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Orient Shield exercise highlights military’s focus on ‘Pacific pivot’

Orient Shield 2012

AIBANO TRAINING AREA, Japan — In a muddy field full of Japanese media and troops watching American military might in action, the Stryker Mobile Gun System unceremoniously broke down.

The vehicle — a variant of the fast, lightweight Stryker armored troop carrier that’s been deployed throughout Iraq and Afghanistan — was able to fire only three of the dozens of rounds that were planned Tuesday morning.

The mechanical glitch turned the demonstration into a watch-us-fix-it event, but the snafu wasn’t all bad. It underscored the point of Orient Shield, a field training exercise that the two allied armies conduct every year for the sake of “interoperability” — military-speak for teamwork.

“The MGS is a helluva machine, but it can break down at critical times,” Maj. Randall Baucom, U.S. Army Japan spokesman, said. The malfunction wasn’t good, but it was beneficial for the Japanese to see that “things don’t always go according to plan.”

This year’s exercise is the first time the U.S. Army has deployed Strykers to Japan and the first time in five years that an active-duty unit — 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, from Hawaii — has participated.

Reservists and National Guard soldiers have deployed in the past because active-duty units were either deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan or preparing for combat.

With the Iraq War’s end and the drawdown under way in Afghanistan, the Army can focus on what has been dubbed the “Pacific pivot” toward increased U.S. emphasis in the region, which is beset by natural disasters, a rising China and a provocative North Korea.

“Orient Shield falls perfectly in line with that increased emphasis,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Larsen, commander of the 1-14th, said Tuesday from Japan’s Aibano Training Area near Lake Biwa, about an hour northeast of the former capital Kyoto.

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Deploying 750 active-duty soldiers and 15 Strykers to Japan “shows our increased commitment to a Pacific partner,” Larsen said.

“The U.S. and Japan have numerous exercises that operate at headquarters levels,” he said. “But this is the only one that brings soldiers together.”

The 15-day exercise has Japanese and U.S. soldiers side by side for training and camaraderie, although they sleep in adjacent tent cities and eat in different chow halls. At night they get to socialize in “friendship” tents where they trade patches, arm wrestle and drink the two beers they’re allowed each night.

The Japanese soldiers “are actually pretty fun,” Sgt. DeAndre Bobo said. “They’re really excited to interact with us.”

American soldiers such as Maj. John Carson, executive officer for the 1-14th, noted the Japanese troops’ profound sense of personal discipline.

“When you come over here and see how disciplined the Japanese are, it makes you want to be a better soldier,” Carson said. “Hopefully, my guys are going to pick up on that and take that home.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Seymour said the Japanese soldiers are also adept at what, for Americans, is “the lost art of camouflage.”

On Tuesday, just before they arrived at a sniper competition between the two armies, Seymour exchanged ideas with Command Sgt. Maj. Toshihiro Shimizu, of Japan’s 33rd Infantry Regiment, through U.S. Army Japan translator Miki Hachiya. The men discussed each force’s strengths and weaknesses.

“American soldiers have experienced battle,” Shimizu told Stars and Stripes through Hachiya. “They know how serious war is.

“They have been to an actual war zone, unlike Japan’s self-defense forces,” Shimizu said. “What it’s like to be in a war zone, that is what we learn from the U.S. Army.”

Japan’s post-World War II constitution has limited its military to self-defense roles. While the country has sent forces to international peacekeeping operations, they have largely served in support capacities.

Baucom, the U.S. Army spokesman, said a major goal for exercises like Orient Shield is dispelling the “arrogant American stereotype,” reinforced by popular TV shows and movies.

“We aren’t Rambo. We aren’t ‘Hurt Locker,’ ” he said. “We’re soldiers just like they are, trying to protect our country and our buddies and ourselves.”

The paradigm apparently already had shifted for one Japanese soldier less than a week into the exercise.

“U.S. soldiers are humble and very respectful and polite,” said Sgt. Naoto Ikeda, a reconnaissance scout with the 33rd Infantry Regiment. “I was very surprised by that. I had a different image of U.S. soldiers.”

reedc@stripes.com

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