When a Natural Disaster Steps Into Military Life


Wives were talking about staying or going. I decided to stay. Anything I was experiencing didn’t seem as bad as what the Japanese were facing.

In March of 2011, my husband and I had been stationed at Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi, Japan for a year. We loved living in Japan and I couldn't imagine leaving.

But while shopping on Friday, March 11th I heard the ceiling lights shaking. Bottles and packages fell off the shelves as I jumped into a protective doorway to wait out the earthquake. It took over two hours to drive home to the military base instead of the usual twenty minutes. I was blocked by railroad crossing gates every mile because of how the train tracks and roads intersect in Japan. The trains were shut down until they could inspect each track for damage.

It wasn’t until I saw the tsunami television coverage that I understood the day’s events weren’t just about shampoo and soap falling off shelves.

On Sunday, March 13th, two days after the earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant’s third reactor cooling system failed and it kicked off a response on base.

NAF Atsugi is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing 5 personnel and their families. After news of the nuclear issues, my husband helped facilitate the relocation of the air wing planes, equipment and personnel to Guam. The air wing needed to complete necessary training to keep on track for their regularly scheduled deployment, and the runway was being used for ongoing relief operations.

On that Sunday afternoon, all was quiet. The planes on the tarmac were gone and there were only a few people outside their homes. It took an enlisted spouse asking me if all the air wing commanding officer wives had left before I realized that most of the squadron officer wives were gone.

Military spouses were wondering what to do. Should they also leave? How concerned should they be for their children? The atmosphere was tense and the aftershocks were challenging for everyone. With each new shaking, I feared another large earthquake, but the earth just rumbled with aftershocks letting us know it was unsettled like our emotions.

Monday, March 14th, I thought I was hearing things as the base siren went off. I was home alone and my husband was at work. Captain Gardner, NAF Atsugi’s Commanding Officer, announced on the base loudspeaker system that the radiological readings were high and everyone should shelter in place for safety.

We were given the all-clear notification four hours later. That evening we had our first Town Hall meeting with base leadership. They described the threat to us as minimal, but tensions were still high.

The next day there was a third explosion at the nuclear reactor and we began to hear evacuation rumors. Atsugi was a small base, and on the official website a woman posted that her military policeman husband told her they were evacuating us. Her post was taken down, but the word was out.

The next day we were informed in a second Town Hall we could participate in a Voluntary Departure. Technically, it wasn’t an evacuation because that has different financial implications, but they would be getting us out of Japan.

During the next week, some people were calm and some were venting their emotions on Facebook. The base was checking our water supply daily for radiation, the aftershocks continued and we watched our Japanese friends work to regain order. We continued to package donations for the Japanese.

I don’t remember exactly when the base issued everyone precautionary iodine pills for radiation. It wasn’t significant in itself, but it added to the anxiety level.

And still, we stayed.

Eleven days after the earthquake, on March 22nd, my husband surprised me with four rapid calls. When I called back, he said his entire command was relocating and were leaving in hours. They weren’t taking families with them. It seemed like everyone was leaving.

My choice to stay began to shift.

Within hours the order to move my husband’s command was cancelled, but together my husband and I decided it was time for me to leave Japan. He needed to know I was safe and not worry about me. So I packed my two bags, my animals and flew out two days later on March 24th.

According to U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs, 1,500 family members voluntarily departed NAF Atsugi from March 21-28, 2011.

I missed it every day. The people of Japan, their culture, my home and of course my husband. I watched the news and knew I hadn't experienced anything like the people of Japan. I drew from their strength and calm even though I was living in a hotel with my cats and didn’t know if I’d be able to return. I was able to talk to my husband regularly and, like all the military personnel who remained, he was working long hours.

“I just wish this office chair would stop rocking back and forth!” he said in frustration over the phone one day. He sighed seconds later, controlling his emotions, “It wasn’t the chair, it’s another aftershock.”

I went back to Japan exactly one month later. Only a handful of wives didn’t leave with the Voluntary Departure. They stayed and fed the Japanese military and U.S. Marines who came to help the Japanese. Military families trickled back, some of us rushing to get home. Others had enrolled their children in school stateside and were waiting for the school year to end. Others never came back. My husband and I spent another year and a half stationed in Japan.

While there I took over teaching an English class of elderly Japanese women for a friend who chose not to return. My Japanese ladies deepened my understanding of Japan, their concerns about the ongoing situation and how they felt about their experiences.

Being a military wife helped me become strong, learning from my Japanese ladies taught me about a new kind of strength.

-- Rene Drumheller is the military spouse of a career U.S. Navy officer and currently works as an Information Technology Program Manager. Drumheller also coaches women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and is an armed forces veteran who served in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. 

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