U.S., Japan hold Yama Sakura exercise
JAPAN GROUND SELF-DEFENSE FORCE CAMP ASAKA, Japan — The annual Yama Sakura exercise, the weeklong bilateral training for U.S. and Japanese command and control elements, concluded here Saturday after seven days of managing warfighting assets and tactics.
About 1,200 U.S. servicemembers joined about 4,500 members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in this year’s computer-simulated scenario, which had U.S. and Japanese forces facing off against a fictional enemy force that had invaded Japan.
The American ranks were filled with active-duty soldiers, reservists, National Guardsmen and Marines. Their units included U.S. Army Pacific; U.S. Army Alaska; 29th Infantry Division; 94th Army Air Missile Defense Command; 8th Theater Sustainment Command; 18th Medical Command; 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade; and Army National Guard and Army Reserve commands.
Noticeably absent from Yama Sakura 2008 was I Corps — the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based command — which up until now had served as the main U.S. element in the annual exercise. This year, I Corps is preparing for a 2009 deployment to Iraq.
In its stead, U.S. Army Pacific — commanded by Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon — stepped in and assumed the role as the lead U.S. element alongside the JGSDF’s Eastern Army.
Under the U.S. Army’s transformation plan, which focuses on developing more operational capabilities among headquarters units, Mixon said, U.S. Army Pacific is in the early stages of forming two command posts — a main command post based in Hawaii and a deployable operational command post. He said Yama Sakura is the first time the two command posts have served as the main command and control elements in an exercise.
Being able to substitute one command element for another without too much trouble is one of the capabilities brought to the table by the Camp Zama, Japan-based I Corps (Forward), which was activated nearly a year ago.
"What if something did happen in the Far East? We can’t just say time out, I Corps isn’t here," said Maj. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, deputy commander of I Corps (Forward) and commander of U.S. Army Japan. "[I Corps (Forward)] is a forward deployed command and control post that anyone can plug into."
Also testing its forward deployable capabilities at Yama Sakura was the 8th Theater Support Command, led by Maj. Gen. Raymond V. Mason.
Activated only two years ago, the relatively new command serves as the Pacific theater’s Army supply and support command, he said, adding that Yama Sakura represented only the second time that the command deployed its forward command post for an exercise.
Sixty soldiers from the Fort Shafter, Hawaii-based unit were at Camp Asaka for this past week’s training.
"This has been an unbelievable week," Mason said, calling Yama Sakura one of 8th Theater Support Command’s key training events. "Sometimes we train, and it’s just us training, but this is everyone training at an army level."
This year’s exercise introduced several changes, the biggest of which was a bilateral after-action review.
"It’s a huge step forward," said Wiercinski, explaining that in the past, U.S. and Japanese participants didn’t do much sharing of the lessons they learned during the exercise.
In the after-action review, they sat down together and asked each other what they can do to improve in the future. Mixon said it "allows the JGDSF to experience the cornerstone of our evaluation process."
Added Mixon: "The important thing is to take the strengths of both and form a synergy."
Another change this year was the use of mentors by the JGSDF. Traditionally, the U.S. military has employed retired general officers to observe and provide direct feedback to commanders during and after an exercise, Mixon said, but this edition of Yama Sakura was the first time the Japanese have done it.
"They are like college professors," Mixon said of the observers.
Being able to train in realistic scenarios in a full-spectrum environment and test a unit’s operational capabilities is a vital part of Yama Sakura, Mixon said, but he was quick to point out that the event is first and foremost a bilateral exercise.
"From what I can see, the alliance is very strong and will continue to improve," he said. "I see a maturing relationship and [the two countries] continuing to train jointly."
Mixon stressed that situations in the Asia-Pacific theater are always changing and that maintaining that alliance and having trained and ready forces are essential to the stability of the region.
Pointing to the recent attack in Mumbai, India, Mixon said the U.S. Army Pacific recently conducted an exercise with India and envisions that the attacks will generate more counterterrorism training with them. He added that his command interfaces with more than 35 countries in the region at varied levels.
Medical precautions pay off big
CAMP ASAKA, Japan — At the annual Yama Sakura exercise here, it’s not just an exchange of ideas and cultures that takes place — there’s also an exchange of germs.
As about 1,200 U.S. troops from across the United States descended on Japan in the middle of December to work and live in close quarters and be exposed to a whole new set of germs, it seemed that a lot of exercise participants could potentially end up at sick call.
However, Yama Sakura medical personnel said, other than a few cases of the common cold, everybody stayed relatively healthy during the training that began Dec. 7 and concluded Saturday.
"We’re not seeing any flu," said Staff Sgt. Jeff McKinney, a medic with the Wyoming National Guard.
McKinney said flu shots were mandatory for all active-duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel.
"Basically, before you come to something like this, you’ve got to clear medical," he said.
All Camp Zama, Japan, soldiers had their shots before arriving, said Sgt. Pirun Mom, assigned to Medical Department Activity-Japan.
Mom said the medical staff went on the offensive to combat any illnesses that occurred during the exercise.
"We had as much over-the-counter meds on hand as possible," he said, adding that they also had morning and afternoon sick calls.
In addition, multiple quarantine rooms were in place to isolate any outbreaks, McKinney said.
"There haven’t been any trends as far as illness spreading," said Sgt. Marques Walker, a Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine-Pacific soldier from Camp Zama.
Walker conducted health inspections of the living quarters and other facilities during the exercise. He said his unit tested both the water and air quality before and during the exercise and checked food production facilities to inspect food quality.
"Everything here has actually been pretty good," Walker said, attributing the success to the preparedness of the medical staff and hard work by the contracted cleaning and sanitation staff. "The contractors have been doing a really good job, which made my life a whole lot easier."