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U.S. military families return from Japan

From Jim Spellman, CNN
U.S. Army Col. Marc Hutson says all passengers were screened for radiation upon returning to the United States.
U.S. Army Col. Marc Hutson says all passengers were screened for radiation upon returning to the United States.
  • A charter flight brings 144 Americans home from Japan
  • The passengers are family members of U.S. military personnel serving in Japan
  • Megan Pencook returns with her 5-week-old son
  • The quake was "the scariest experience of my life," she says

Denver, Colorado (CNN) -- A charter flight carrying family members of U.S. military service members serving in Japan landed Thursday on U.S. soil in Denver.

The flight contained 144 people who voluntarily left Japan in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami and ongoing concerns about the crippled Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant.

Weary from a 14-hour journey, the families and 18 pets filed into a hangar converted into a welcome center. Representatives from all four branches of the military and Red Cross volunteers were on hand to give them food and water and help get them to their final destinations around the country.

About half of the passengers were children who immediately set about playing in a dragon-shaped "moonbounce" and by tossing footballs around with the service members on hand to help.

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One of the parents was Airman 1st Class Megan Pencook of the Air Force, clutching her 5-week-old son, Adrian. Pencook is stationed at Yokota Air base near Tokyo.

She was holding her son when the earthquake hit.

"I felt huge shaking. I was feeding my son and just holding him to me and trying to remember what earthquake safety was. I was shaking so bad," Pencook said.

"It was the scariest experience of my life."

The childıs father is an Air Force airman serving in Korea. He wanted them to leave riight after the earthquake, but Pencook wanted to stay in Japan, a country she has grown to love.

"Then I heard of radiation positioning in the water in Tokyo and I said, 'It's time to go," she said.

When she landed in Denver there were service members on hand to help her with Adrian and make sure she had whatever she might need.

"It feels so good to know that in a crisis, your military family is there for you," she said.

The chartered Delta jet first touched down in Seattle where all aboard were screened for radiation.

"Every international flight is monitored and there have been no significant amounts of radiation," said Army Col. Marc Hutson.

As the afternoon wore on, the hangar resembled a children's birthday party as much as a military operation. Footballs flying, moon-bouncers bouncing and dogs chasing each other.

Hutson took in the scene with a smile.

"It's awesome. These are our families; this could be my family coming back. Morale is high," he said.