CAMP ZAMA, Japan (March 11, 2020) -- Staff Sgt. Carl Council remembers very clearly the day nine years ago when he got a call from his platoon sergeant, who told him he had four hours to gather his gear and report for duty.Council, then a private first class stationed in Hawaii, soon learned his unit would be heading to Japan in support of "Operation Tomodachi," a rescue and recovery mission organized in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which struck the country's east coast at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011."The next thing we knew, we were on a flight to Japan," said Council, currently a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear specialist assigned to I Corps (Forward) here. "My first real assignment."The earthquake--the most powerful recorded in Japan--caused a tsunami that brought a flood of water and waves more than 130 feet high to the coastal towns of Miyako, Sendai and others. The earthquake and tsunami also led to explosions and core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Okuma, Japan.Council's unit was assigned to the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron, 35th Mission Support Group, 35th Fighter Wing, at Misawa Air Base in Aomori, Japan. His unit had two main missions, Council said: Help bring Misawa "back up to 100 percent," and conduct search-and-rescue operations; assist with cleaning up the devastated areas; and decontaminate equipment and personnel.
As his bus pulled up to an area affected by the tsunami, Council said there were some buildings tall enough that he could see the water mark showing how high the waves had been, but that everything else had been "completely wiped out."
"The only thing I could think is, it's impossible for anyone to have survived this," said Council. "It was very heartbreaking."
Council said he worked "day in, day out" practically as soon as he arrived in Japan, but was so focused on doing his job that he lost track of how long he'd been in country. He later calculated that he had spent about 40 days taking part in Operation Tomodachi.Reflecting on it nine years later, Council said one of the toughest moments he experienced then was when he was cleaning up a particularly hard-hit area. Among the debris, he found an autographed poster of basketball legend Michael Jordan."This had to have belonged to a child," Council thought to himself then. "[I realized that] everyone here lost everything personal."
Holding the now-muddied memento and realizing its previous owner would likely never see it again allowed Council to reflect on and appreciate all the things in his life--material or otherwise--he still had, Council said.
Conversely, Council said he also had an "incredibly rewarding" experience while conducting recovery operations. In one area where tsunami waves had leveled everything else, one house stood, miraculously and essentially unscathed.Council and the other Soldier he was with were remarking to each other how incredible it was that the house was still standing, when the owner, a Japanese man, emerged from the house and began speaking to them in English."I asked him, 'How did your house not get touched by [the tsunami]?'" Council said.The man told the Soldiers that when he and his family knew the tsunami was coming, they left their home and escaped to an evacuation point. While there, the man said, he and his family prayed.When they walked outside after the worst of the water had receded, the man looked in the direction of his house and told the Soldiers simply, "There it was."
Council said a lot of times throughout the year, especially around this time, he looks at some of his pictures and looks back those times when he was actually there to see everything being totally gone.In the years since then, Council said he often reflects on that moment because he knows it is a moment after which "the world will never be what it was."In October 2018, Council got the opportunity to return to Japan, this time as a Soldier assigned to Camp Zama.Upon his return to the country, Council decided to make a trip back to the areas where he served during Operation Tomodachi. What he saw was a nation that had built itself back up and shown how resilient it is."There was absolutely nothing there [back then], and now it has shops and houses," Council said. "I drove around the areas where I worked and saw a sign that said, 'Operation Tomodachi took place here.'"His experiences during Operation Tomodachi humbled him both mentally and spiritually, Council said. The work he and others did there in 2011 helped to not only rebuild a devastated area, but also to strengthen the bond of trust between the U.S. military and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
"I know what [that part of Japan] was like, and I see what it is now, and I'm glad to have been a part of history and to have helped out."