By Scott Prater
Tech. Sgt. Rodney Hamilton recalls the afternoon of March 11, 2011, with perfect clarity. It was his birthday, but that’s not the only reason it’s clear to him. That afternoon he was driving home from work at Misawa Air Base, Japan, when he witnessed the awesome power of nature.
A magnitude 9.03 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan with full force; the earthquake was the most powerful in Japan’s recorded history. It killed more than 15,000 people, destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings and left millions without power and water.
Hamilton would spend the next few months assisting the Japanese population in relief and recovery efforts, but few people know members of the 1st Space Operations Squadron also assisted the Japanese people in an effort known as Operation Tomodachi.
In recognition of these efforts, the Japanese government hosted a U.S.-Japan friendship reception, known as the Kizuna Project Friday at Littleton High School in Littleton, Colo. The event included special recognition for U.S. military personnel who participated in the operation. The Consulate General of Japan and a group of high school students from Sendai, Japan, who survived the disaster, were on hand to express their gratitude
Hamilton, now part of the 4th Space Operations Squadron, attended along with several members of the 1st and 7th Space Operations Squadrons.
While it was easy for survivors to understand the work Hamilton and his fellow Misawa Airmen performed, it wasn’t the case for the 1 and 7 SOPS members.
Specifically, teams with 1 and 7 SOPS used Tactical Satellite-3 collected time-critical, hyper-spectral imagery of the disaster area in Japan. These images provided unfettered overhead access to areas contaminated by damaged nuclear reactors, so relief agencies could have situational awareness even in the most dangerous locations.
A group of Schriever Airmen attended the Friday ceremony in uniform, including Capts. Joshua Carlson, Justin Fernandez, James Massey and Tim Newell as well as 1st Lt. Elizabeth DeJesus and Master Sgt. Herb Mosier.
“Most of the attendees had no idea what we did in the operation, but Navy Capt. Jeff Davis spoke to the crowd [in Japanese] and informed them about our work with TacSat-3,” Mosier said. “I think he did a great job of relaying the work we did as part of the recovery efforts.”
That knowledge was not lost on Hamilton who said that at the time of the disaster he was unaware of how people were getting accurate information.
“I’ll be honest, I was there, and we had no communication,” he said. “There were no electronics and nothing worked. I was wondering how people were learning where to go and where not to go. Now, I can see how these guys [1 and 7 SOPS members] were providing critical imagery. I thought people were just making a guess as to how far to stay away.”
Carlson said the Friday ceremony was more than just a recognition event.
“It was also a cultural exchange,” he said. “We heard speeches from appreciative community leaders. We heard stories from Littleton High School kids who were exchange students to Japan. We learned of exchange teachers who lost their lives and we heard stories from earthquake and tsunami survivors.”
Japanese leaders relayed information on how the communities are in the midst of healing, and how they’ve been forced to adapt to changing conditions.
“It was interesting to learn how they had to rethink their farming methods,” Massey said. “The salt water from the tsunami flooded the area, not only destroying crops but spoiling farm land.”
Mosier was pleasantly surprised by the event.
“I actually went in with low expectations,” he said. “I thought this was something I should do, but I left with a new level of appreciation for the entire event. The cultural exchange portion was eye opening, the level of curiosity and appreciation everyone demonstrated made for a unique experience. The entire event was incredibly interesting.”