Face of Defense: Airman Aids Japan Recovery Effort
By Air Force Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
SENDAI, Japan, April 11, 2011 A little more than 14 years ago, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Fletcher, who then held the rank of airman basic, was lost on the streets of Tokyo.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Fletcher sits on a forklift at Sendai Airport, Japan, March 20, 2011. Fletcher is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 353rd Special Operations Group's air transportation team. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It was the first weekend of Fletcher’s first week at his first assignment in Japan at Yokota Air Base.
Fletcher said two Japanese couples observed his predicament and escorted him to the correct train, and then rode with him all the way to Yokota.
When Fletcher tried to pay his newfound Japanese friends for their time and kindness, he recalled, they said they were just happy to speak English with someone and were happy to help.
Fletcher said that’s when he decided Japan would be a good place to be stationed.
"I've been in love with Japan ever since," he said.
Fletcher is an air transportation specialist with the 353rd Special Operations Group based at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Now, he's deployed to Sendai Airport, where he oversees cargo-loading operations with a four-person crew.
Fletcher and his team are supporting Operation Tomodachi, the relief effort that’s aiding the Japanese people following the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Fletcher was part of the initial team sent here to help the Japanese recover and reopen the airport.
Since Fletcher and his crew arrived, he said, air transporters have unloaded millions of pounds of water, food, blankets and other relief supplies, in addition to all of the equipment they needed to keep their part of the operation going.
"This is the kind of thing most of us joined the Air Force to do," Fletcher said. "I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. We were told the Japanese people needed help, and well, they helped me the first week I lived here. Of course I want to do whatever I can to give back."
Fletcher and his team live in the airport’s passenger terminal along with scores of airmen, soldiers and Marines also supporting the relief mission. The group has an electric generator to run the computers needed for air traffic control and cargo shipment manifests.
There's little to no heat in the building, Fletcher said, so the days and nights are cold.
"It's freezing in the terminal, but at least I have a roof over my head," he said. "We see it snowing outside and realize that we're the lucky ones. We've heard there are half-a-million people displaced, out of their homes and living in shelters.
“So it's cold, but it could be a lot worse," he added.
The Japanese people’s strength, kindness and generosity greatly impresses U.S. service members involved in Operation Tomodachi, Fletcher said.
"One day, a Japanese man came all the way out here with a big bag of apples, just to thank us for what we were doing,” Fletcher recalled. “That was the first fresh fruit any of us had had in eight days. I swear that was the best apple I'd ever tasted. I ate everything down to the seeds."
Fletcher said he and his crew are optimistic and focused on the task at hand.
"Every time the back of a plane opens up and it's a pallet of water, I can say for a fact, 'Somebody needs that,'” Fletcher said. “So when we get supplies off a C-130 and onto a helicopter, we know this whole thing is for a good cause.
"If I retired today, this would be the highlight of my career," he said.