Special ops port dog keeps Operation Tomodachi relief aid flowing at Sendai Airport

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
A little more than 14 years ago, Tech. Sgt. Michael Fletcher -- an Airman basic at the time -- was lost on the streets of Tokyo. It was the first weekend of his first week at his first assignment, Yokota Air Base.

Two Japanese couples saw the confused young Airman and helped him get home. Rather than merely giving him directions, they gladly escorted him to the right train and rode with him the whole way back to Yokota. When he tried to pay them for their time and kindness, they were just happy to speak English with someone and that they were happy to help. That's when Sergeant Fletcher decided Japan would be a pretty good place to be stationed.

"I've been in love with Japan ever since," the Gun Barrel City, Texas, native said.

Sergeant Fletcher is an air transportation craftsman with the 353rd Special Operations Group stationed at Kadena Air Base, Japan. He's currently forward deployed to Sendai Airport, however, where he oversees cargo loading with four other "port dogs."

Airmen at Sendai Airport are supporting Operation Tomodachi, the overall relief effort to aid the Japanese people in the wake of the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami March 11. Sergeant Fletcher was part of the initial team sent to help the Japanese recover and reopen the airport.

Since they arrived, air transporters have unloaded millions of pounds of water, food, blankets and other relief supplies in addition to all 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," Sergeant 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."

Giving back has meant Sergeant Fletcher and his team live in the passenger terminal with the scores of Airmen, Soldiers and Marines supporting the mission. The team has a single generator to run all the computers needed for air traffic control and cargo shipment manifests. It means there's no heat in the building, so the days are cold. The nights are colder.

"It's freezing in the terminal, but at least I have a roof over my head," Sergeant Fletcher said. "We see it snowing outside and realize that we're the lucky ones. We've heard there's like half a million people displaced, out of their homes and living in shelters. So it's cold, but it could be a lot worse."

The small pleasures in life keep Sergeant Fletcher and his crew going.

"There was this one day," he said, "a Japanese man came all the way out here with a big bag of apples, just to thank us for what we were doing. That was the first fresh fruit any of us had had in eight days, so I swear, that was the best apple I'd ever tasted. I ate everything down to the seeds."

Despite being without all the comforts of home, Sergeant Fletcher remains 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,' so when we get supplies off a C-130 and onto a helicopter, we know this whole thing is for a good cause," Sergeant Fletcher said. "If I retired today, this would be the highlight of my career."