New Yokota commander juggling troop readiness, airport project

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — From runways to relationships, the base’s new 374th Airlift Wing commander has a lot on his mind.

Col. Mark Stearns took over last week as commander of a base undergoing a $66 million runway reconstruction project and of troops who are prepared to go to war.

“I need to ensure the wing as a whole is ready to accomplish its wartime mission,” Stearns, 44, said during an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“We’re there now, and we need to keep it there,” he said. “Especially with the changes and the war against terrorism, we need to ensure we can integrate [those changes] and still accomplish our wartime mission effectively and efficiently.”

One of the biggest changes so far is increased force protection, Stearns said. Standing vigil at Yokota are security forces personnel and augmentees, gathered from various squadrons to enhance force protection. Yokota will continue to use the augmentees, “as long as we need to,” Stearns said. Stearns has visited with many augmentees since taking command Oct. 25.

“They’re motivated, they understand the need for it, and they accomplish that mission,” he said. “It also gives our folks that comfortable feeling that they’re out there watching and ever vigilant.”

Stearns called himself a “people-oriented” leader. The mission must come first, he said, but taking care of people is integral to that mission.

“If you’re watching out for your people … they take care of the mission, and they take care of it better.”

The largest project on Stearns’ agenda is the runway reconstruction.

“It’s going very, very well,” he commented. “Our hosts are doing a fantastic job on it.”

Closing down half of the runway during construction has diverted some of the larger aircraft normally based at Yokota. The C-9s, for instance, are at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, while C-21s are operating out of Atsugi Naval Air Facility. Some airmen who work with these aircraft have also been temporarily deployed.

Stearns said those men and women, and their families, have been handling the separation well.

“There’s always going to be a little hardship when you have to move your operation, but they have a very good positive attitude about it,” he said. “From all aspects they’re taking it very well, and they’re accomplishing the mission in very good form.”

Stearns said he also is counting on his people to continue the “outstanding” relationship they have with their Japanese hosts.

“We want to continue that,” he said. “I can tell you my family and I feel very privileged we can experience this firsthand. All indications so far is that it’s going to be a wonderful experience.”

The kindness of the Japanese people is one reason Stearns thinks morale is high among the troops and their families.

“I was very surprised how many people are here in Japan for their second, third tour,” he said. “It’s because of the Japanese people. This is a fun place to live, and it’s just a great assignment. It’s good work and it’s good play.”

Stearns replaced Col. Mark Zamzow, who was assigned to command the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force Base, Okla.

A command pilot with more than 4,100 flight hours, Stearns and his wife and daughter come to Yokota from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., where he was deputy director of operations for U.S. Transportation Command.

He was born in Radford, Va., but claims Severna Park, Md., where he went to high school as his hometown.