2005 in review, Okinawa: From fighting wars to taking part in disaster relief, an eventful year
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — For Okinawa troops, what Charles Dickens might have called the “worst of times” bookended 2005. They began the year hustling to South Asia to help recovery efforts after a massive tsunami decimated the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. They ended it by flying to earthquake-devastated Pakistan in November.
As 2004 ended, Okinawa units were completing emergency relief work in the Philippines after a typhoon and two tropical storms killed more than 800 people.
More than 600 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade members were looking forward to returning to Okinawa. Instead, they were asked to spearhead tsunami humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The III Marine Expeditionary Force was tapped to lead the U.S. military’s effort to help the hundreds of thousands of people injured and left homeless by the Dec. 26 earthquake that spawned the deadly tsunami.
Here’s what happened next:
Notable individual tsunami relief efforts also spring up. In just four days, people on Okinawa donate 40,000 pounds of clothing, food and other items in a drive sponsored by base chapels.
The U.S.-Japan Joint Committee approves construction of a new U.S. Naval Hospital on Camp Foster by 2009. It will be 55 percent larger than the current one on Camp Lester and will enable the return of some 200 acres of Camp Lester to Okinawa landowners.
Dag Allen Thompson, 31, an Exchange New Car Sales employee, pleads not guilty in Naha General District Court on two charges each of burglary and rape. Arrested Oct. 15, 2004, he was accused of raping a Chatan woman in her home Aug. 22. Prosecutors said his DNA also matched that taken from a June 1998 Naha rape scene. At year’s end, he remains in the Naha Detention Center as his trial slowly winds toward conclusion.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service announces its midgrade gas prices will decrease from $1.99 to $1.96 per gallon, beginning a year of roller-coaster fluctuations as AAFES tries to keep pace with U.S. pump prices. This also is the first full year AAFES adjusts gas prices monthly in Japan, not yearly. In another pricing change, AAFES eliminates monthly coupons and takes 25 cents off the price of every gallon starting in June. AAFES increases midgrade unleaded fuel prices 10 cents a gallon on March 1 and another 21 cents on May 1. In September, AAFES insulates Pacific motorists from stateside fuel prices soaring to over $3.10 a gallon, but on Oct. 4, AAFES hikes its price 47 cents per gallon, citing its cost increases. Then, on Dec. 1, AAFES drops prices as much as 28 cents a gallon.
The body of Seaman Adam J. Palecco, 21, a Navy dental technician, is found in a Camp Hansen drainage tunnel, stabbed repeatedly and partially decapitated. An investigation leads to the arrest of three other dental techs at the Camp Hansen Dental Clinic and a Marine lance corporal. They’re accused of killing Palecco to stop him from telling authorities what he knew of a shoplifting ring. In June, Seaman Robert L. Person Jr., 19, and Seaman Tiffany Brooks, 21, are sentenced respectively to 60 and 65 years in prison for their part in the slaying. Seaman Audley Evans II, 20, characterized as the ringleader, pleads guilty at a September court-martial and is sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole or clemency for 40 years. Evans’ girlfriend, Lance Cpl. Jesika I. Jenkins, 20, is sentenced in August to four years in prison for her role in the crime. All four are given dishonorable discharges.
The 2,200-member 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit turns over its area of responsibility in Iraq’s western Anbar province and starts its return to Okinawa. It was assigned various missions in the 33,000-square-mile area including providing security and assistance for Iraq’s first free elections, training Iraqi security forces and conducting operations against insurgents. The unit lands on Okinawa on April 2 after a seven-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq.
More than 60 U.S. veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima and a handful of their Japanese counterparts returned to Iwo Jima to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end the landmark World War II battle.
As top U.S. defense and state department officials meet with Japanese counterparts to rework the U.S.-Japanese military alliance, Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine travels to Washington, D.C., to lobby for removing all Marines from the island. He says the proposed realignment of U.S. troops overseas would be a good time to make comprehensive changes to the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa, where more than half of the U.S. troops in Japan are based.
In talks after the August 2004 crash of a Marine helicopter on an Okinawa university campus, Japan and the United States agree to give Japanese officials more control of off-base U.S. military crash sites. The move comes after Okinawa officials complained Marines barred local firefighters and police from the crash site.
More than a year of legwork by two Marines on Okinawa leads to indicting 13 cargo handlers accused of running a San Francisco postal theft ring.
Almost 24,000 people surround Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a 6.8-mile human chain, to demand its closure. The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the base within seven years once an alternate Okinawan site was found. A Henoko site later was chosen but protests and construction delays stalled the project.
A Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle experiences a mechanical problem and sinks off Camp Schwab’s coast. The four crewmembers escape with minor injuries. A commercial contractor recovers the 46,000-pound, $42.3 million vehicle a month later; it’s taken to Camp Schwab for repairs and further investigation.
Okinawa police take Air Force Staff Sgt. Armando Valdez, 27, into custody on suspicion of molesting an elementary school girl in Okinawa City, sparking strong condemnation from both Japanese and U.S. military leaders. The alcohol-related crime, plus a rise in drunken-driving incidents, leads to a brief Kadena Air Base blanket curfew for servicemembers and civilians, ending with a new Air Force liberty-card program aimed mainly at junior airmen. Valdez pleads guilty; in November, a Japanese court sentences him to 18 months of hard labor, suspended for four years.
The U.S. Army begins live-fire training at its new urban-warfare complex on Camp Hansen’s Range 4, drawing strong protests from local officials and residents. Residents of the Igei’s Kin district, about 328 yards from the facility, had staged protests at Camp Hansen’s main gate since construction of the Army-funded $3.8 million facility began in May 2004. Bowing to public pressure, the Japanese government decides in May to pay to replace the new complex in a more remote location. But until it’s completed, the Range 4 facility will be used.
Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Bases Japan, temporarily turns over his duties to two on-island brigadier generals. Leaving Okinawa after two years, Blackman heads to Norfolk, Va., where he becomes Marine Corps Forces Atlantic commander. On Aug. 2, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Weber assumes command of the III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Bases Japan.
Okinawa police report the number of serious crimes committed by Americans affiliated with the U.S. military on Okinawa continues its downward trend. U.S. and Japanese officials attribute the decrease to the liberty-card programs for servicemembers on the island.
The United States and Japan release a report on realigning U.S troops in Japan. It proposes a substitution for the stalled MCAS Futenma replacement project in Henoko: building a smaller facility on Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in adjacent Oura Wan Bay. The report draws immediate opposition from Okinawa officials, despite also calling for moving III MEF’s headquarters element to Guam and closing some Marine bases in southern Okinawa.
After more than a week of preparation, III Marine Expeditionary Force Marines and sailors leave Okinawa on a humanitarian relief mission to earthquake-shattered Pakistan. More than 200 Marines and sailors with the 3rd Marine Logistics Group and a 3rd Medical Battalion surgical company remain there at year’s end.
An Okinawa-based Marine dies and four are injured after a 7-ton truck overturns during a convoy training exercise at Camp Fuji on Japan’s mainland.