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A Mississippian in Japan — Weapons Engagement Zone

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One small sliver of light began to peek through the blackout curtains at the head of my bed. The light coming through was human error. It seems I had haphazardly shut the curtains before I went to bed the night before.

I have a beautiful view of the East China Sea, but my floor-to-ceiling windows that face the east heat up fast when the sunrise over the distant Miyaki Island peeks above the horizon. The heat from the sun’s rays in the South Pacific is nature’s best alarm clock. I sleep with my head very near my blackout curtains. Once the curtains begin to heat, I have no choice but to get the day started.

On this particular morning, before my body could naturally wake up, every electronic device that is connected to our home wifi or a cellular tower nearby began to blare an emergency warning message in Japanese. A few frantic seconds after we got all of them shut off, the loud public address speaker in my neighborhood began wailing followed by a frantic-sounding Japanese man belting out orders in Japanese.

I had just Google translated the message and I began to understand the frantic nature of his voice. The message was the not-so-subtle reminder that we are on what the U.S. Army Japan’s commanding general calls the “knife’s edge of freedom.” Kim Jong Un a.k.a. “Rocket Man” had lobbed a ballistic projectile our way sending hundreds of millions of Asians and Americans scrambling out of their beds.

I will be honest, I had a little bit of PTSD as I scrambled to see what was headed our way. I had a momentary daydream flashback to my days in the deserts of Northern Kuwait as Iraq began launching SCUD missiles toward our military bases as the 2003 invasion began. The sirens would wail and we would scramble for bunkers while strapping gas masks to our faces.

My wife had already been awake and was back from dropping off our seventh-grader for his long bus ride to Ryukyu Middle School, which was a 20 to 30-minute car ride away. My younger son was in his room procrastinating as usual. Since we are ‘mean’ parents and have an age limit before he is allowed to have a cell phone, he was spared from the initial shock of the electronic devices spewing startling news. Even if you can’t read kanji or hiragana, the red alert-styled triangles with exclamation marks got the point across.

A previous report that I recalled was that if North Korea launched an ICBM, it would take roughly 10 minutes to reach my neighborhood. It had been six minutes since the alarms sounded. I went to my son’s room and saw that he had no fear on his face. He looked up and questioned why I had burst into his room. I decided to not scare him. I just simply said, “Get ready for school.” Then I gave him a long hug that he attempted to squirm his way out of. My wife came into the room and joined in.

In case the worst were to happen and we were vaporized in an instant, there was no way I wanted to be doing anything else. I stood there fighting off the ultimate dread that my 13-year-old would be facing whatever was happening all alone. I eventually broke from the hug that Dexter still had and went onto my balcony to get a front-row seat for my own personal apocalypse. As I sat there sipping a cup of hot coffee thinking this could be my last caffeine buzz, my phone chirped alive with a new message: “All clear”

It seems that the projectile splashed down in the Pacific Ocean far away from land. It was a test. North Korea claims it was a rocket destined to put a satellite in space. Maybe so, but the ICBM technology would have just as easily carried a nuke to my front door as well. I was relieved, but also keenly aware that I have a small existential threat to contend with from now on. The veil has been lifted and I now understand a bit more of what living inside the Weapons Engagement Zone means.

Of course, word got out and my kids heard about it. They seem to be unable to grasp the severity of what happened. To them, it was just an infusion of excitement.

Although Japan is an extremely safe society where you don’t have to worry about being a victim of any sort of violent crime, there are surrounding adversaries who would wish us/them harm.

Japan and Korea are chocked full of Patriot Missile Batteries. The purpose of a Patriot Missile system is to knock down ballistic projectiles from their flight path rendering them incapacitated. They call this sort of protective layer an iron dome. Just recently, I watched in horror as the Israeli’s iron dome failed them as Hamas fired off more missiles than was ever expected. The sheer volume of the missiles overburdened the iron dome’s capacity for self-protection and some got through. So with North Korea firing one solitary missile, my worries are lessened…but not entirely.

I grew up Southern Baptist and was a very pious young man. Due to life, war, and other things, I have been distracted from my religious roots. I can tell you, that when a potential nuke is headed to a neighborhood near you, you remember the internal benefits of prayer pretty quickly. If prayer is not a priority, you can easily forget its value once the threat is over.

Once a couple of weeks had passed and all seemed normal again, there was another scare. I was out walking at night for my health when I looked up and saw streaks across the sky. It was an old Chinese rocket reentering Earth’s orbit and burning in the atmosphere. For a second I thought, “Damn. They caught me with my pants down.” I was actually so startled this time, prayer didn’t enter my mind this time. I only wanted to run home to be with my kids should the worst happen.

I had completely driven the memory of my earlier scare from my mind only to be retraumatized. I wonder how long it will be until I let my guard down again. In some ways, I hope I learn to let my guard down completely very soon. While ignorance is definitely bliss, the helpless feeling I had during those two previous incidents is not. I guess it is better to stay prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

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