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After Deployment: A Conversation with Virginia Task Force 1 About Their Time in Japan – Part 4

The decision to come home

In Part 4 of the interview with Capt. Joe Knerr and Lt. Rodney Vaughan of Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department’s elite international search and rescue team, Virginia Task Force 1, they share with Defense Media Network’s senior homeland security writer Rich Cooper the decision to come home; their thoughts on not having any rescues; the difference their team makes; and what coming home feels like after being a world away.

So the leads for the disaster response have come and told you that you’ve completed your assignments, you’ve done as much as you can and its time to get back to Misawa Air Force Base. Now you’re just basically waiting for another assignment or to ship out for home. When does that decision come, and who comes and tells you?

Capt. Knerr: We report to what is known as a DART – Disaster Assistance Response Team –that’s assembled of USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] members. We report specifically to the operations coordinator, and that decision for us to come home is made at a much higher level than us. It’s done within USAID, in coordination and cooperation with the affected government, so once they make that decision it’s just reported down through the line, and essentially what they do is they tell us: “You need to be ready to leave at this time.” And then we kind of do a backwards planning of what we need to do to be prepared to leave, whether that’s pack our equipment, get it loaded to the plane … Whatever it is that we need to do to be prepared to be on the plane or buses at that time.

Do you call one of the Japanese authorities over and say: “Hey, you guys are in a little bit of dire straits here right now. Is there any equipment we have here that you’d like us to leave behind for you to use?”

Capt. Knerr: We always offer that up, but it’s done at a higher level through USAID. If we have a resource they can use, we’ll gladly leave it. If they have need for us to assist with something other than one of the things that we as a USAR (urban search and rescue) team do … Well it’s almost like typecasting in movie; people focus on us as solely rescue and absolutely, that is our specialty. However, we are somewhat of a workforce that can be used at times too.

As you transition out of the rescue phase into the recovery phase, there are still rescue techniques that we can use. Haiti was a prime example where we had techniques and capabilities to shore up a building that is unstable for us to enter and make a rescue. We can use those same techniques at hospitals that had been affected to open up other wings of the hospital because now we have stabilized the building, they can use it for emergency purposes.

Were those some things that you guys were doing?

Capt. Knerr: Not in Japan, but once again their structures withstood the quake very well. The tsunami not so much, so there wasn’t a need for that this time.

If Mother Nature does not get you one way, she will get you another way.

Capt. Knerr: Well, yeah, that was definitely a one-two punch.

So, again the tsunami is what was far more devastating than the earthquake.

Capt. Knerr: In the area we were in, absolutely, and what it would appear to me when watching the media coverage of the areas we weren’t in, is the tsunami was the big factor.  I mean it was the big factor, with the reactors from what I understand is they survived and did what they were supposed to as the result of the earthquake; the sea water or the tsunami is what has caused virtually all of the problems there.

When you have your teams in deployment, do you divide them into two teams and two shifts, to work in a 24-hour cycle or do you stick together as one unit and work one cycle of 16, 18 hours days?

Capt. Knerr: It’s a lot of things going into that decision, it depends on our work assignment and what our rules of engagement are as established by the local government.  In Haiti, we weren’t allowed to go after dark – that was a security thing. So yeah, we have sent everybody out at the same time, go handle it, and be in by dark.

In Japan, we had some of the same criteria, where we were not allowed to go out at dark … well they preferred that we weren’t out.

Now, if we had a known rescue, we would have worked 24/7 until we got it done. For the areas that we were searching, we were able to search those areas, clear them by sun down, and we were back at base camp at that point.

Haiti was a big high for this team because you guys had a number of rescues and you guys have been in other places where you’ve rescued a number of people. Is this the first time you guys were deployed and not had a rescue?

No, unfortunately it’s not. There was no rescue in Turkey in 1999 [November], but the first time we were there [August 1999], we had four rescues. [Editor’s note: Virginia Task Force 1 responded to two separate earthquake incidents in Turkey in 1999; the first in August and the second in November.]

In Taiwan [September 1999], we had one; in Armenia [December 1988], I believe there were two [rescues], but we have had many other deployments unfortunately where we had none.

What does that do for the psychology of the team here? Haiti, proximity-wise is not that far from here, but Japan is literally on the other side of the world.  Is there a shift in the mood of the team when they work in those environments? Obviously if you get a rescue, there is probably some adrenaline and emotion that you start to move a bit faster because there probably might be more people alive in those areas versus other locations.

Capt. Knerr: Right, there is … you can’t replace the feeling that you get when you make a rescue. You can’t explain it unless you’ve done it but, you can’t replace that feeling. So, I guess on one hand there is a little bit of … well I wouldn’t say of let down … there isn’t.  [In this case] there were no rescues but everybody knows we went over there for a purpose. We served that purpose even though we did not come away with a live rescue.

For some [Japanese], with the assistance of L.A., we did locate eight deceased, and for those families, that brought closure.

Is that a live rescue? No, but for those families, they do know at least where their loved one is. You know, I explained it to our guys – myself and the other task force leader. We came over and we did exactly what we were trained to do. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a rescue, but that doesn’t diminish what we set out to do and what assistance we provided there.

Any injuries encountered by anybody in the trip?

Capt. Knerr: Just minor stuff. You always have scrapes, bumps, and bruises, a couple of canines had pads that were cut there on their feet, but nothing significant.

It’s been a week since you guys are back. You’ve seen now the coverage on the news that all of us here watched while you guys were overseas. What have your team members thought being removed from it again?

Capt. Knerr: I haven’t heard too much, I mean, most of us are reflecting on what we did.  Obviously we think about what we can do and one of the things we do when we set out is how do we make our process quicker whether that’s getting out of the door, or making our searches more efficient, or what did I do, what was I prepared for or wasn’t I prepared for, so that I can correct it when I get back, so we begin our after action or critique the second we land. So we look at that. You’re obviously looking at the media reports; you are looking at the [Fukushima nuclear] reactor; you’re filling in the blanks, because once we leave we are in a little bit of a vacuum. We’re focused on the task at hand; we’re focused on the area we are assigned and that’s our focus, so …

And you really can’t afford to have any other focus, to keep everyone’s head in the game, in what’s happening there.

Capt. Knerr: We need to keep everyone on our team informed the best we can but you know, especially the nuclear reactor. That was the thing that was hanging over our heads.  We need to make sure that they know it’s not a worry but other than that, there is not a lot of information coming in, except on our specific area, because that is our focus. I can liken it to the guys that went to the Pentagon on 9/11. They had no idea what was going on outside of that little world until they came back and they were right down the street.

So, when you’re focused on the mission at hand, looking out for things that could affect us but ultimately that is our mission and we fill in the blanks when we get home.

Obviously when you come back your families are thrilled because 74 of you left and 74 came back. Have any of the teammates talked about their families being concerned about their radiation exposure or anything else?

Capt. Knerr: It was a concern early on. We conduct what we call family teleconferences nightly when we deploy, and it’s an opportunity for us to tell them, “Hey look, this is what we are doing; this is what your family members are doing.” That gives them a chance to ask questions, so obviously, the first couple of nights there is a tremendous concern from families because of what they had heard from the media.

Our whole operation center as we used to call it, they had done a lot of research. They had been paying a lot of attention to the news and with regard to the radiation, they were providing us some information, the best information they could provide. We were able, based on some of the things I told you, we were 120 miles away [from the Fukushima nuclear reactor] as the crow flies; the wind’s at our back … we can’t ask for better conditions and we’re monitoring the current situation.

When I say monitor, we physically have a monitor in our hand telling us what the radiation levels are.  If we see an uptick, we have our plan on what to do. Once we are provided that information, I believe that that fear was minimized, but with that said, there is still that overhanging thing especially for families, because they are in a helpless situation. They are at home watching.

They only know what the media is telling them.

Capt. Knerr: [Nodding his head in agreement] They know what the media is telling them. I am being as open as I can be with them but with that said we are not that helpless. We are in theater and if something happens we can evacuate. We are also providing help, even though we are not finding a lot of victims. We [Virginia Task Force 1] are still working for them; they [the families of Virginia Task force 1] are just watching away, so that’s a helpless feeling for them.

What’s the trip back like? Is it sheer exhaustion given the fact that you’ll finally be able to sit down and comprehend everything that you have seen and experienced there? What’s that trip like coming back?

Capt. Knerr: [Looking at Lt. Vaughan] I think there are two different outlooks on this.

Lt. Vaughan: Yeah … I think it is exhausting and the trip by itself is exhausting but I think there is a mixture of feelings. Depending on our roles, a lot of times we switch from the rescue, as we mentioned earlier, that’s a main objective once we get in the country, is we settle into a rescue role pretty quickly and then we transition depending on the mission sometimes to more humanitarian type of stuff.

I think a lot of the guys begin to realize that we can do a lot of good in different areas, and we could see that, in certain places that people and the communities could need help and so forth.

So, there is a contingency that you just want a continuous offering of helping hands so to speak, that you want. I think that, along with what you saw, the amount of devastation, how overwhelming it can be for the population there, especially along that coastline where the tsunami rolled in, and all the other dynamics that they are dealing with, with the nuclear reactor, the economics of all with it, everything wrapped into it. You just imagine something like that happened here [in the United States], how would we deal with it. So there’s a mixture of feelings. All these types of things are running through your mind, and then most of all, when you get home, you just realize that, “Hey, I still have my stuff.”

You realize how fortunate you are to have what you have and that you’re not suffering like other people are.

Capt. Knerr: For the team leadership, task force leaders, and I can speak for myself, when I finally sit on the plane and it takes off, and we are heading home, it’s such a relief for me. Once again, 74 out and 74 coming home. We are very aggressive in nature as a team; we want to get in theater and get to work as quickly as we can, and when our work is done, when we are no longer needed, we want to get everyone home to their families, as quick as we can. That’s kind of the focus, that’s getting back to their loved ones, because everybody comes back with that sense of, it helps reset priorities for some people.

Part 1 – Answering the call

Part 2 – Getting there and finding the unimaginable

Part 3 – Radiation concerns and tsunami survivability

Part 5 – Japanese resiliency and comparing one disaster to another


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...