By Army 1st Lt. Scott GhiringhelliMay 5, 2011
CAMP SENDAI, Japan-Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center graduates put their language training to good use in support of Operation Tomodachi after the recent disaster in Japan.
The March 11, 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan brought on an onslaught of catastrophic events. The tsunami that pummeled the coastline and a slew of nuclear crises caused by the earthquake and flooding claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people and left nearly 1,200 missing.
Marine Lt. Col. James Kendall, a foreign area officer and Japanese linguist, was called to Camp Sendai only days after the disaster struck. He was soon working alongside Japanese Soldiers and officials to provide aid to victims of the disaster in the areas hardest hit by the tsunami.
"The scene upon entering the town was shocking and beyond the experience of any American [who was] present, regardless of combat service," commented Kendall. He went on to say, "The scene was post-apocalyptic, with many wrecked vehicles, including an overturned fire truck and large piles of rubble surrounding the buildings."
FAOs - Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines - who undergo intense language and culture training to become subject matter experts for a specific country or region, came together from all over Japan to help facilitate the U.S. military's contribution to Japanese relief efforts. "I've never seen so many FAOs in one place at one time," said Kendall.
These highly trained professionals were pulled from staff positions all around Japan, including the U.S Embassy in Tokyo, commands, and institutions for military studies. They served, and continue to serve, at Camp Sendai and in the United States Forces Joint Operations Center at Yokota Air Base providing support to bilateral U.S. and Japanese operations.
Operation Tomodachi, the name given to the U.S. response, literally means friend, and to the FAOs in Japan it represents the spirit of cooperation and friendship between the U.S. and Japan.
"Friends come to each other's aid," said Marine Maj. Giuseppe Stavale, a FAO who recently returned from Camp Sendai and continues to work at the USFJ Operation Center in support of Operation Tomodachi. Stavale further commented on U.S. support of the disaster relief efforts. "There's no doubt, that we took a quantum leap from a day to day type of friendship to a very close and trusted partnership. Something that I think will go beyond the veneer surface of the government officials, but really into the population, that they'll see that we Americans, not just the U.S. Armed Forces, but America in general, is truly a friend to Japan."
Under Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military worked alongside Japanese Ground Self Defense Force personnel providing humanitarian assistance to address the need for food, water, sanitation, and hygiene, and even toys for children at Internally Displaced Persons sites. Marine Capt. Paul Bartok was one of the first FAOs to assist at these locations.
"These people were very enthusiastic and welcomed us warmly, helping us form a line to pass supplies off the trucks from Marine to Sailor to Soldier to JGSDF to Japanese IDPs. After emptying the truck of hygiene kits and donated toys, there was a small ceremony to thank the convoy team from which they were led out through a gauntlet of people applauding and shaking their hands," said Bartok.
Col. Craig J. Agena, who attended DLIFLC's Japanese school as part of the FAO program from 1991 to 1992, was called to duty in support of Operation Tomodachi shortly after the disaster struck.
As chief of the bilateral crisis action team's U.S. contingency at Camp Sendai, Agena visited the Nobiru and Rikuzen-Ono train stations in Higashi Matsushira with other U.S. and Japanese military members, as well as city officials. He inspected the sites in order to help facilitate bilateral operations set to clear wreckage and debris as part of a joint effort to restore local transportation. He was careful to note, as were many of the FAOs, that Japan has led the disaster relief efforts, and that the U.S. has helped where needed and when requested.
"We're assisting... we have to work through the local mayors, the governors. They are the ones who direct where we go and what needs to be done," said Agena.
The U.S. military continues to assist the JGSDF based out of Camp Sendai. Troops from both countries sleep side by side on cots at night, and work side by side providing disaster relief during the day. Master Sgt. Tomoyuki Nakada of the JGSDF, who attended DLIFLC's Language Training Detachment at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas to study English, conveyed his respect and appreciation for Operation Tomodachi. "Operation Tomodachi means something that [you] just cannot say in words. It represents U.S. and Japan's bilateral relationship... it really represents both countries and what we are as a partner."