Air Force unit keeps communications running 24/7 at Camp Zama

Airman Haven Stone, assigned to 374th Communications Squadron’s Operating Location C, works in Building 771 at Camp Zama, Japan, July 24. (Photo Credit: Winifred Brown)
Airman Haven Stone, assigned to 374th Communications Squadron’s Operating Location C, works in Building 771 at Camp Zama, Japan, July 24. (Photo Credit: Winifred Brown)

Air Force unit keeps communications running 24/7 at Camp Zama

by Winifred Brown
U.S. Army

CAMP ZAMA (Aug. 18, 2020) – At Camp Zama, securing joint Army and Air Force training can be as easy as an Airman seeing Soldiers outside working and walking up to ask them.

That is what Air Force Tech. Sgt. Roger Alvarez, a Radio Frequency Transmissions Systems supervisor assigned to the 374th Communications Squadron’s Operating Location Charlie, did recently when he saw members of a U.S. Army Japan unit working with technical equipment.

“I asked them if I could get some training between them and us so we could be able to learn more of how we can assist them if [their communications] go down,” Alvarez said, and the two units ended up training together.

The 374th Communications Squadron Operating Location Charlie holds an important mission at Camp Zama: The unit ensures USARJ has communications with the outside world through internet service, satellite communications and telephone connectivity.

Still, not a lot of people at Camp Zama, a small Army base, know the unit is here. The unit works out of a building on a hill, but it is so shrouded by trees and other vegetation that even the large satellite communications terminal in front of the building is not visible until a person drives up to the front gate.

There are only 39 Airmen assigned to the location, and Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Birdwell is the highest ranking official in the unit, which reports to squadron officials about 25 miles north of Camp Zama at Yokota Air Base.

The Air Force runs outside communications at Camp Zama because the Defense Information Systems Agency designates a lead service for technical control facilities in each country, and on mainland Japan, it is the Air Force, Birdwell said. The unit has been on Camp Zama since the 1950s.

There are two sides to the location’s operations, the Tech Control Facility portion, or TCF, and the satellite communications portion.

USARJ’s communications with the outside world can never go down, so the location has generators and three civil engineers who ensure that will never happen, Birdwell said.

“This is the only base communications squadron in the Air Force that has civil engineers assigned,” Birdwell said.

One of the most important aspects of the unit’s 24/7 operations is ensuring the generators are always running. The unit proved how well they can respond in an emergency when a steam pipe exploded on the installation in 2018 and cut the facility’s main source of power.

Staff Sgt. Spencer Erhart, a power production technician and a civil engineer, said the unit kept the power going throughout the ordeal and USARJ never lost communications.

“We’re here first and foremost for the two generators that are here because the response time to Yokota is just too much and if there was a major power outage up there, they would be swamped with it,” Erhart said. “They couldn’t really get down here.”

Birdwell said it took three weeks to repair the power line, but the unit banded together and those in other jobs asked how they could help keep the generators running.

“That kind of mentality has been prevalent since I’ve been here and before,” Birdwell said.

Airmen who work with the unit say the assignment is unique because they work on an Army base and the unit is so small, but it holds definite advantages.

Alvarez, the unit’s Plans and Programs noncommissioned officer, said he enjoys working with Soldiers and learning from them.

“I like being on an Army base because when you’re on an Air Force base, you see the Army and the Navy every once in a while, but here you get to actually see how they wake up and do (physical training) in the morning all the way down to when they get time off,” Alvarez said.

There is also the joint training, Alvarez said.

“They come to our site and we go to their site, learning a little about their Army culture and the differences between the Air Force and the Army,” Alvarez said.

Camp Zama is the first duty station for Senior Airman Brandon Boiles, a Radio Frequency Transmission Systems technician who entered the Air Force in January 2018.

Boiles said he likes the location because not only does he get to learn from the Army, but the unit is so small, he can learn about the jobs of his fellow Airmen.

“SATCOM is my main job, but I also like to interact with (power production) and help them with the generators and power,” Boiles said, adding that he has also learned from Airmen in the Tech Control Facility and those who work in computer systems operations and programming.

In addition, Boiles said he appreciated the opportunity to participate in USARJ’s 10-week cooperative work program with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force last year.

Not only did the group of Soldiers, Airmen and JGSDF members climb Mount Fuji together, they also rode in a Black Hawk helicopter over Tokyo and learned why United States forces are in Japan, Boiles said.

“We gave them a tour of this site and we learned more about them too,” Boiles said. “It was a pretty interesting experience.”

Senior Airman Dimo Rashev, who helps install and remove circuits at the facility, said the unit is tightknit.

“Being in a small unit like this is very unique,” Rashev said. “We know each other by first name sometimes and even beyond that.”

Tech. Sgt. Luriel Quesada, the unit’s NCO in charge of Circuit Actions, agreed.

“We all know, ‘Hey, this is when this guy’s birthday is,’ or this guy has got something going on in his life,” Quesada said, “so we have more of that family vibe, I guess. More so than you would have at the larger home unit.”

Rashev said he has found it easy to get along with the Soldiers at Camp Zama.

“They’re very accepting of us,” Rashev said. “They treat us as if we are members of the Army.”

Quesada said it makes him proud that the Army can rely on the Air Force for communications services.

“They know that they can rely on us to make sure that their services and their networks are staying up and it’s going to be reliable,” Quesada said. “If there is an issue, we’re here to respond right away because we’re 24/7. We have the expertise and the knowledge and skill set to help them with any issues.”

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