"Operation Tomodachi" A Unit Ministry Team Perspective
June 19, 2011
"Where were you when the earthquake struck?" is still a commonly asked question here in Japan, three months after this nation was literally rocked off its foundations. A myriad of organizations and institutions canvassed the hard-struck region, doing all they can to help. The nations of the world contributed billions of dollars in aid; individuals around the globe not only donated billions of dollars for recovery but also untold man-hours in voluntary relief work. Non-government organizations (NGOs) set up bases to help in whatever ways possible. And we in the military certainly did our share. Under the umbrella of Operation Tomodachi ("Friends") Japan committed 100,000 of its Self-Defense Forces and the United States military engaged another 18,000 of its service members, not to mention other services from other countries added to the mix. And everyone had their lanes to work to ensure a successful recovery and relief operation. We, the Unit Ministry Teams for the United States Army, had a small slice, too. Here is our story; we share it solely for educational and historical purposes. In the off-chance that someone down the road may be involved in similar situations, may this help serve as a reference point.
Space does not permit me to lay out the military's operational base and execution, but within its framework the UMTs of the United States Army Japan (USARJ) nestled in to provide maximum religious coverage and support.
Our UMTs' operations were split into two areas of focus: to those at our home duty station (Soldiers, authorized Civilians, and Family members) and second, to the forward-deployed US military in the immediate vicinities affected by the earthquake.
"Home Front" Religious Support
I start with the "home front" ministries first because there is one distinction about this operation compared to those we normally engage in: most of our operational training overseas is embedded with the presupposition that our Family members are safe and secure back in the United States. That was not the case here " the Family members were right in the thick of it all so a new and different emphasis had to be created and executed.
• Prayer Cards: One of the first things we did as UMTs was to create a prayer card to be personally distributed to every person at their work station throughout Camp Zama. Over 600 were printed. Many proudly displayed them at their work stations (and continue to do so three months later), serving as a tangible reminder of the US commitment to the nation of Japan as well as a daily invitation to intercede before God for Japan's recovery. The tent-card design itself included a sunset-themed picture of Mount Fuji in the background with the words "Pray for Japan" appearing in the foreground. Two sets of cards were printed: one in English and the second in Japanese, with a prayer written inside.
• Voluntary Evacuation Process: In light of the aftermath of Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and radiation threat, and following the State Department's decision to voluntarily evacuate dependents from the Japanese mainland, the UMTs recognized the need to be part of this process. As our over-300 Family members were readied for a voluntary departure from Japan during a four day period, our UMTs were there every step of the way, providing prayer, counseling, religious reading material, etc. during each phase. We established a station at the gym where people were being processed and ensured that UMTs were present night and day for any needs that might arise.
• Voluntary Evacuee Prayer Card: As a tangible reminder for Soldiers and Family members who faced an undetermined length of separation, we created a special spiritual memento. We designed and prepared over 500 Prayer Cards for distribution to Family members prior to transporting them to Yokota AFB for their return to destinations abroad. The design, while simple, included a logo depicting people bidding each other farewell and included a prayer taken from Genesis 31:49 bearing the title and words " "During our Absence: 'May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.'"
Our distribution plan included having a number of the UMTs place this laminated card in the hands of every adult and teenager as they boarded the bus for departure, communicating to each recipient our prayers for their safe arrival and soon return. Notably, our fellow chaplains from the sister services and surrounding Navy and Air Force installations expressed an interest in adapting our design for use with their own departing personnel. We gladly passed it on to them for their use.
• Family Postcards: Our final product included our development of a postage-paid postcard with the picture of a Torii gate (a common national symbol of Japan) against a backdrop of Japanese cherry blossom trees. Emblazoned on the front were the words, "Thinking of You! Camp Zama, Japan."
The postcard was distributed to Soldiers in Japan who could then write a small note to each of their children who where away from Japan under the voluntary evacuation program, and then drop it in the mail box. The thought was to provide Soldiers a means to connect with their children, particularly in light of a child's excitement on receiving mail specifically addressed to them. Again, thinking from a Family dynamics perspective, the UMTs used these as tools to deepen Family ties, strengthening the bonds of Army Families while separated.
Down Range Religious Support
While we were addressing the needs of our people on the home front, we simultaneously turned our attention to our people who were deployed north, working in the heart of the hard-struck areas. Two basic aims encompassed this area of ministry: first, providing words of inspiration to those working in our command centers throughout Japan and second, on-the-ground real world ministry through religious services and a ministry of presence.
• Good News Stories/Command Update Prayers: Our support of the daily Command Update Brief included the development of what we called our "Good News Stories." In our effort to provide a positive emphasis in the midst of the challenges our Soldiers were witnessing/experiencing on the front lines, the UMTs developed over fifty Good News Stories. Each story highlighted a human-interest dimension, encouraging our continued efforts despite the daunting challenges we (Japan and US forces) faced.
It should be noted our intent in each Good News Story was to provide more than a "feel"good moment" but rather deliberately tie in a biblical perspective by including a relevant passage from Holy Scripture. We exercised great diligence in finding and using the most appropriate verses for the moment. Additionally noteworthy was the fact that we received frequent expressions of gratitude for not only the warmth of the message but also the relevance of Scripture for the moment at hand.
Finally, we made it a point to close each Command Update Brief with a scripted prayer, speaking words of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation to every participant.
• Ministry at the Centers of Disaster: During the days and weeks following the initial destruction, UMTs made several visits up north to the worst areas where our people were directly engaged. When the US Army officially became the JFLCC, we sent a UMT into the region to stay and provide ministry on a daily basis, which included the Lent and Easter time frame.
A viable Religious Support Plan (RSP) was established by the UMT on the ground " a UMT this time consisting of one chaplain and two chaplain assistants. They were to provide religious support not only to US Army personnel, but all slices of our US military, (Army, Air force, Navy and Marines), as well as our Civilian personnel and contractors. The ultimate goal was to provide religious support from Camp Sendai all the way to Camp Samurai, a range of 50 kilometers; a daunting feat considering that most of the infrastructure within that range was destroyed.
There were daily visits to the sites, seeing approximately 35 " 45 Soldiers on each trip. Several field services were held, to include Palm Sunday and Easter. There were also site visits to schools and religious places of worship. All the while, the chaplain assistants also helped with clearing out debris from several of the schools in the region. All in all, having an UMT on the ground proved to be invaluable " not only was a ministry of presence established and appreciated, it also gave the UMT excellent opportunities to help alleviate stress and de-brief people during the down-times that popped up from time to time.
There is no template when it comes to ministering within an Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) scenario. Each crisis has its own unique circumstances, limitations, and challenges. We share what our US Army UMTs did here in Japan to add to the growing ways all of us can minister in an ever-changing environment. One final note: the nation of Japan is a long way from a full recovery of the Great East Japan Earthquake. It will take many years. Let me exhort you, the reader, to continue to uplift Japan and its people in your prayers; it is greatly appreciated.