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News > Reflecting back: Mobility Airmen recall 'families helping families' during Operation Pacific Passage
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 "There was an amazing sense of pride and fulfillment afterwards. Everybody knows they made an impact, they could feel it, they could sense it," the former wing commander said. "They got validation through their Facebook accounts, through emails that were sent from Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Ray Johns, commander of Air Mobility Command, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff. That was the level of praise I was receiving back for our joint and community team, so I was proud to share that with them and thank them for doing an amazing job." -- Col. James Vechery, former 60th Air Mobility Wing commander
 
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Operation Pacific Passage
U.S. Air Force personnel wait to assist military families as they exit an aircraft arriving from Japan during Operation Pacific Passage operations on March 25, 2011, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Operation Pacific Passage gives military families the opportunity to voluntarily relocate from Japan to a safe haven in the U.S. in order to conserve Japanese resources. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie Harrison)
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Reflecting back: Mobility Airmen recall 'families helping families' during Operation Pacific Passage

Posted 3/22/2012   Updated 3/22/2012 Email story   Print story

    


by Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs


3/22/2012 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.  -- Shortly after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and destructive tsunami struck Japan March 11, 2011, mobility Airmen around the world began a world-wide effort to help the Japanese people. By March 18, 2011, that support and help would include evacuating American military families through Operation Pacific Passage.

Operation Pacific Passage was the U.S. Northern Command-led voluntary return of military family members from Japan. According to USNORTHCOM Public Affairs, U.S. Army North Defense Coordinating Elements established joint reception coordination centers, or JRCCs, for military family members returning from Japan.

The first two arrival locations were established at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Travis Air Force Base, Calif. In Seattle, mobility Airmen from the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., helped military family members and even their pets make a smooth transition. An additional JRCC was established at Denver International Airport, Colo.

At all the locations, there was a Total Force and joint military effort taking place. There were Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines as well as military family members and community partners supporting the returning families at all locations. And it all came together quickly.

Col. James Vechery, now deputy director, Operations Directorate, Headquarters Air Mobility Command at Scott AFB, served as the 60th Air Mobility Wing commander at Travis AFB during Pacific Passage. He recalled how it all got started there.

"We received a heads up on a Monday morning (March 22, 2011) that the airport in Seattle, Wash, had reached capacity so they were looking for alternate locations to fly into," Vechery said. "Since Travis, based an hour south of Sacramento, has more than 10,000-square feet of passenger terminal and baggage claim area -- the largest on the West Coast, it only made sense that it was a possibility they were going to start flying them into Travis. That afternoon, U.S. Transportation Command confirmed we were going to be a JRCC and would be receiving our first plane later that night."

The Seattle-Tacoma Airport was the first location where military families began arriving back in the United States. Waiting for them were people from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The effort there began as early as March 18, 2011, where within two days Team McChord personnel helped more than 230 people transition through the airport.

Staff Sgt. Nickolas Milton, from the 62nd Comptroller Squadron at Joint Base LM, said at the time that he was glad to be part of the operation.

"I've been able to help with some financial questions," said Sergeant Milton. "Finance is the last thing people need to worry about during a situation like this."

In the same story, Col. Kevin Kilb, then 62nd Airlift Wing commander, said the effort was about families helping families. "This is a tremendous team effort from the entire joint base community aimed at easing a difficult time for Department of Defense families," he said.

Master Sgt. Christopher Clark, superintendent of the 62nd AW inspector general office, was also one of the volunteers at the Seattle-Tacoma reception area. Looking back a year ago in supporting OPP for 12 hours a day and sometimes more, he said he was part of an overall effort where "people were volunteering left and right" to help.

"It felt pretty good to be able to be a part of this," Clark said. "A lot of us were quick to volunteer. I remember there being a lot of kids traveling with one parent. We helped them get their bags, took them to their rooms if they had to stay overnight and we got them back to their planes the next day so they could move on to their final destination. We were a complete transition team for them."

A "tremendous effort" was also taking place at Travis from a team of people including Airmen and community partners, according to Renee Richardson, Travis Airman and Family Readiness Center family readiness outreach coordinator.

"The volunteer support has been phenomenal," Richardson said in a March 29, 2011, story by 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs. "The reason we have such strong support is we have always had a strong foundation to build upon. Throughout the year, Team Travis always comes together to help, but when we come to help out families like this, it's tremendous."

Vechery said the returnees were met with a greeting committee that outnumbered the passengers on every arrival.

"Every plane was met either by me or a wing commander (colonel) equivalent," Vechery said. "We welcomed them to their new family and told them that 'we're here to take care of you.' For every passenger who came in, we had three people taking care of them, making sure their needs were met. For example, their baggage was handled, their pets were taken care of and their follow-on travel was booked.

According to Lt. Col. Corey Brunson, 60th Force Support Squadron commander at Travis a year ago, "The families arriving were typically a spouse, two children and a pet. We wanted to make them feel welcome from the moment they stepped off the plane. We had food set up for them, we had recreational activities and activities to keep the children occupied as well as baby sitting services, and even a nursing area. We told them if they needed something that we didn't have, just let us know and we would get it for them."

Those family members receiving the reception had often commented on social media sites and other forms of communication. In a story by 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, a military spouse traveling with two daughters said she was honored to receive the support in Seattle.

"Everyone's been really helpful. It may look like chaos with all these people in here at once but it's nice to know there's this much support."

Col. Darren Sprunk, 570th Contingency Response Group commander at Travis AFB, was in charge to oversee the Pacific Passage operation at Travis. He and others from Travis noted how "the messages started popping up all over" on social media about how Travis was performing the Pacific Passage mission. One social media comment stated, "They treated us like family." Others showed praised the care of the children and the family pets as they transitioned through Travis and how they cared for our children.

By the end of the operation, thousands of family members and pets were transitioned through the reception centers in Seattle, Travis and Denver. By March 31, 2011, more than 2,100 military family members went through Seattle. At Travis, over a seven-day period, they received 11 airplanes, 2,617 family members and 152 pets. And in Denver, more than 550 family members received support between March 23 and 25, reports show.

For all those people who helped make Pacific Passage successful, mobility Airmen were only a part of the overall effort. There were hundreds of other Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who supported the effort as well as countless hundreds of DOD civilian employees as well as civilian volunteers.

Vechery said, essentially, it was one big family taking care of our own -- that is what makes the military family so special.

"There was an amazing sense of pride and fulfillment afterwards. Everybody knows they made an impact, they could feel it, they could sense it," the former wing commander said. "They got validation through their Facebook accounts, through emails that were sent from Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Ray Johns, commander of Air Mobility Command, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff. That was the level of praise I was receiving back for our joint and community team, so I was proud to share that with them and thank them for doing an amazing job."

Clark added on the effort in Seattle, "I heard from many families of how happy they were with all the support we provided. I remember one mother of four children say, 'It's just overwhelming the support you are giving us.' Additionally, that was a time our leadership was on their game. My hat's off to them for the amount of time they spent getting volunteers organized and being there as much as they could to help. It was also special to see folks from the Army and the Navy helping out big time."

In the end, the overall sense many Operation Pacific Passage volunteers remember is the atmosphere of "families helping families."

"I could see the sense of pride and feeling they really accomplished something here because they knew it was a very special opportunity," Vechery said. "Not only had they answered the call but they stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for our fellow Americans in their time of need."

(Master Sgt. Sabrina Foster, Air Mobility Command Public Affairs; U.S. Northern Command Public Affairs; 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs; and 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs contributed to this article.)



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