News | May 25, 2021

Engineering Friendships Under Fuji

By Charles Maib Japan Engineer District

It’s the morning of May 14, a Friday. Along the base of Mt. Fuji, members of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force Central Readiness Regiment Engineer Company convoy their way up the mountain, kicking up clouds of dust as they slowly snake through the trees and exposed volcanic rock. Suddenly, the lead vehicle brings the team to a halt. Something just isn’t right. The team exits their vehicle and they begin to scan the area, looking for things that seem out of place or suspicious. This area had been cleared of possible improvised explosive devices the day before, but the members are aware that the area could have been compromised in the time between then and now.
 

Their search for possible IEDs soon runs them into a mob of angry locals who aggressively let the team know that they don’t appreciate their presence. Someone in the mob fires a gun into the air, and the company works quickly to try and deescalate the situation. Unfortunately this has drawn their attention away from their vehicles, which are now all unmanned. If a local were to hop in and drive off, there would be serious consequences.

Not too far away, Col. Thomas J. Verell, Jr., commander of Japan Engineer District, intently watches the unfolding situation.

“The teaching point that they’re going through right now is probably more beneficial than doing it perfect right away,” he remarks to the Japanese officer standing beside him. That man is Maj. Tanaka Hiroaki, Engineering company commander for the CRR. “I’ve always found that you learn more from your mistakes than from doing it right. This is why we train.”

Tanaka has invited a team of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—JED officers to observe, remark, and take part in a United Nations exercise taking place at Kita Fuji, a JGSDF training facility located on the slopes of one of the world’s most famous mountains.

“We wanted to become more proficient in our roles regarding counter IED operations and FOB (Forward Operating Base) construction. JED’s officers all have real-world experience with these things from time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tanaka said as the group neared an explosive ordnance team that had moved into position along the route. “We have them here to pick their brains.”

The JGSDF members have spent quite a lot of time at the base of Fuji, setting a perimeter, constructing a working FOB, even making and paving roads.

“This area is a lot like our Joint Readiness Training Center or National Training Center that we send Soldiers to as they prepare to deploy,” noted Maj. Bobby Johnson, JED deputy commander, referencing America’s massive training areas in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Irwin, California. “But it’s different because this place is beautiful.”

A buzzing sound drew the Johnson’s attention overhead.

“They pulled out a drone… that’s impressive! I wasn’t expecting them to be using that technology,” exclaimed Johnson as the tiny robot surveyed the scene, looking for signs of the enemy and possible dangers up ahead.

As the group moved from the field to the FOB, Capt. William Barlaan, JED operations officer, pointed out the novel use of CONEX, or military shipping containers.

“It’s great to see them adapting and then using things like these CONEX(s) to create an inner barrier to protect from small-arms fire,” Barlaan said as the team was led to the Tactical Operations Center.

Here, Verell takes on an additional duty for the day, that of a role player in the exercise. He becomes dual-hatted, commanding both JED in the real world and now the fictitious area “Section 2 ” of the JGSDF scenario. After receiving a briefing on the current situation, asking some questions and giving some advice, it was off to see the rest of the operating base; a tour given personally by Col. Yamada Norizaku, CRR’s commanding officer.

“I’m glad that we could finally get out to one of the training events that you do…especially with COVID. I am very impressed with everything that I have seen,” Verell complimented Yamada and his group at the end of the tour.

“It was a great opportunity. After speaking with [Maj. Tanaka] two or three times it was great to see him taking some of the advice we gave him on creating a defensive posture; specifically in a peace-keeping mission,” added Barlaan.

“Maj. Tanaka ask some questions of us before the exercise,” Johnson explained as the two groups of JGSDF engineers compared notes on the partner nation’s tactics and procedures. “Me, being an engineer, coming up mostly in combat situations, (and) Col. Verell having that kind of background as well… they did pose some questions to us and we felt that they built on our advice pretty well.”

For Verell, this exercise is bittersweet as his time in Japan is coming to an end and soon he will pass the baton of leadership to a new commander, who will lead JED from where he left off. Although he’s moving on to the next chapter of his career, part of his heart will always be with JED and his host country of Japan.

“I have loved my time as a commander. It has been incredible. I am going to be changing commands in July,” Verell told the CRR leadership as they said their goodbyes. “I am sure the next JED commander is not only going to maintain this relationship but improve it…it’s great when these relationships can transcend movements between the organization’s leaders.”

Today’s exercise, the time that Verell has spent in Japan, and everything that JED has work towards in the Land of the Rising Sun is built on the foundation of relationships. Something not lost on the officers at JED.