U.S. 7th Fleet gathered a host of attorneys to fill the gap during Operation Tomodachi, the large-scale disaster relief operation to support Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident on March 11.

The moment he knew that 7th Fleet was going into a real-world operations, Cmdr. Christopher French, 7th Fleet’s Fleet Judge Advocate reached out for support from the Judge Advocate General (JAG) community – and support arrived – immediately.

“Real world missions, especially Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations, demand immediate JAG support. It’s critically important for there to be the right mix of lawyers available at all levels of command and manning operational watch floors at the onset of crisis. Decisions made in the first 24 to 48 hours will either set you up for success, or have you playing catch up for the duration of the operation,” said French.

Legal requirements are basically two-fold: JAGs are required to support the Commander’s and Staff Battle-Rhythm and for manning watch. However, the 24/7 watch standers are really the keys to success stated French. The JAG watch at Commander U.S. 7th Fleet (C7F) is responsible for disseminating information up and down the chain of command as well as within the Staff. They liaise directly with subordinate Combined Task Forces (CTF), their Judge Advocates and other subordinate commands involved in Operation Tomodachi.

Seventh Fleet commands received JAG augmentation from Commander U.S. 3rd Fleet, Navy Legal Service Office (NLSO) Pacific , and Regional Legal Service Office (RLSO) Pacific. Lt. Cmdr. Theron Korsak from Commander U.S. 3rd Fleet, Lt. Josh Fryday and Lt. j.g. Hannah Foster both from NLSO Pacific, augmented C7F. Lt. Byron Nakamura from NLSO Pacific and Lt. Luis Butler from RLSO augmented CTF 76 and USS Tortuga (LSD 46), respectively.

Operational law was new to some of the augmentees coming in, but others, such as Lt. Cmdr. Korsak, brought ample experience. According to French, training the augments and getting them up to speed in spotting and working issues on the watch floor took a very short time.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do in my two years at 7th Fleet is ensure that every time we had an exercise or real world-operation, we would reach out to the shore based legal community and make sure that those junior JAGs had an opportunity to come out and get exposed to operations,” said French.

For Lt. j.g. Hannah Foster operational law is a topic that she’s interested in pursuing.

“It’s been invaluable to me, just the exposure to the level of operational knowledge,” said Foster.

“Normally we are defense and legal assistance attorneys so we had to become acquainted with operational international law very quickly and dive right in,” said Lt. Josh Fryday.

During the operation, the JAG community pulled together and was able to appropriately handle the initial onslaught of challenging and unique issues presented by the triple crisis: Earthquake, Tsunami and partial meltdowns of nuclear reactors. Tapping into a recently established lessons learned program at the U.S. Army Center for Law and Military Operations (CLAMO); where information from the December 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and January 2010 Haitian Earthquake were readily available, JAGs quickly identified and solved myriad HADR problems. As luck would have it, one augmentee Lt. Cmdr. Korsak had been intimately involved in preparing the Haiti lessons learned. His experience was a critical enabler in the first days of Operation Tomodachi.

What hadn’t been planned for was a nuclear accident.

“JAGs at all levels of command had to take into consideration a whole new host of legal issues that we’ve never dealt with before; How do you operate in a contaminated environment? How do you balance risk to force vs. risk to mission? What effect does the nuclear crisis have on dependants? How do you execute a voluntary evacuation? What are the legal standards regarding decontamination and radiological monitoring,” said French. “I recognized we needed support. Within hours of asking, that support was either sitting on our watch floor or on its way to augment C7F, CTF 76 or USS Tortuga.”

He went on to say that this was a prime example of the JAG community’s strength -- rapid response and ability to suit unique needs in a very quick fashion.

French added, “[We] didn’t have to wait for that long, formal process to catch up. It would have had us behind in the first 24-48 hours of the crisis which were the toughest.

” “It’s an honor to be part of an operation like this, to see how the Navy can really make a difference, especially to those in need. Having an opportunity to work on a mission like this

is why I joined the JAG corps,” said Fryday.

At the height of Operation Tomodachi the Navy had 14 ships, 130 aircraft and 13,893 personnel operating in support of Japan. U.S. 7th Fleet delivered more than 260 tons of humanitarian relief supplies to survivors of the tsunami and earthquake.

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