Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill attends a briefing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on Oct. 24, 2022.

Vice Adm. John Wade, commander of Joint Task Force-Red Hill attends a briefing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on Oct. 24, 2022. (Matthew Mackintosh/U.S. Army)

(Tribune News Service) — The officer the Pentagon has tasked with overseeing the defueling of the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility has for Hawaii residents in many ways become the face of the Navy.

Vice Adm. John Wade has a mixture of Navy, Army, Marine, Air Force and Coast Guard service members as well as federal civilians and contractors under his command at Joint Task Force Red Hill working to remove 104 million gallons of fuel, which sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu relies on for drinking water.

“I am honored to lead this team, “ Wade said during an interview at his office on Ford Island, shifting attention from himself to highlight his team. Most of the civilians working at Red Hill and several of the serv ­ice members, he noted, have deep roots in the islands. Wade said he has sought not just their technical insight, but also their cultural knowledge as he tries to repair deeply damaged relationships.

In November 2021, fuel from the facility leaked into the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, including military families and civilians living in former military housing areas. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply shut down several wells indefinitely to prevent the spread of contamination, exacerbating a water shortage Oahu was already experiencing.

Since taking on the position in September, Wade has been shouted down at town hall meetings and subject to intense criticism from community leaders.

Wade invited BWS Manager Ernie Lau, a fierce critic of the Navy, to sit on a task force information-sharing group—which includes several local officials and community leaders. “When I sit down as a person (Wade is ) somebody easy to talk to, and he appears to listen, “ Lau said during a Honolulu Star-Advertiser “Spotlight Hawaii “ livestream program, adding however that getting information from the military is “still very challenging.”

Army Brig. Gen. Lance Okamura, a Kamehameha Schools graduate overseeing interagency work and outreach for the task force as one of Wade’s deputy commanders, said : “You can tell when you talk with him ... that he genuinely cares about people, and he genuinely cares about the success of this mission.

“In this particular case, Admiral Wade is the right person because he genuinely cares about the people of Hawaii, “ Okamura said.

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter, said Wade is “very much a part of the military chain of command “ and that time will tell whether Wade will be an “unquestioning yes man—like so many of his predecessors—or whether he will push the envelope, even if it inconveniences his superiors.”

‘You got to look people in the eye’

Wade was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island. His father was a Navy reservist, but at a young age he began suffering from a heart disease that ultimately took his life when Wade and his sister were still children. Wade’s mother worked, and his grandparents pitched in to help raise them. Wade said he was influenced by blue-collar relatives who taught him to have pride in working hard and taking care of one another.

Wade was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, and his first time in Hawaii was sailing in to Pearl Harbor as a midshipman during a training cruise aboard the USS Germantown in 1987. He would find himself in and out of the islands throughout his career, which took him across the globe serving in a series of postings.

As a young lieutenant he was put in charge of a small patrol craft tasked with inserting and extracting elite Navy SEALs on missions, an assignment he described as both “high-risk “ and formative. Years later, in 2006, he was handpicked to lead a team in Afghanistan doing reconstruction work in Khost province, a onetime al-Qaida stronghold where Osama Bin Laden planned much of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about what I learned in Khost, “ said Wade.

At that time, as the Army and Marine Corps poured troops and resources into Iraq, where the war was going badly, Pentagon leaders asked the Navy and Air Force to come up with officers to lead Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. Wade’s experience working with the SEALs put him at the top of the list. He said when he learned about his new assignment, he felt “very honored, but I was very uncomfortable.”

“What it takes to lead a ship at sea is much different to leading a group of men and women on the ground on the border with Pakistan, “ said Wade.

The PRTs built schools, water systems and other infrastructure. It was a complicated assignment that would have them working with the Afghan government, tribal leaders, various U.S. agencies ranging from the State Department to the Treasury Department, the United Nations, nonprofits, contractors and everyday Afghan citizens.

Wade made a point of getting “outside the wire “ to talk with Afghans and attend tribal meetings known as “shuras.”

“You got to get out there, and you got to look people in the eye, “ said Wade. “I would get out of my Humvee, and I would take off my Kevlar, take off my helmet, and I’d walk into those meetings knowing that there could potentially be a suicide bomber, and I did a lot of praying. But I wanted to hear what their concerns were.”

While Wade took on a series of prestigious assignments before taking on the Red Hill job, for many Hawaii officials and residents, he’s the latest arrival in a long line of Navy officials who have come and gone.

“Mr. Lau has said, ‘You know, you’re the X number admiral that I’ve spoken to, ‘ and so I get that. I understand that frustration, “ said Wade. “The truth of the matter is this is the first set of orders that I have that are indefinite—I don’t have an end date—it’s just to defuel those tanks. And so I’m committed to do that.”

John Miller, an organizer with the Wai Ola Alliance, said, “So far, Admiral Wade seems to be an empathetic and honest broker who seems to genuinely be trying to understand the local culture and community.” Miller added, “However, he’s come into the environment lacking decades of experience compared to the local community. So he has a lot of catching up to do. He inherited a major crisis, so he has a lot of proving to do before he’s going to gain any meaningful trust from the community.”

‘An environmental mission’

Prior to being tapped for the defueling mission, Wade was working at Camp Smith. He said members of his staff and their families were affected by the Red Hill water crisis, and he found himself frustrated by confusion they were subjected to during the military’s response. When asked to take on the defueling mission, he said he thought about his own family and upbringing.

“I immediately thought of my grandmother, “ said Wade. “She would talk about the importance and the meaning of hard work but that when hard work contributes to the betterment of others, then there’s no greater purpose. As I looked at this problem, I said, ‘It’s a humanitarian and ... an environmental mission.’”

For several years preceding the November 2021 crisis, the BWS and activists had expressed concerns that the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility’s underground tanks posed a danger to the island’s water supply. After long insisting the facility was safe, the Navy now acknowledges the aging World War II-era fuel farm requires extensive repairs to even remove the fuel safely.

“I have an appreciation for (Wade’s ) approach and tone thus far, “ said Miller, himself a Navy veteran. “But the community as a whole has a lot of legitimate demands that need to be heard, truly understood and sincerely integrated into the command climate and strategic approach, or we’re going to walk ourselves down the same failed path we’ve been down countless times before.”

Wade said he is looking for ways to expedite the process and complete defueling well ahead of the set summer 2024 deadline. Ultimately, though, that process won’t start until state and federal regulators approve a defueling plan.

JTF Red Hill’s mission is to defuel the tanks. But the overall shutdown of the facility falls to U.S. Navy Region Hawaii, environmental remediation and water testing is under Navy Facilities and Engineering Systems Command, health impacts are the responsibility of the Defense Health Agency and redistribution of the fuel itself will fall to the Defense Logistics Agency.

Wade said he has brought recommendations to the Pentagon, but his power to address issues outside the scope of defueling is limited.

However, JTF Red Hill’s authority—and responsibilities—expanded after 1, 300 gallons of toxic firefighting foam spilled in the Red Hill facility in November. Wade initially told reporters there was no video of the incident but said he later learned that there was. He told the Star-Advertiser the lack of coordination by the various agencies and contractors working in the facility contributed to the most recent spill and subsequent confusion.

In January, at a conference hosted by the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Wade said, “Now, not one activity occurs in that building without a review by my team and approval by me.” Wade said that he also has requested more manpower on the site to provide more oversight of day-to-day operations in the facility.

Miller said he is, at best, cautiously optimistic. His biggest concern is that the Navy’s legal team, which he said seems “committed to secrecy and obstruction, “ and JTF Red Hill’s leadership appear to be “on completely different pages, and it worries me how many other complete disconnects still exist in the Navy’s strategy to solve this crisis.”

Tanaka said, “Mismanagement and leadership failures have certainly been a problem at the Red Hill facility.” Further, “This facility has always leaked fuel and has always been a threat to our environment and our island, no matter who was in charge.”

As the Pentagon entrusts Wade with the defueling, the military now considers the Pacific its top-priority theater amid mounting tensions with China.

“There’s not a waking moment that I don’t think about the enormity of this mission, “ said Wade. “But I’m privileged to take it ... It’s so important—it’s my kuleana.”

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