CAMP ZAMA, Japan — When Command Sgt. Maj. Justin E. Turner arrived to help lead U.S. Army Garrison Japan two years ago, the transition between him and his predecessor was a bit unusual.
Turner and his family could not leave their home for 10 days, as those entering Japan faced strict quarantines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. So, he and Command Sgt. Maj. Billy Norman had to improvise.
Turner opened the front door of his home and sat at a nearby window, while Norman sat in a folding chair directly outside the window so they could safely see and hear each other. For three days, both went on to discuss the focus areas of the garrison’s senior enlisted leader.
Small, separate ceremonies with social distancing and mandatory masks were later held to bid farewell to Norman and welcome Turner.
“That’s how we did our battle handover,” Turner recently said, smiling. “It was the environment that we were in at that time, but we overcame it. We were resilient just like this community.”
Since then, Turner saw the community adapt to similar challenges while meetings and events were either held virtually or with safety measures.
“Life, health and safety is our major line of effort, and we did a great job doing that,” he said, adding that the garrison had no reports of hospitalizations due to COVID-19. “That says a lot.”
After vaccinations rose and cases fell, the garrison was able to return to a sense of normalcy this year.
The Independence Day celebration here marked the garrison’s first open-post event since 2019, and attendance shattered expectations with more than 25,000 visitors. Many of the visitors were Japanese nationals who came to interact with Americans again and enjoy the event’s live music, food and fireworks.
“The team did a phenomenal job,” Turner said of those who helped organize it. “It was just one of those events that really stood out to me.”
Turner said the entire garrison has scored many other accomplishments, even if sometimes those efforts were behind-the-scenes and not seen by the whole community.
“We punch well above our weight,” he said. “We have some unsung heroes that are out there.”
One of the efforts that made him proud was the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers, or BOSS, program. The BOSS program allowed Soldiers to come together for community cleanups, financial classes, life skills courses and other events.
“I think that was an absolute success story, especially during COVID,” he said. “We did not want those guys to be isolated, and that program in itself was a way for single Soldiers to get out of the barracks and still do things with other single Soldiers.”
Turner encouraged any Soldier, Army civilian or family member stationed here to venture outside the gates. From its culture and food to its many historic sites, Japan is worth exploring, he said.
“It’s a once-in-a lifetime experience to get to live in a great country like Japan,” he said. “And it’s 100% paid for by the Army. We’re paying you to live overseas and experience the culture.”
Turner heeded his own advice while he was here. He and his family traveled to many places in the country, including a memorable summer trip with his wife and five daughters to Kyoto for the "Gion Matsuri".
One of Japan’s major festivals, the "Gion Matsuri" attracts thousands of spectators with its procession of large decorative "yamahoko" floats that get pulled by hand through the city.
“It was a wonderful experience [and] something that we will always remember as a family,” he said.
While his favorite Japanese food is ramen, Turner said that he and his family had the chance to try more unique dishes like jellyfish, octopus and even cow tongue, which he said was chewy but still good.
“I didn’t know it was cow tongue [at first],” he said, laughing. “I thought it was steak on a stick.”
Turner's daughters have also embraced the culture. His youngest daughter, Zoey, 5, attended a Japanese kindergarten near Sagamihara Family Housing Area.
Once, while visiting a museum in Tokyo, Turner said that Zoey saw Japanese girls playing “janken,” or rock-paper-scissors, and decided to play with them in their language.
“I just thought that was amazing,” Turner said, adding that his daughter learned several more words at the Japanese school. “I would encourage any American to take advantage of that opportunity, especially [those with] young kids who are like sponges, soaking it all up.”
Another thing Turner said he liked about Japan was how safe it was. Camp Zama was his first assignment where he said he felt comfortable to let his daughters walk alone to the park or post exchange.
Born in Cason, a small town in northeast Texas, the sergeant major said the community here reminded him of his hometown.
He said the small-town feel of Camp Zama was recently evident during Halloween with trick-or-treaters knocking on the doors of friendly neighbors, as well as the homecoming football game when fans filled the stands to support the players.
“This is very similar to how I grew up,” he said. “Everybody kind of knows everybody. You start to grow strong bonds with people. One thing I love about this community is that if I reach out to somebody, they are willing to help.”
Col. Christopher L. Tomlinson, commander of USAG Japan, said he appreciated his battle buddy’s authentic leadership as they worked together.
Turner’s personable leadership style combined with his exceptional interpersonal skills made him a go-to person, who leaders on the installation, both officers and noncommissioned officers, went to for advice and assistance, Tomlinson said.
“It takes some true skills to be truly caring and empathetic,” the colonel said. “I’ve been in the Army for 30 years and I would say that he is probably the most genuine and talented noncommissioned officer that I’ve ever worked with.”
On a personal level, Tomlinson said that because of Turner’s genuine presence, it was easy to create a bond with him that extended well past their shared interest of both being from Texas and die-hard Dallas Cowboys fans.
“If he needs anything from me, I’m there for him,” Tomlinson said. “He’ll always be part of the Zama family. Any organization is going to benefit from his leadership and that’s why he’s going to continue to do great things for the Army.”
On Dec. 2, Turner will relinquish his responsibility to Command Sgt. Maj. David Rio during a ceremony that will be much more typical than when he arrived.
In January, Turner will then report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he will serve as the command sergeant major of the Soldier Support Institute, which oversees the schools for human resources, finance and music.
“I am excited and looking forward to the opportunity,” he said, “but I am going to miss the team here. It has been absolutely the best assignment I’ve ever had.”