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Families Return to US after Leaving Posts in Turkey amid ISIS Threats

US military family members arrive at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on March 31, after being evacuated from Turkey. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
US military family members arrive at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on March 31, after being evacuated from Turkey. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Military families ordered out of Turkey have begun arriving back in the U.S. in a precautionary move taken in response to the growing ISIS threat in the region marked by the death of an Air Force wife in the Brussels terror attacks and the conviction of a terror plotter in Britain. The first groups of military dependents and their pets from Adana, Izmir, Mugla and the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey arrived Friday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland aboard an Air Mobility Command C-17 Globemaster III and charter flights after a stop in Ramstein, Germany, officials said. Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Flack, commander of the 305th Aerial Port Squadron at BWI, said his team worked with the USO and the Red Cross to assist the families in making connections, according to a release from the Air Force News Service. “The partnership with the BWI airport authorities has been outstanding,” Flack said. Brittany Fowler, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in the Chesapeake Region, said, “We know they’ve had a long journey, and for them to come out and smile at us and just say ‘thank you’ is huge.” At the request of Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of NATO and European Command, the Pentagon on March 29 ordered the departure of about 670 of the 770 military families stationed in Turkey “out of an abundance of caution.” In making the announcement, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in coordination with Secretary of State John Kerry had decided to move the families “due to continued security concerns in the region” in Turkey and across Europe. “I don't believe it was specifically triggered by the Brussels attack,” Cook said of the ordered departures from Turkey. “There's no specific (ISIS) threat that triggered this,” but “the threats out there have increased,” he said. “You all have seen some of the things playing out in the region,” Cook said, adding that the ordered departures would “make sure that service members can focus on their mission, (and) not worry about the safety and security of their individual family members.” The departures from Turkey came seven days after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for the nail-laden bomb attacks on Brussels’ Zaventem International Airport and the Maelbeek stop on Brussels subway that killed at least 32 and possibly 35, including four Americans, and wounded more than 300. Last Wednesday, family members confirmed to Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, that Gail Minglana Martinez, 41, the wife of Air Force Lt. Col. Kato Martinez, had died of injuries suffered in the airport bombing. Lt. Col. Martinez and four of the couple’s children were also injured in the terror bombing. The Air Force, European Command and the Pentagon have all declined to give the conditions of Lt. Col. Martinez, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and the four children because of privacy concerns and “at the request of the family.” Lt. Col. Martinez was assigned to Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum in the Netherlands. The identifications of the fatalities from the Brussels attacks and the disclosure of information on the conditions of the wounded have been a painstaking process complicated by the various protocols of the State Department and the U.S. military. Belgian authorities have the initial say on confirming a death or injury but the victims come from more than 40 different countries, making the work of the Belgian Crisis Center more difficult in obtaining photos and X-rays. The Belgian authorities also prefer to use biometric data, such as dental records or DNA, rather than visual identification, which can also cause delays, according to U.S. officials. It’s then up to the State Department to confirm the death of an American, but the State Department will not release the identity without the approval of the family. The U.S. military is also bound by the wishes of the family. “The family needs to have some control over what information goes out and when,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. “There’s so many different people involved in this,” she said of the release of information. “That makes it a lot harder. It seems that the military has really tried to do what’s right in this situation.” In response to the Brussels attacks, European Command announced travel restrictions prohibiting all unofficial travel by military personnel to Brussels until further notice. NATO headquarters in Mons south of Brussels also went on higher alert. The growing risk to U.S. military personnel and their families, as well as the increasing cooperation on intelligence among the allies to get at the source of the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, was evidenced by the conviction in the British courts Friday of British delivery truck driver and alleged ISIS plotter Junead Khan. Khan, 25, of Luton north of London, was convicted on evidence of his exchange of “chilling messages” with an ISIS operative in Syria on a plot to kill U.S. airmen and civilians along his delivery route which routinely took him past the Lakenheath airbase and other facilities where U.S. personnel are stationed. Commander Dean Haydon, of the British Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command, said Junead Khan had also done extensive research on how to make a bomb, the BBC reported. The court record showed that Junead Khan In July 2015 had conducted an encrypted online conversation with Junaid Hussain, a British national and an ISIS operative in Syria. A month later, a U.S. drone strike targeted and killed Junaid Hussain. In a Pentagon briefing last Friday, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, declined to give specifics on the attack that killed Junaid Hussain but said it was a “great illustration” of the intelligence partnerships among the U.S. and the allies. “We know these operatives are planning operations outside of Iraq and Syria, which is why we target them, and it is why we're going to continue to target them,” Warren said in a video conference from Baghdad. “It's why we're going to continue to work very closely with all of our partners and allies in this region -- on the intelligence front, on the targeting front, and on the training and equipping front,” Warren said. When asked if the U.S, would target a terrorist based on intelligence provided by Britain, Warren said: “Absolutely. I mean, we have our own set of checks that we have to run, but assuming that the proposed target got through all of the – the very rigorous targeting criteria that we have -- then of course we would strike them.” --Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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