National Guard Soldiers Train with Japanese Army

By 1st Lt. Rick Breitenfeldt, USA
Special to AFPS

Members of the 1st Battalion, 115th Brigade Infantry, 29th Infantry Division (Light), Maryland Army National Guard, travel across snow- covered northern Japan.

Photo by Master Sgt. Ronald Pitts, USA

ARLINGTON, Va., – As most Maryland residents put away their winter clothes and start their annual spring cleaning, 232 members of the Maryland Army National Guard packed their warmest winter gear and equipment and traveled halfway across the globe to participate in some extreme cold-weather training with Japan’s northern army.

Members of the 1st Battalion, 115th and 175th Brigades, 29th Infantry Division (Light) traveled to Hokkaido, Japan, on Feb. 12 to participate in a three-week bilateral training exercise with soldiers from the 11th Division, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.

Army Maj. Gen. Elbert N. Perkins, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, said the exercise, which is more commonly known as "Operation North Wind" provides U.S. forces a unique opportunity to exchange doctrinal concepts, skills, and knowledge as well as develop long-lasting personal friendships.

"The soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry come here with the greatest of enthusiasm and determination to not only train diligently with you, but also to embrace you in a professional friendship," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey A. Connelly, the battalion commander, as he addressed the Japanese soldiers.

Connelly stressed the importance of the two units not only training together in a joint environment, but also developing an understanding of each other’s culture and doctrine.

"Although the main focus of North Wind is on infantry tactics in a cold weather environment, I expect soldiers to mature in respect and understanding of other cultures as well," said Connelly.

In addition to lessons in cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, the Maryland soldiers brushed up on urban warfare training, air assault training, field medical training and various other combat-related tasks during the 20-day exercise.

In a region of Japan that averages a February temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit and receives measurable snowfall 24 out of 28 days, a special emphasis was placed on how to properly layer clothing and the effects of cold weather on weapons and other equipment, said Connelly, whose soldiers spent a majority of their days in Japan living in tents and fighting the harsh winter weather conditions.

Connelly said the first thing Maryland soldiers needed to learn was how to travel in a snow and ice environment.

After conducting the necessary stretching exercises and adjusting of their skis, expert skiers from Japan’s 11th Division, Northern Army Ground Self- Defense Force gave the Maryland soldiers instructions in ski basics at Camp Takikawa Ski Mountain.

"It’s a whole new game out here," said Spc. Hanlynn MaungMaung of Company B, 1st Battalion, 115th Brigade as the Japanese instructors taught the Maryland Guardsmen how to adjust their skis and execute basic ski movements such as standing and turning without falling. "The native soldiers are used to this, but we aren’t."

"I plan on falling a lot," said Sgt. Joey Bramande of Company A, 1st Battalion, 175th Brigade.

After stepping outside their comfort zone for a day or two, members of the Maryland Guard finally got their turn to conduct training for the Japanese soldiers.

Beginning with very specialized training in military operations on urbanized terrain, or MOUT, soldiers from the Maryland infantry units taught their Japanese counterparts many survival skills necessary on today’s modern battlefield.

"MOUT is a lot of work, but I like the intensity and speed," said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Browne, a platoon sergeant in Company C, 1st Battalion, 115th Brigade.

Browne said urban assault training like this really encourages everyone to use a lot of teamwork.

"Training like this is a whole new experience," said Spc. Anthony Higgins of Company A, 1st Battalion, 115th Brigade. "It really helps you adapt to a cold weather environment and get used to operating with cold weather equipment."

Members of the Maryland Guard infantry companies also spent time teaching live- fire assault tactics as well as familiarizing the Japanese soldiers with weapons systems such as the tube launched optically tracked, wire guided missile weapon system.

"Communicating is a little tough, but the Japanese soldiers are really receptive to what we have to teach," said Sgt. Douglas Clark, the squad leader for Company C, 1st Battalion, 115th Brigade.

"The Japanese are really motivated and really hungry to learn," Browne said. "They have picked up a lot, and quickly."

Connelly said that because the United States is deploying many National Guard units to Iraq, and Japan has pledged to aid in Iraq’s rebuilding, it is not unreasonable that the units might meet again and share in the same mission.

"The cold, mountainous climate of Hokkaido is very similar to environments where many Guard soldiers are deployed today, such as Afghanistan," said Connelly, adding that many soldiers today must work with coalition forces in multinational environments.

"We have to be ready for any future battlefield," said Connelly, "whether it is in snow or on sand."