Marines eager to help, moved by experience
The herculean efforts over the past two and a half weeks by U.S. military forces in Japan to assist that government’s response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami relief efforts are being widely acknowledged and increasingly being reported now, but what is sometimes missing are the personal stories of those involved in the operations.
As readers know, there are hundreds of U.S. military and civilian personnel on the ground in the affected region delivering relief supplies, operating equipment, removing debris, coordinating and providing subject matter expertise — and thousands more throughout Japan, who are involved in the planning and other rear-area support. It would be impossible in a short commentary to describe each and every one, but I would like to provide a snippet of stories through individuals I met during my two weeks in Sendai during the first stages of Operation Tomodachi, the name given to describe the American contribution to the relief efforts.
Within minutes of the earthquake on Friday, March 11, III Marine Expeditionary Force stood up its Crisis Action Cell to monitor the situation and initiate planning for a response in the event the Japanese government requested support for this complex emergency. These efforts were replicated among the other U.S. military services here in Japan. The movement of equipment and forces northward began shortly after this.
Col. Craig Q. Timberlake, commander, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, departed for Yokota Air Base the next day. The following day, he was already in the air surveying the affected area as his larger staff, including me as his political adviser, assembled.
Upon his return to the headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan, he told us what he saw and what he thought the mission would be, and told his newly formed staff: “I play football and sometimes communicate with sports analogies. We have assembled a great team, a great staff — everyone knows his role and mission. You may not know all of each other yet, so we are like a pickup team. But we will win this game.” Timberlake was a quarterback, running back and cheerleader in one.
Crises, especially of this magnitude, are difficult to plan for, and we were not 100 percent sure what we were getting into. Indeed, for the Japanese side, under whom we worked, it was their first time to create a Joint Task Force combined of their three services — the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces.
“Our team will forge new history as we assist the Self-Defense Forces in their support to their people,” Col. Christopher Coke, a pilot who was serving as the calm and capable chief of staff of the MEB, explained to the gathered staff before we left Yokota.
We might not have known what exactly we were getting into, but their boss, Maj. Gen. Mark A. Brilakis, knew in any case that the Marines were capable of responding. “The Marines are good at this stuff,” he told me.
Even my experiences in the Kobe earthquake could not compare to what I saw in Sendai and the outlying areas in Miyagi prefecture, the hardest-hit of the area. I know the Marines I was with were personally affected by what they saw too, but they were certain of their abilities in light of what they have been through in the past. One comment by a young Marine officer quickly put things into perspective: “Sir,” 1st Lt. Micah Hudson said to me when we were walking, “at least we are not being shot at.”
The day after our arrival in Sendai, we met with airport officials to discuss how to get the airfield open again, and the next day, special operations forces of the U.S. Air Force arrived and began to assist in air traffic control and other operations. I visited Sendai Airport almost daily and saw it quickly come back to life. During one of my visits there to make sure some commercial forklifts had arrived to help with unloading supplies in the early days after the runway was reopened, I spoke with 2nd Lt. Breanne Hapken, the S-4 officer of the Combined Arms and Training Center at Camp Fuji, who was there to assist in the airport operations.
“This is what I joined the Marine Corps for,” she told me as we were walking through the debris and looking at the work that still needed to be done.
Her comment made me tear up thinking about the young men and women who join the military. It also resonated with me, as I had left my tenured position at a Japanese university in 2009 to also “join” the Marines.
On my last trip to Sendai Airport in order to depart for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (via Yokota and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni), after nearly two weeks in the area, I stopped to say goodbye to Col. Dwayne Lott, the Air Force commander at Sendai. He was beaming at the progress that had been made to date, and told me, “This may be the greatest experience of my entire military career.”
I am certain his feelings are echoed by many, if not all, the U.S. forces — military and civilian alike from all services — who have been privileged and honored to help our ally Japan in its time of sorrow and need.
Robert D. Eldridge is deputy assistant chief of staff of the Community Policy, Planning, and Liaison Office at Marine Corps Bases Japan. He assisted in Operation Tomodachi in Miyagi prefecture.