YAKIMA, Wash. -- As the temperature rose, so did the anticipation and spirits of the U.S. Army and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force troops for the commencement of the 21st annual Rising Thunder exercise at the Yakima Training Center, Aug. 30.The opening ceremony kicked off with Soldiers in attendance from the Illinois Army National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division, and Japan's 25th Infantry Regiment. The main purpose of the three-week joint exercise is to enhance the bilateral functionality of both forces while bolstering the already strong alliance between the two nations.Throughout the upcoming weeks of Rising Thunder, service members from both nations will align efforts in a number of exercises such as sniper marksmanship, room clearing, and crew-served weapon qualifying. Not only will the overall exercise provide the opportunity for unified combat operations, but also lasting memories for the Soldiers involved."Our army to army relationship has never been stronger," said Lt. Col. CJ Kirkpatrick, operations officer for the 7th Infantry Division. "Rising Thunder provides a great opportunity to build on that strong relationship between our two armies, by enhancing interoperability, strengthening cooperation, and increasing readiness."He emphasized that opportunities like this not only lead to joint training, but also exposure to different cultures, which will enable Soldiers to be better prepared to accomplish their mission abroad.Kirkpatrick said as the U.S.-Pacific alliance becomes stronger, it is expected they will continue to serve together in the future and help build a stable and peaceful Pacifc region."This bilateral partnership is built on trust and commitment," he added, acknowledging how much he valued ties with Japan and the Japanese people."It is essential for the U.S. Army and JGSDF to strengthen our ties in preparation for future missions, especially with the coordination of firepower and intelligence," said Col. Onogi Hideki, commander for the 25th Inf. Reg.Onogi expressed high hopes for a meaningful training for both forces and a strengthened relationship. In his closing remarks, he said that he appreciated the American and Japanese commanders and Soldiers who continuously supported each other."Even though we come from different countries, I believe we have the same material vision," said Onogi.Spc. Drake Hess, an infantryman with D Co., 2-130th Infantry Regiment from Mount Vernon, Illinois, said, "I would like to get a stronger bond with the Japanese and learn some of their tactics and skills."He also expressed interest in sharing with the Japanese how the U.S. infantrymen conduct operations."I would like to build a camaraderie between us and the Japanese, and learn even more about their military culture," he said.Rising Thunder's success relies on trust and cooperation, themes echoed by Kirkpatrick during his remarks."When you have that trust," said Kirkpatrick, "you can operate easily because you're never questioning, you're just believing."