A historic re-organization has occurred within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED).
Enacted by Col. Gary Bonham, JED’s commander, and approved by JED’s higher headquarters, USACE – Pacific Ocean Division (POD); the Programs and Project Management Division (PPMD) and Construction Division have restructured and realigned their respective workforces in order to meet the construction requirements of the ever-changing alliance between the U.S. and Japan, and to optimally shape JED into a more efficient district.
“The structure that we [previously used] to carry out our host nation program in the mainland was outdated. It reflected a time when there was a much different host nation program with a large facilities improvement program (FIP) and the Defense Policy Review Initiative (DPRI) program ongoing in Iwakuni,” said Bonham. “That is no longer the case, and we needed to alter our organization to reflect the current situation. This will be much easier to do with all of our host nation program falling under one branch focused on the host nation mainland program.”
PPMD’s re-structuring was a project more than three-years in the making – after the emergence of the Coronavirus in 2020, plans to streamline the division were put on hold in order to place safety first among JED’s team members.
“[The re-organization] was deemed necessary by Col. Bonham and I, as our offices in Okinawa began to progress and change from a largely U.S.-funded and Host-Nation (HN) branch into a more balanced model,” said Shelley Spayde, Deputy District Engineer for PPMD. “That [organization] model was wildly successful, and our goal has always been to give the best delivery of U.S and Host-Nation products that we can.”
Bonham and Spayde saw problems that needed attention and enlisted some help to put their plans into action. John Zambrano, the Honshu Host Nation Land Branch Chief and Cory Waki, the Navy, Marine Corps, DLA, Environmental Branch Chief, were brought into the fold to help lead their sections and assist in streamlining the process in which projects were managed, to establish a more linear chain-of-command.
“For a period of largely two-years, we were teleworking while still rotating personnel in-and-out of The District, while becoming less aware of some of the problems that needed attention,” explained Spayde. “Coming out of COVID, we wanted to re-focus our energies to make sure we were supporting our people in our U.S. and Host-Nation funded teams.”
Previously, branch chiefs held multiple responsibilities and balanced many plates, making lines of effort and reporting less than optimized, a problem that had been building in both Construction and PPMD.
Jim Wolff, JED’s Construction Division Chief, explained how his division’s layout has undergone changes, affecting performance over time.
“Originally, there was only one construction office dedicated to Host Nation work (Ryukyu Resident Office),” said Wolff. “As the program grew, the resident office continued to grow, add employees, and eventually became unwieldy (30+ people) for one supervisor.”
An issue, the JED’s commander assures, that has been fully rectified by breaking these divisions into smaller units under an area office structure, thereby creating focused teams and allowing for greater agility.
“This had resulted in a benign neglect of the host nation program on the mainland due to the very large size of our MILCON program in Japan as a whole, which the two branches are focused on vice the much smaller mainland host nation program,” Bonham offered. “As a result, our hard-working host nation PMs have not had the support they need and deserve to carry out their mission.”
Going forward, a designated representative will be selected for each project (either US or HN funded), creating continuity and providing oversight; thus, forging a stronger connection to ongoing processes, ensuring precise control over various domains.
“Among our many goals for this re-organization is to create a common pool of project management resources for our teams,” mentioned Waki. “The hope is to become more dynamic, to shift resources to meet project workloads while simultaneously standardizing some of our previously service-specific practices.”
Historically, as projects from various defense bureaus were received by JED, workloads would be given to those only working with specifically assigned armed service components. PPMD will look to standardize and evenly distribute the workload, providing new opportunities to those looking to tackle new projects in sectors and service components they previously might not have had the chance to work with.
“It’s a robust commitment and opportunity to better serve the alliance, to reinvigorate The District’s important role towards both maintaining and growing the alliance,” said Zambrano. “The Japanese word ‘kaizen 改善’ meaning ‘continuous improvement’ is our vision for this [re-structuring.]”
But despite the new restructuring of the two divisions, and the potential uneasiness of the big move, Spayde assures that none of her Engineers are in danger of being released or that job security is a concern.
“Redistribution of workload based on the needs of newly assigned projects will be the only thing we are looking at doing,” said Spayde. “The re-organization is really going to give the district a chance to focus stronger and build up subject matter experts.”
The same can be said for the reorganization of JED Construction side of the house as well. Wolff offered insight on how things will be shaped for his offices going forward.
“Work throughout JED Construction will not change in dramatic ways – no one’s job is in jeopardy,” Wolff emphatically states, admitting that the whole thing, although already in motion, is still somewhat taking form. “There are subtle changes coming to Construction Division on the mainland that will take about a year or so to roll out. Currently, Construction leadership is discussing what those changes should look like. We want to be sure to plan [those changes] for maximum effectiveness.”
Since 1945, where the roots in the military engineering mission in Japan began, though 1957, where JED became a separate entity from the Far East District (FED), and then finally in 1972 and beyond, where JED has continued to pave the way for U.S., military, and Host-Nation construction projects, one idea remains constant: The District is continuously evolving to deliver the capabilities needed by US Forces Japan in direct support of the alliance.
This realignment within PPMD and The District is only one of many steps into the future of what JED’s mission embodies – evolution through engineering.
“The reorganization within PPMD will allow us to have a much better focus on the host nation mainland program, ensuring the supervisors assigned to oversee our mainland host nation program managers are focused on only that program and give their full attention to it, ensuring that we properly resource our PMs with what they need in order to be successful,” said Bonham. “It will also allow us to make necessary adjustments to our mainland host nation program to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the program as it is today and adjust as needed in the future to best execute the program.
Gears grind with a metallic gnashing, as a plume of black smoke belches out the exhaust – the mechanical, skeleton-like arm slowly extending toward a mound of dirt as the piston pulls the bucket into the fresh earth. The Engineer, clad in the familiar U.S. Army gray, green, and tan, deftly maneuvers the excavator like a seasoned professional, every move deliberate, as he repositions the bucket for another dive.
Despite the appearance of having done this for years, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project Engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, experienced his first-time usage of heavy equipment, such as an excavator and steamroller, courtesy of his Japanese host nation teammates, the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF).
Recently, Gilbert had the opportunity to spend a week with the JGSDF at the 3rd company’s Eastern Army, Camp Asaka, located in the Nerima area of Tokyo, a quiet suburb just north of the mega-metropolis.
He was extended a special invite from the Bilateral Co-Op Program’s lead, Junko Akabane, and preparations were made for his 5-day-immersion into the world of the JGSDF.
“Akabane-san was an immense help in sorting out all of the logistical requirements, and my own chain-of-command is always so supportive of what I choose to do,” said Gilbert. “Everything was approved in a heartbeat, and I jumped right over as soon as I could.”
This was not Gilbert’s first foray into liaising with the JGSDF, however – he is a frequent participant of U.S. Army Japan’s (USARJ) Bilateral Co-Op Program, which pairs junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) with their foreign counterpart to enhance English and Japanese language comprehension skills, learn about each other’s cultures, familiarize themselves with their respective branches’ doctrines and techniques, all with the goal of strengthening the strategic alliance between America and Japan.
Held each quarter since 1995, the JGSDF has sent officers, ranging from 2nd lieutenants to captains, to live and work at Camp Zama for a period of 10-weeks during which they engage in on-the-job training, serve as interpreters, and in positions as instructors. Opportunities for spending time with their partner off-duty also allow for a more meaningful strengthening of bilateral ties.
For the Houston, Texas native, Gilbert was a fish-out-of-water – having not been to a JGSDF camp in this capacity, and without any sort of English-based assistance meant that ahead of him was a fast and frenetic week packed with activities he could have never anticipated. It was a crash course in Japanese culture, with all the military bearing and professionalism you would expect from the JGSDF, but not without some laughs along the way.
“The 3rd Company had me extremely busy during my week with them and having the opportunity to work with the JGSDF is always a pleasure,” Gilbert said. “We did everything from taiko drumming, to combat Kempo, and even got to experience my first handling of a bulldozer – being an engineer, that’s like a dream come true!”
Gilbert’s visit this time, however, was a special chance for an American Soldier to reverse roles and visit a JGSDF camp. He wouldn’t be alone though – guiding him would be a familiar face, his friend, and former Co-Op Program partner, 1st LT. Shinji Kohara, a platoon leader with the 1st Engineer Battalion, also stationed at Camp Asaka.
Andrew and Shinji spent 8 weeks together previously during the Fall-season iteration of the Co-Op Program.*
“It’s always great to be with Shinji,” Gilbert said, a smirk forming across his face. “We can exchange laughs, exchange doctrine, and talk about each other’s work with an understanding that [surpasses language borders.]”
Gilbert and Kohara, aside from being friends, also share very similar work responsibilities and roles. While Gilbert is now a project engineer working with civilians at The District, he used to be a platoon leader at an earlier assignment – something Lt. Kohara does now at Camp Asaka.
“Although JED has given me a great chance to work with some fantastic civilians, I sometimes miss working with Soldiers,” mentioned Gilbert. “That’s why it’s so great to talk shop with Shinji, because he still maintains that tactical engineer perspective of a platoon leader, which is the position I had at Ft. Bragg (Ft. Liberty).”
Starting bright and early Monday morning, Gilbert’s tour of Camp Asaka began with the military standard in-processing, with priority on making sure the JED lieutenant was settled in his quarters and checked-in with the JGSDF leadership.
“I met with the Soldiers in the 3rd company, met with the company commander, and the battalion staff, and was bombarded with questions,” said Gilbert. “They asked me everything from what my work culture is like at JED, to where I come from, and what hobbies I have.”
After a friendly interrogation and flurry of paperwork, Day 1 ended, and Gilbert returned to his hotel nearby to unwind.
Day 2, and the rest of the week by comparison, was much more action-packed – literally. A taiko drum demonstration, a martial arts exhibition, a base tour throughout, followed by a heavy equipment hands-on experience, and even a curry-cooking contest put the young engineer to the test, giving him a taste – literally and metaphorically, of what the JGSDF life was like.
“I got to break a sweat beating on some drums with the 3rd company, and afterward engaged in some Japanese Kempo, which is kind of like kickboxing with more bells and whistles.”
Kempo, a Japanese martial art, practiced wearing protective gear and gloves, allows full use of stand-up striking, throwing, and ground fighting. It is a staple martial art for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces training regiments.
Having previous boxing experience, Gilbert was confident in his skills – the additional advantage in height and weight only further boosted his confidence as he faced-off against his JGSDF counterparts in practice combat.
Although the statuesque American Soldier proved he could hold his own, the Japanese Kempo technicians on display managed to ground him a few times.
“One of their JGSDF members really rocked me with a kick,” Gilbert admitted. “I was on the floor seeing stars in my eyes, I probably looked like a character out of Looney Tunes, with the birds circling my head.”
After being tested in combat, Gilbert was provided an informational tour around Camp Asaka by bicycle, where the JGSDF showed him some of their emergency response exercises, which is the primary and among the most-active functions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.
In between events and tours, Gilbert, the lone American Solider on the Japanese base, answered questions and posed for pictures with members of the JGSDF, swapped military patches, and even spoke with the Ōme City Mayor, where he discussed recruiting initiatives for the JGSDF and U.S. Army, furthering the positive relationships the two military entities celebrate.
Finally getting to the most exciting part of his journey, JED’s young lieutenant was brought to Camp Asaka’s engineering dig site.
With two excavators, a bulldozer, and a crater, Gilbert, like a child in a toy store, could barely contain himself.
“They let me drive around some of their dig equipment for a little while,” Gilbert said, beaming. “The controls were so intuitive, and had some great teachers help me maneuver everything – it was an absolute blast.”
Gilbert rounded out his visit with a curry cookoff, where he was a guest judge, and assisted in the set-up and preparation for a local festival to be held that weekend before his hosts gave him some parting gifts and parted ways.
“It was a short amount of time and felt even shorter because of the number of activities we did and fun we had,” said Gilbert. “It was a good busy, and far and away the best activity I did was operating the dig equipment.”
Although 1st Lieutenant Gilbert is back on home turf here at Camp Zama, his trip to Camp Asaka is never too far from his mind.
“Embedding with the JGSDF at Camp Asaka was an experience I will never forget,” Gilbert reflected. “They really pulled out all the stops with welcoming me and teaching me about their engineering mission.”
Come June, he will relocate back to the United States for his next assignment, of which he is still unsure what it will be. What he does know, is that the memories he’s created in Japan, and with the JGSDF, will stay with him forever.
“My time in Japan has been an amazing chapter of my life, and I will leave here a better, more well-rounded person because of it,” Gilbert said.