Almost immediately after a massive magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan on March 11, killing more than 15,000 people, the U.S. military began an unprecedented relief effort that lasted much of the spring.
Following the disaster, the military deployed troops to northern Japan to help with search and rescue, as well as aid delivery.
Soon after, the mission evolved to include the military’s first response to a civilian nuclear disaster when the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, located near the epicenter of destruction on the northeastern coast, began leaking radiation that contaminated air and water as far south as Tokyo. The severity of the Fukushima meltdown was second only to the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine.
As part of the response to the nuclear crisis, military officials arranged for the voluntary evacuation of 10,000 military dependents in the country amid fears stemming from the radiation leak.
The military wrapped up most of its relief operations by May, with 20,000 servicemembers taking part in “Operation Tomodachi” — Japanese for “friend.” Among the U.S. military’s most significant contributions was the clearing of Sendai Airport in the heart of the disaster zone, which opened up a major hub for delivering water and other supplies.
It will take Japan years to recover from the nuclear fallout and the destructive path carved by the tsunami, which washed away large swaths of civilization along the northeastern coast. Along with the sobering death toll, Japan suffered an estimated $210 billion in damages.
The Defense Department is still in the process of calculating how much radiation each of the 61,000 personnel living and working in Japan was exposed to during the disaster.
That data eventually will be available online, according to U.S. Pacific Command.