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CAMP SENDAI, Japan — Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, who was born in Sendai, was not the only U.S. servicemember who had a homecoming at this year’s Yama Sakura exercise.

Born and raised in Tokyo, 1st Lt. Tomoaki Iishiba, an intelligence officer with I Corps, left Japan for the United States in 1993 with the goal of becoming a soldier.

“I grew up in the Cold War era,” he said, adding that growing up he felt that Japan had gotten too soft in its attempts to erase its militaristic stereotype from World War II.

“Growing up we were taught that the East was bad and the West was good,” Iishiba said. “My understanding was that the United States was the leader of the good guys.”

Iishiba attended the University of Northern Michigan, where he took Reserve Officer Training Corps courses. However, his hopes of becoming an officer took a back seat, because he wasn’t able to become a U.S. citizen right away. Instead, he enlisted in May 1999, choosing the infantry because, he said, “That’s the Army.”

In 2003, Iishiba deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was later contacted by a Japanese publisher who asked him if he would be interested in writing a book about the experience.

“I first checked if I could do it,” he said. He got approval and later wrote a second book, also in Japanese, about marksmanship with the M-4 rifle.

Iishiba said he has gotten several positive reactions about his books and that during Yama Sakura several Japanese servicemembers have approached him for autographs.

Iishiba said one Japanese noncommissioned officer told him his unit purchased the marksmanship book to use as a training aid.

While he enjoyed writing the two books and has become somewhat of a local celebrity — “I’m not like a movie star or anything” — he doesn’t plan on a career as a writer.

“(Writing the books) was long, like writing a super-long paper for school,” he said. “I just want to focus on doing my duty.”

In 2004, Iishiba became a U.S. citizen and finally received his commission. Now back in Japan for Yama Sakura, he said his understanding of both American and Japanese cultures has been beneficial in helping servicemembers from both countries interact.

“A lot of people from both countries come up to me,” he said. “I feel kind of like a funnel.”

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