This is not a drill

What would you do if you thought you only had moments to live?

One military family in Hawaii shares what they did yesterday, when an emergency alert was mistakenly sent stating ballistic missiles were en route to the island, and to take cover immediately.

“What a beautiful morning – bright sun, nice crisp air, and big blue skies all around. 80 degress in early January. Certain to be another #blessed day filled with thousands of new “Lucky We Live HI!!” hashtags designed to make our snow-bound friends envious. Such is life stationed in Hawaii.

My wife and I were finishing our breakfast, enjoying the simple bliss of not having woken up to an alarm, and mapping out what we wanted our day to look like while the girls goofed around on the gymnastics pad and balance beam that Santa brought them.

‘There’s supposed to be historic waves on the North Shore starting this afternoon,’ says I.

‘Sounds fun, but we’ve also been promising the girls we’d take them to the book store; we could do that on the way,’ says she.

‘Beep Beeeeep!!!’ say our phones, simultaneously.

‘… whatever we end up doing, the cat litter needs to be cleaned before we leave…’ she drops, as we both casually reach for our phones, thinking it’s probably the beginning of another fun GIF battle with our neighbor family or a hangout proposal from our best friends across the island. Ever the worrier about our domestic responsibilities: my lovely wife. I smile. Of course the day will start with the cat litter. It’ll be a fun day, spent with my family.

‘EMERGENCY ALERT – BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.’

Huh?

Missile threat?

This is not a drill.

Ballistic?

This is not a drill.

Seek Immediate shelter?

THIS. IS. NOT. A. DRILL.

We look up at each other dumbfounded as my brain launches into reaction mode and the logic centers try to make sense of the nonsensical words we just read.

Two thoughts – lessons learned the news put out from a recent island-wide test – immediately jump to the front of my consciousness; First: 20 minutes, max. That’s the maximum amount of time we might have before impact. Second: there are no adequate blast structures anywhere on the island, certainly none reachable within 20 minutes.

‘Where do we go?’ she asks.

I have no idea. One might think that a military base would have adequate shelters in the event of an attack, especially a base with as infamous a history as Pearl Harbor / Hickam. But, the Cold War is over. Such structures are not aesthetically pleasing and certainly don’t have a place here in paradise, where we are all, in fact, #blessed and #luckyweliveHI.

If shelters exist, they’re not advertised.

If they exist, they’re likely not maintained.

IF they exist, we won’t find one inside of 20 minutes.

This is not a drill.

On the long list of inadequate options, we agree on the laundry room. It’s downstairs and shares a wall with our neighbors, so is therefore as insulated as we’re going to get.

It’s not enough, but it’s something.

We round up our two girls and run into the laundry room, the dog following as we go, thinking we’re going on an adventure. We huddle up on the floor and grab a couple of jackets to use as padding and blankets, and we wait.

Will we hear it?

Will we feel the heat?

Will I have time, when it starts, to lie on top of my children and shield them, or will doing so only prolong their suffering?

So this is how it all ends for us; on the floor in the laundry room, with the cat litter.

The cat litter… the cat.

“Daddy!” my daughter hisses as I hurry out of the room we’re sheltered in, so scared and confused she doesn’t know whether raising her voice will bring down the unknown calamity that we are hiding from. Maybe it’s a monster. All she knows is mommy and daddy’s phones made a sound and 30 seconds later we’re all hiding in the laundry room, trying to act as if this is totally normal.

Luckily I know exactly where the little fatty will be. I scoop him up and hustle back into our sanctuary.

We kiss the girls, we hug as a family, and we wait.

“What’s going on?” my oldest asks.

I don’t know how to answer.

How do you explain to a 6 and 10 year old that they might be about to die? You don’t. But then why are we all hiding on the floor in the laundry room? We start to try to explain about rockets and missiles and global politics, but it all gets too big and too surreal. ‘It’s going to be fine sweetheart. We’re just trying to be extra safe.’ Please believe me. Please believe yourself.

Imagine your brain functioning in a time compression, where seconds feel like minutes, and you have 20 minutes to wait, and wonder.

The texts start coming in. One of my favorite things about living on base is the fantastic relationship we have with our neighbors. We all hang out together, celebrate birthdays and holidays together, have impromptu BBQs together; the kids play in the street mostly unsupervised. Life is just like we imagine it was back in the 60’s… during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the families is hosting an exchange student – man, it’s going to suck for his parents tonight.

We wait, we hug, we kiss the girls, and we text.

Some of them were already out and about, enjoying life in Hawaii. Military life begins early, and there are supposed to be killer waves on the North Shore today, after all.

Man, they’re lucky. One of the worst things about living on base is that this is ground zero. We’re screwed. Air Force One parks 100 yards from my house, there is no way we’re not right in the crosshairs.

But the Navy has defenses for exactly this situation, surely they’ll work. Is it North Korea? Why isn’t there more commotion? Why aren’t the alert jets taking off? Where are the sirens?

Just as we start to convince ourselves that maybe it was a false alarm, the sirens start going off throughout base and the ‘Big Voice’ is garbling something that you need to be outside to hear. But outside is decidedly NOT where we’re supposed to be when it’s not a drill, and we’re at minute 19. I saw Terminator 2; I know what happens next. So we sit, and wait, and hug.

If they can send a text telling us, ‘This is not a drill,’ they should be able to send a text that tells us when the drill is over, right? So I think we’ll wait for either that or… y’know; BOOM WHOOSH HOT Black.

One neighbor sends a note: “Love you guys if this is our last time together.”

You too, all of you. I should probably text my mom and dad. But we’re at 22 minutes now, and doubt is creeping in. I don’t want to freak them out. I hope they know. I think they know.

As we crept into the mid 20s on the clock, more and more snippets of info came in alleging that it was all some kind of monumental screwup. As the late 20s passed, the fact that the world hadn’t turned to ash seemed to further confirm. But it wasn’t until minute 38 that the phone beeped again, finally allaying our fears and allowing us to breathe easily.

Our little neighborhood ohana came out and we all hugged, cried, sighed, and laughed with relief while the kids started playing in the street. Unsupervised… mostly. Husbands who were out on training started sending GIFs and memes.

In the post laundry room hours friends and articles would comment about how North Korea doesn’t possess the ability to hit us from yet. Tsk tsk, silly islanders. You should’ve known that. To that I say; Ok, fine. But there are other threats out there besides North Korea. Perhaps not as likely to launch a preemptive strike but really, the question is this: When your phone beeps at you and tells you ‘this is not a drill’, is that a gamble you want to take with the lives of your wife and children?

A close friend commented to me that as a military pilot, I’m used to dealing with high-pressure situations. That’s probably true, I’ve been in at least a couple. But this is different. The only things my daughters have volunteered for are to help lead stretches are soccer practice and to help clean the cat litter. I think all of us who sign up for life in the military accept at some point that the career we’ve chosen has the potential to put ourselves in someone else’s crosshairs. It’s just the way it is, some like it more than others and all do it for their own reasons. But one thing I had not seriously considered was that it might put my family so squarely in the crosshairs, especially in such a helpless way.

I don’t want to overdramatize this, I know in the end nothing at all actually happened. But for the better part of 30 minutes we all thought we – our children – had minutes left to live, and that’s what I think will linger. I look forward to learning from this experience, as we military families always do. I am hopeful that the media can lead an educated and calm discussion about how to improve and prepare. But in the meantime; it’s a beautiful Sunday, still at the beginning of a long weekend. I am happy to be able to hug my family and let the girls go outside and play while the cat litter gets cleaned (I will be tactfully nonspecific about who actually cleans it). This afternoon we’ll take them to the bookstore and then go check out some historic waves up on the North Shore. A fun day, spent with family. #blessed.”

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