says she's staying, though she gets nervous when she watches newscasts about the reactor crisis. The 21-year-old newlywed from Yuba City, Calif., and her husband, an aircraft maintainer, landed at Yokota March 11, the very day of the big quake. Her parents have urged her to leave, even argued with her, but she says she's where she belongs. "My husband's here and I feel like he's my family now," she said.

She's told her parents she trusts the Air Force's monitoring, which shows no elevated levels of radiation at Yokota.

Sometimes, though, her doubts break through. What if radioactive particles blow this way? She wants to be a mom someday. Could this damage their ability to have kids?

"It's just a head trip," she says. "I need to stop freaking out."

Back in Yuba City, her parents are tracking developments at the nuclear plant and watching changes in wind direction.

"I'd like her just back in my arms, to tell you the truth," said her mother, Pamela Streeter. "But I respect her commitment to her husband. I think it's a good decision. ... . I hope it's a good decision."

Schommer says she feels bad fretting about her own situation when up north, half a million people are in shelters, in the cold, lacking food and water.

"They've suffered the greatest loss imaginable," she said. "They've lost their homes, lost their families, and here we've still got everything."

Capt. Tania Bryan, a spokeswoman for Yokota Air Base, said 11 more "voluntary departure" flights are scheduled over the next few days.

Bryan, like dozens of other Yokota airmen, would go home to an emptier house at the end of her 12-hour shift Saturday. That morning, she'd said goodbye to her 1-year-old. Bryan said it wasn't a question of Allison's safety. She and her husband, a navigator, have both been working long hours since the earthquake. They thought it best that Allison stays with her grandparents in Madera, Calif. for a while, so they put her in the arms of a friend who took her across the Pacific.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," Bryan said. But, she said, she's a military mom, and right now the military needs her more.

(Ruskin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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