Friendship shines after Okinawa crash

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. James B. Hecker
  • 18th Wing Commander
As readers know, at approximately 4 p.m. on Aug. 5, a U.S. Air Force helicopter, an HH-60G belonging to the 33rd Rescue Squadron, crashed deep inside the Central Training Area in Okinawa Prefecture. Emergency search and rescue personnel from the USAF and U.S. Marine Corps responded immediately to rescue the downed crew and contain the fire. Three of the four crew members were rescued and treated by medical personnel at the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa.

The following day, human remains were found at the crash site. On Aug. 9, after assessing the evidence from the crash site, we made the difficult decision to declare the fourth crew member, Technical Sgt. Mark A. Smith, deceased.

Fortunately, no one else was injured in the crash, especially our good neighbors here in Okinawa. This was a truly tragic event, and we deeply regret any anxiety it has caused locally and throughout Japan. In both of our communities -- civilian and military -- an accident of this nature is of concern and we take it seriously. We appreciate the understanding of the people and their elected local, prefectural, and national representatives as we ascertain the facts behind the crash.

We were especially appreciative of the outpouring of support we received from local citizens in the hours and days after the crash. As you can imagine, the colleagues, leadership, friends, and families of the crew members have been personally affected by this tragedy, and we are truly grateful for the similar expressions of sympathy from many of you. In fact, we have received an overwhelming show of support from citizens throughout Japan, both in Okinawa and from the mainland.

In just the past few days, we've received 125 emails from kind strangers expressing their condolence and support during this difficult time. The headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan, located at Yokota Air Base, also received thousands of messages on Twitter. The Japanese community has purposefully reached out to us to honor those involved in this accident. One gentleman even made a memorial message on YouTube to express his sentiment to the families of those affected by this accident.

As has become public knowledge, the unit involved in the accident was in fact the same unit that launched five HH-60s and 51 rescue personnel in less than three hours of the tsunami hitting the Tohoku area in the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, participating in what later became known as Operation Tomodachi. The unit flew 55 missions and logged 310 flight hours supporting our Japanese brothers and sisters in the disaster area. They helped to deliver about 1.4 tons of food, water and medical supplies to the locations that needed them.

The crew members involved in the accident train daily to purposefully go into harm's way in the most dangerous of environments, whether that be delivering supplies in a ravaged disaster area, rescuing a fishing crew caught in a dangerous storm, or recovering a wounded ally under enemy heavy fire in a warzone. They train to do these perilous missions so "that others may live." They are all highly trained, highly decorated, yet very humble. It was on such a training mission that the aircraft in question crashed.

As a result of the unfortunate accident, we began an immediate stand-down of the unit to conduct a thorough safety inspection. Each operational HH-60 on station was inspected three times by increasingly experienced maintainers (journeyman, craftsman, quality assurance specialists) before being cleared. e total inspection time was 96 hours, during which 196 items were inspected three different times by these increasingly skilled maintainers. In addition, each of the 60 air crew members of the unit received an additional three-hour refresher training of the key tactical skills necessary to conduct the training that had been planned for that day.

After completing these very thorough additional measures, we made the decision to resume HH-60 flights from the 18th Wing on Aug. 16, in order to fulfill our continued commitment to the mutual defense of Japan and ensure the professional rescue capability they provide remain available to respond in the event of any emergency.

We work to determine what caused the accident in an effort to maximize the safety of both the community and our personnel in the future. With your continued support and blessings, we will also continue to train rigorously and preserve peace and stability in the East Asia region. We remain absolutely committed to the defense of Japan, our ally and more importantly, our friend. This tragedy has truly shown us what friendship is all about and we thank you for your understanding.

(Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from The Yomiuri Shimbun)