In order to tell the full story of the 2003 Civilian Evacuation out of Turkey, it’s important to back up to a date when the whole world changed, and every person can tell you where they were, what they were doing and how that day progressed.
For those of us in Turkey, we had finished the school day, but Parent Open House was scheduled that evening, so teachers were cleaning up their rooms, running errands and preparing for the evening event. I decided that I would check my mail at the base post office. As I was walking in past the service window, I noticed a few airmen were laughing and joking about a video on the TV where a plane had just flown into a building. They couldn’t believe that a pilot could be so inept. By the time walked around the corner to my box and back, the second plane had hit, as had the entire atmosphere in the building. The airmen knew immediately that this was not an accident and their lives would be changed. In that 1-minute span their day changed from young guys hanging out, to full military members ….
I headed directly back to the school with the idea of gathering my things and going home. I didn’t feel that we would be continuing with the Open House. I talked to the administrator because he had not heard the news, there was no news alert going to cell phones in those days. He contacted the base commander who in a split-second decision told us we had 1 hour at the most to get off the base before it would be closed. We made an announcement to everyone in the building and I ran to my call. At the gate to the base, I was the first car leaving, and had to talk my way off because the Turkish guards had tentatively locked down. They saw the stream of teacher cars behind me and opened the gate for the flood to leave. Within two hours, the base was locked down, and anyone who had not left already had to find a place on base to stay for the days until it opened again.
The next few days, we all stayed in our apartments, or with friends in the same apartment buildings. Many Turkish neighbors and friends expressed their grief for the American tragedy and tried to find any way to help those of us who represented the American way of life.
School was cancelled on Wednesday and Thursday and we were to stay in our homes. When we returned to school on Friday, there were American flags hanging proudly from every classroom door. Because the school was built with an inner courtyard, the effect was incredible to walk into the two-story courtyard and see the fluttering of flags at each door on both levels.
As the fall went on, we heard of the plans for attacks on the terrorists, and knew that our base would most likely play a significant part in the plan when it was executed. Life settled back into the routine though we did have meetings every month or so to update us on the possibilities.
In the fall of 2002, the first-year anniversary of the attack was remembered with memorials, discussions and plenty of memories shared. This was also the time that more plans were being developed, and considered, which meant more staff meetings to update the group. We started that year with monthly meetings which quickly became meetings every 2 weeks, every week and eventually at least twice a week. It became evident quite quickly that families, and thus teaches would be leaving the area. The prevalent thinking was that while there was an a high safety concern, families and teachers would just be more people to coordinate and provide for when the time came for operations to work out of the area. All ideas were on the table to talk through, discuss and weigh. There were two scenarios that I remember distinctly because I helped to write the response to the ideas. A hotel has been located on the west coast of Turkey that was not being used and the idea was that they could rent the entire thing and move families into the rooms and use the meetings rooms and common areas to continue school. The command had the image of each student taking their suitcase with their textbooks, paper and pencil and heading out. Of course, when we explained what it would really take to run a school – lab equipment, PE equipment, desks, copiers, computers, etc. – and the security of the students and internet connections, that idea was thrown out quickly. The next was similar but they were fly everyone to a base in Germany that had recently been closed where they would use the former temporary lodging and school buildings. This eliminated the issue of security, but we quickly pointed out that there would not be services available to the population, and having that number of people swarm the nearest bases would decimate the supplies there. The example we used was with toilet paper. Even if each member from Turkey brought their own pillow, sheets and towels, would there be enough toilet paper to supply the lodging rooms and classrooms. That idea again was dropped.
In the spring of 2003, it became apparent that not only were we leaving, but most likely we would be heading to the US, at least to start. With the decision that all dependents would be leaving, the military looked at the school building and facilities to see what advantage they might have with those resources. The school buildings had been used in the evacuation in the 1980s as barracks for soldiers, so it seemed logical that it would happen again. Teachers started quietly packing away or taking home what they could without disrupting the education and comfort of the students. We all knew that the school was one of the only constants and comforts that students had in their lives during that stressful time, so we tried our hardest to support them.
As the time grew closer and we knew that an attack was on the horizon, we looked at specific issues… one of the biggest being our yearly testing, then called Terra Nova. The test was typically given over a four-day span with one subject each day. With the tentative dates looming, we made the choice to administer the test in about a day and a half, which ended up being a very wise decision as the first students started flying out within hours of the final test on Tuesday. One of my personal memories was during the testing. Three men came into my classroom with tape measures and a note pad and started measuring my room to see how many beds it could hold. I tried hard to convince them that they were disturbing the testing, but that was not their concern. I finally convinced them that they could complete the measurements quietly and then do the calculations outside of the room. On Thursday we were sent home to await “the call” to tell us that it was time for teachers to leave. Late afternoon on Friday that call came. I took my suitcases into the hall and waited for my friend who lived in the same building to join me. We headed out of our building and felt the whole neighborhood pause. We had not realized how we had been such a source of consistency to the Turkish people in our little area. As long as we were there, they felt that everything was going to be ok. Now we were leaving. As we loaded our bags into our cars, we watched our neighbors and were watched by our neighbors. No words were exchanged, but we all understood the gravity of that moment.
Together my friend and I drove our cars to the base, both of us feeling our very surreal the drive was. As we turned into the Incirlik Village road, the normally buzzing stores were closed and shuttered. The road home to a trail of cars of teachers as we all headed to the field on the base that would be home to our cars for the next unknown amount of time.
On the base, we left information on the dashboards of our cars, boarding a bus and headed to the flight line. One of the hangars was serving as the launching point, so we all got in line to go through the evacuation process. We signed papers, wrote our names a hundred times and eventually emerged at the end of the line with a plastic band on our wrist to show that we had been processed. While we were in that line, we watch the “shock and awe” military attack on the large screen TVs in the waiting area. Late that Friday night, the teachers along with a few children of dual military members boarded the fifth and final plane. Ours was a Continental Airlines plane that had been contracted for the flight. There were some red, white and blue streams and balloons in the cabin, but I think that the most comforting thing to me was when we saw the flight crew. The long wait and the processing in the hangar had left all of us looking a little bedraggled. When we boarded the plane, the flight crew had just finished a flight getting State Department folks out of the Middle East and then turned around to pick us up, so they looked as bad as we did.
Once on board, we all found seats in different parts of the plane and settled in for the flight. As we took off, I was watching out the window to see the city of Adana as we took off, but to my dismay, we didn’t fly toward the city, but we flew directly south, which was toward Syria. Confirming my information using the flight information on the plane screen, I was able to talk to the School Liaison Officer about my concern. He in turn, was able to talk to one of the flight crew. It was then that we found out that the Turkish Government had not authorized Turkish airspace for the evacuation flights. We were headed south to get over the Mediterranean Sea in the most direct route, and then headed west toward the US. The Turkish government had just conducted an election that was being disputed, and no one would or could make the official decision to support the flights. This also led to the base in Turkey not really being a part of the support of the military actions, and thus for all the planning, our school buildings were never used while we were gone.
On board, we all settled in for the flight, though we weren’t really sure where our first or final stop would be. I got up at one point to walk to the restroom and had the oddest feeling because as I walked down the aisle, I knew every person in every seat. Normally on a plane, you might know one or two others, or maybe a family, but to know everyone was very different. After a number of hours, we landed at in Newark which we learned would just be our first stop and would only deal with passports. We were instructed to stay in our seats and the flight crew went down the aisle collecting our documents. We were not allowed off the plane, though a couple of folks had to step to the gate port entrance to have a quick smoke, so we sat for a bit of time. The flight crew came back on the plane each holding an 8-inch stack of passports and started calling names out one by one. I quickly volunteered, along with one or two others to take on the task of distributing the passports since we knew the people and could complete the task much faster. Soon we were off again and headed to Charleston. Once there, we deplaned to an arrivals area that was bustling despite the time. Four planes from Turkey had taken off and landed before us, so lines were long. We didn’t mind the walk nearly so much when we were shown tables filled with Krispy Kreme donuts and platters of comfort foods like Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. We did figure out that we did not have to wait in all the lines with the military families because we were set for a different travel plan. The military members were all sent to the home of record to wait out the time until we would return. The DoDEA teachers were going to be headed to a DoDEA location where we would be working until our return. As we loaded the busses to head to the Embassy Suites for the remainder of the weekend, discussions led to a giant swap meet in the lobby of the hotel later that day. When we left Turkey, we didn’t know where we would end up, so different people had packed different items. Some thought that they would be in Germany, so brought gloves and scarves but were not headed to Kentucky. One thought she was going to her family in California and was instead going to Ramstein. A few folks, myself included, did not find out our destination until Monday morning, but for the most part teachers with dependents were sent to DoDEA schools in the US, and teachers without dependents were sent back to Europe.
On Monday morning we all boarded busses again to head to the closest base to begin the process of heading to our new locations. The plan was for people to be in transit by Wednesday, and beginning work on the following Monday. My assignment turned out to be in Arlington, Virginia to work with HQ and Pedie Boling who had been named the liaison for all of our military families who were evacuated. I would serve as liaison to the teachers.
By Friday, everyone was on a plane or in a car headed to an assignment where we would spend an indefinite amount of time. Stress can always be fun, but we all tried to see it as an adventure. Generally, once in their locations, a car was issued to every 3 people for local travel and travel to the schools. This worked well in some cases… and not so well in others. People all had different experiences and struggles while in their new locations, and I spent my days trying to help them iron out the details. All teachers were assigned to a school where they took on positions from filling in as a long-term sub, to helping in the Information Center, and everything in-between.
About six weeks later, I was called into an office to find out that we were going to be allowed to return to Turkey. During the time that we were away, our houses were checked each week by a trusted friend or Turkish colleague from the school, so it was nice to know that there would not be any big surprises when we returned.
The official notice for return came out on Monday morning and teachers were expected to fly back and return to duty the following Monday, so it was a busy week with everyone trying to arrange their transportation back home. Students were allowed the option of staying at their Home of Record where they had been sheltering during the time to finish the school year. While some schools were very reluctant to see the “Turkey Teachers” leave, everyone was back in place the following Monday to greet the students and welcome them back to school. The class sizes were drastically reduced, I don’t think that any of my classes were more than 5-10, but it was a great way to finish out the school year and build a very close school community.