By Tech Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs
/ Published March 25, 2011
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Stepping off the plane with her five-week old son, Airman 1st Class Megan Pencook wasn't sure what to expect, but it sure wasn't the applause she received from the more than 200 military and civilian personnel waiting for voluntary departees from Japan in the hangar at Denver International Airport March 24.
"I thought we'd get here and there'd be a lot of people, but it would be procedural," she confessed. "I thought it would be more military style, but this is more welcoming. Everyone's smiling!"
Pencook , along with 143 other military family members, left Yokota Air Base, Japan, the day before as part of Operation Pacific Passage, a voluntary departure program put in place following the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the country March 11. Since the operation began, more than 20 flights have returned nearly 4,500 military families from Japan.
What those families have found waiting for them on their return is nothing less than a U.S. Northern Command-led coalition of military units, civilian groups and agencies intent on making the final leg of their trip home a more pleasant one.
At the Joint Repatriation Coordination Center at DIA, that coalition is led by Army Col. Marc Hutson, the Defense Coordination Officer for FEMA Region 8. His crew of more than 200 support personnel assembled from military bases all over Colorado and from as far away as San Diego, are working with civilian agencies such as the United Services Organization, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
"It's a monstrous partnership," Hutson said. "Every organization here has just bent over backwards to make this happen. It has truly been a collaborative partnership just to take care of these families, and we think of them as our own."
Kim Daye, Manager of Aviation for the City and County, said she was impressed with the way all the different groups have come together to support the departees.
"I think what has been fascinating for me has been listening to the phone calls as the coordination was happening over the last few days and the amount of detail that everybody has drilled down into and some of the technicalities of needs that would not have occurred to us," Daye said. "And then everybody scrambled and made it happen. It's been wonderful to see how everybody responded in collaboration to support this."
As well as donating the space to set up the JRCC, DIA also set up the power systems and wireless internet and worked non-stop since March 20 to set up and make sure everything stayed within airport regulations.
Half of the hangar looks like a typical military deployment processing line. Tables equipped with laptop computers, manned by Air Force and Navy finance, personnel and legal members were waiting to process the returning families and make sure they had what they needed for the next leg of their trip.
More than 80 Navy Reservists from the Navy Operational Support Unit at Buckley Air Force Base worked with members of the 460th Space Wing to get the family members processed through as efficiently as possible.
"It's been great," said Navy Capt. Leith Wimmer, NOSC Denver commanding officer. "We're partnering with Team Buckley. We've got Navy and Air Force medical supporting the families, Navy and Air Force lawyers and a clinical psychologist on board."
The other half of the hangar, however, was set up to support the children, with a bouncy castle and daycare waiting for their first customers. It wasn't long before a dodge ball game broke out.
Army Lt. Col. Carrie Acree, Defense Coordinating Element, Denver Federal Center, said that as important as it was to make sure the parents had everything they need for the rest of their trip, it was also very important to make the children more comfortable while they wait.
"For me it's about taking care of the kids," she said. "Making sure they feel comfortable while Mom or Dad goes through this process, to at least make this part of their day better."
"It's amazing to watch this with the kids because usually I'm dealing with Sailors going to the desert and bringing them home," said Petty Officer 1st Class Laurie Roods, Navy Operational Support Unit Denver. "Kids, young Navy, young Air Force... no real difference," she added with a smile.
Behind the seating area, the USO, Salvation Army and Red Cross set up tables with food, toiletries, books and games for the families. USO volunteer Hedy Margolis said it was only natural for the USO to contribute to this operation.
"This is what we do," she said. "We provide a home away from home, and it's just natural for us to be here and to reach out to our vendors and our friends and ask for stuff, stuff to eat, stuff to give away, diapers, on and on and on."
Family members weren't the only ones who had a long trip, however. Pets were allowed out to reunite with their families, eat and take a walk around the hangar.
Roods, the owner of three dogs, three cats and a chinchilla, said the pets weren't cargo, they were part of the family.
"They're stressed," she explained. "They just got off an 11-hour flight. They're separated from their families and stuffed in a kennel. So we've been taking them out and walking them and spoiling them."
The stay at DIA is only temporary, and Hutson said by the next day all the families would be home. By then, more flights will have come, and more exhausted military family members will process through, the cycle starting all over again. Hutson said helping these families is a privilege.
"These are our families," he said. "This could be my family coming back, so it's awesome for us to have the chance to do this."
Margolis, tears in her eyes, said if she could send a message to the military members left behind in Japan, she would tell them not to worry.
"We're going to take care of your family," she promised. "And the USO will do whatever it can to make them happy."
As for Pencook and her son, Adrian, she also had a message, this one for the people working to welcome them home.
"Thank you, everybody," she said. "Thank you."