Anchored in Japan
Sailors with Forward Deployed Naval Forces Share Why they Chose to Make Japan Home Again and Again
Sharon Canales, chief logistics specialist on USS Benfold (DDG 65), remembers feeling scared when she first moved to Yokosuka from San Diego six years ago.
Canales, then a petty officer second class, had never lived or worked in a foreign country before. She didn't know a soul in Japan. Canales also made her first international move alone with two kids because her husband, who is also in the U.S. Navy, wouldn't be able to join them for a few months.
Ultimately, Canales said the move to U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka ended up benefiting her both personally and professionally, and she was inspired to stay for three tours.
“We're able to travel more than when we were back in the United States, more family time, and then, indeed, progress both of our careers,” said Canales. She and her husband both made the rank of chief petty officer at the same time last year.
Thousands of Sailors agree. They want to stay in the country for consecutive tours or, in some cases, return after a tour elsewhere.
In fact, as of Sept. 30, nearly half of the 17,398 Sailors currently serving with Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) in Japan have done multiple tours there. Specifically, 5,498 Sailors have done back-to-back tours in Japan and 2,968 Sailors have served multiple times in the country with breaks in between, according to the Navy's Military Community Management Metrics and Analysis Branch, which looked at each Sailor's seven previous assignments.
The reasons for serving multiple tours with FDNF Japan vary, according to Sailors.
To be sure, there is a lot going on in the FDNF. But Fire Controlman (Aegis) Senior Chief Mark Ladi, who has served four tours in Japan, said the fast pace means FDNF Japan Sailors get more experience working with their equipment.
“It does make your technicians a lot stronger and a lot more knowledgeable because they do experience the trouble-shooting, the fixing and the watch standing over and over,” said Ladi, who is currently with USS Shiloh (CG 67).
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class David Rathbone, who is on his third tour in Japan and works at Fleet Activities Yokosuka's Port Operations, agrees.
“I feel like I've learned more about my rate and being forward deployed in Japan in five years, than I learned in all the time I had been in Norfolk, Virginia, just because you're it. You're the only person that you can count on for help,” he said, noting that his line of work may be contracted out stateside. “So you really have to dig into the tech manuals and do most of your own work. There is a lot of sense of pride and accomplishment for what you can do out here.”
The professional benefits of working for FDNF Japan are not just anecdotal, either. They're statistical.
Sailors at FDNF Japan have advanced at a higher rate than Sailors elsewhere in the world since 2013, according to the Naval Education and Training Professional Development Center.
This advantage is reflected in each enlisted pay grade from E-3 (seaman) to E-9 (master chief). The most prominent advantage appears to be for Sailors advancing to E-4 (third class). In the September 2017 cycle, for example, 55 percent of Japan FDNF Sailors advanced to E-4 compared to 41 percent of other Navy Sailors.
“Personally, I think 7th Fleet Sailors are heads and tails above the rest,” said Lt. Krista Gadarowski of USS Stethem (DDG 63), explaining that they're good at acclimating to changing schedules and experienced at working with allies in the Indo-Pacific region thanks to yearly exercises.
“Our Sailors are used to that changing schedule,” she said. “It's a double-edged sword, but it wouldn't be a huge jump for them to do that and fulfill the mission that we are out here to do for America. I would trust a 7th Fleet Sailor above any other, basically every time.”
Of course, there are other reasons Sailors may want to drop anchor in Japan and stay awhile.
“The reason I've been here so long is that I love to travel,” said Ladi, who, over the past 13 years, has served at U.S. Naval Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) and now Shiloh. “Being in Japan on all the ships I've been out to here has allowed me to travel to Guam, Singapore, China, Thailand, Australia and Korea. Traveling is one of my big hobbies.”
Japan is also well worth exploring. From its futuristic cityscapes like Tokyo and Osaka zipping with bullet trains and twinkling with neon lights to its scores of historic shrines and temples that have drawn visitors for centuries, Sailors can always find something new to do even after multiple tours here.
“On a weekly basis, I'm trying to do local trips,” said Gadarowski, who has explored places both near base such as the mountains of Hakone and caves near Mt. Fuji to cities farther away such as Kyoto and Hiroshima during her two tours in Japan.
Besides travel, Sailors say tasting Japanese food has proved to be among the most memorable of experiences.
“My very first time stepping foot into a real ramen shop was one of the coolest things I had ever done,” said Electronics Technician 2nd Class Matthew Ford of the Shiloh, who is serving his second tour here. He recalled the vending machine order system and the slurping sounds from fellow patrons enjoying their meals. “Sometimes I do enjoy me a good bowl of (microwaved) Top Ramen, but nothing will ever compare to handmade Japanese ramen.”
Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Tramain White of Yokosuka's Port Ops, who took Japanese language classes in high school long before joining the Navy, says exploring the country gives him a chance to practice his language skills.
“I am able to practice the Japanese language and they seem to understand me pretty well, and I end up learning new words in the process,” said White, who is currently serving his second tour in Japan, and has explored Sasebo, Hokkaido, Osaka and Kyoto. “It makes the whole experience even more interesting."
Missing family and friends back home is a given. But base amenities such as free Wi-Fi and a U.S. post office make it easier to stay connected.
“My goddaughters Leslie and Evelyn, they love Japanese candy,” said Ship's Serviceman 2nd Class Jonathan Goulsby of USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), who is on his second tour in Japan. “I mail them a box of those, random flavors. They try those and I get back artwork and pictures that I can hang on my fridge.”
Luis Ubiera Ortiz, a gas turbine systems technician (mechanical) 2nd class, says his shipmates aboard the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) helped him when he first moved out to Japan at the tender age of 19. “I do believe the people you work with, your family ... they'll take care of you,” he said “That's what made it worthwhile to transition from A-school to 7th Fleet.”
Ubiera Ortiz, who served five years in Japan before returning stateside, is back now on USS Stethem. Having spent his formative years as an adult in Japan, Ubiera Ortiz says “Japan is home,” and once stateside -- a period of time he enjoyed -- he still felt like he needed to go back.
“I felt like I didn't see everything,” he said. “A piece of me was still missing that I needed to come back for.”